Thabo Mbeki for a long time used to set and drive the public socio-political discourse agenda in South Africa. Journalists would excitedly wait for his regular newsletter and general musings. After Mbeki was dethroned, we entered an interregnum where political discourse largely oscillated between affairs concerning the person of Jacob Zuma and an extended obituary for Mbekism. Out of this interregnum a new driver of discourse has emerged, and that is Julius Malema.
He has single-handedly managed to put black economic emancipation on the popular agenda. He has provided popular vocabulary which South Africans use to understand their individual plight as a manifestation of an invisible, generalised, systemic and institutionalised system of marginalisation. Malema, contrary to popular belief, has not manufactured the outrage expressed by the downtrodden but merely given them the popular vocabulary to understand their condition and legitimacy to act out their pain. This public conscientisation by Malema has made ever more urgent the national question, which is: What must be done about the inequality bequeathed on blacks by our history?
The Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (Gear) advocated by Mbeki has come under severe criticism for entrenching structural joblessness in SA. One vector through which it did this was by accelerating the decline of SA manufacturing. An example of this is the lifting of tariffs that resulted in loss of textile jobs to foreign countries. Those who lost jobs in this period have not been re-absorbed into other sectors of the economy, as classical economic theory tells us. This lack of re-absorption has had a knock-on effect since these very people have children who must now subsist in a world where basic services are mediated by cash fees.
Another example of the Gear shortcomings is that the ANC government became embroiled in paying off apartheid debt to international capital thus starving South Africans of much-needed reparations spending.
An eagerness by Mbeki to be seen to be playing by the Bretton Woods rules has been attributed to why Mbeki advanced some of these job-shedding interventions. The jarring and present joblessness in SA makes the national question more pressing. So we ask: What must be done about the inequality bequeathed on blacks by our history?
The actions of Sadtu and how they frustrate reform in our education system are often neglected as a contributing factor to our inequality. These actions have contributed to the proliferation of private education (through the likes of Curro etc.) in SA. Private schooling mediates education on a cash fee basis thus locks out those worst affected by inequality. In the final analysis, those who can afford private schooling no longer have a natural vested interest in the government fixing education. What this does is displace government from education and has private capital lead the way.
Notwithstanding the role of Sadtu, the usual culprit for failure to address the national question in South Africa is white monopoly capital. Different South African presidents have taken interesting postures to try manoeuvre around the restrictions that monopoly capital has placed on addressing the national question.
Adam Habib in his book South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects in explaining Mbeki’s posture towards foreign hegemony describes at length what I will simply call the “participate-and-subvert” strategy. This view says Mbeki embraced the Bretton Woods orthodoxy with a view to subvert it from within. Thus the aim was to eschew the Mugabe domkrag and instead, he would “participate-and-subvert”.
Andile Mngxitama in a recent Sunday Independent column in describing Zuma speaks of what he has self-titled as the “parallel power praxis” analysis to explain Zuma’s posture to monopoly capital. Essentially Mngxitama says Zuma has abandoned the liberal state machinery and is running a parallel state within the official one. Mngxitama says Zuma is using this parallel state for personal accumulation and enrichment of his groupies. For the sake of clarity I shall call his “parallel power praxis” as the “spaza-shop-in-a-mall” theory.
“Spaza-shop-in-a-mall” is narrow and does not account for Zuma’s actions within the formal state machine. Zuma is busy with a pivot away from the Bretton Woods establishment — towards East, South-South, and intra-Africa. Our membership of Brics and its bank, speaks to this. Our halting efforts and petty acrimony with Nigeria also speak to this pivot.
Therefore Zuma is better explained by what I call a “pivot-and-chow” analysis. Zuma’s approach has been to pivot away from the West and monopoly capital while simultaneously ensuring that he personally chows.
So what of the national question: What must be done about the inequality bequeathed on blacks by our history?
Zuma’s pivot efforts have been scarcely sufficient because some of the monopoly capital is resident in SA — that is the apartheid beneficiaries. The last time South Africa made a pivot to prioritise its sovereignty was in 1960 when we formally broke away from colonial purview of Britain and declared a republic. The difference between now and then is that there is domestic monopoly capital domiciled in SA; thus we cannot simply pivot away from them. This is a blessing because unlike with the case of Britain our resident monopoly capital rises and sinks with the rest of SA — because they are here with us.
It bears noting, that the public discourse centred on the affairs concerning the person of Zuma has been our biggest national distraction. It has hindered us publicly dealing with the national question. Thus in the sunset of the Zuma presidency the national question should once more take centre stage: What must be done about the inequality bequeathed on blacks by our history?