By CHARLIE VAN GELDEREN
John Saul, whose Toronto-based South African Report played a big role in keeping the world informed about South African affairs in the days of apartheid, has just left South Africa after a term teaching sociology in the University of the Witwatersrand. He has come away bitterly disillusioned.
As someone close to the movement for liberation, he was fully aware of the tensions within it; about what might happen after the overthrow of apartheid. “The [Stalinist] theories of ‘colonialism of a special type’ and the “two-stage revolution,'” he writes, seemed to signal as much.
He quotes from an article by the current president, Thabo Mbeki, in the Canadian Journal of African Studies: “The ANC is not a socialist party,” Mbeki stated. “It has never pretended to be one, it has never said it was, and is not trying to be. It will not become one by decree or for the purpose of pleasing its ‘left’ critics.”
Despite growing scepticism about the revolutionary vocation of the ANC leadership in the early 1990s, supporters like John Saul thought that enough energy had been released from below, not least from the burgeoning trade-union movement, that radical and even socialist outcomes were quite likely.
But Saul’s conclusion, his balance sheet on the “South African Revolution,” is that “a tragedy is being enacted in South Africa, as much a metaphor for our times as Rwanda and Yugoslavia. … For, in the teeth of high expectations arising from a successful struggle against a malignant apartheid state, a very high percentage of the population-among them the most desperately poor in the world-are being sacrificed on the altar of the neo-liberal logic of global capitalism….
“There is absolutely no reason to assume that the majority of people in South Africa will find their lives improved by the policies that are being adopted in their name by the present ANC government.”
Saul then asks, “Is it the fact that … capitalism is everywhere hegemonic and socialism, as a world historic alternative, has been more or less obliterated, which explains this outcome?”
He refers to the grim epigram of the Polish-American theorist, Adam Prseworski: “Capitalism is irrational; socialism is unfeasible; in the real world people starve-the conclusions we have reached are not encouraging.”
Capitalism is irrational? How else explain a situation in South Africa (also true on a global scale) where the vast majority of the people are desperate in their poverty in a wide range of the simplest goods and services on the one hand, and a very large percentage of people (most often the same people) are equally desperate for jobs on the other?
Why can’t those two central pieces to the South African puzzle simply be put together? Why must they be joined so indirectly and inefficiently through the circuits of global capital and through the process of generating surplus value (profits) for the few with the power to dictate terms and guarantee their massive cut of the action?”
There is no need, John Saul contends, to be reminded of these facts-not in a world where the share of the world’s income of the richest 20 percent of the world’s population has risen to 85 percent, while the share of the poorest 20 percent has declined to 1.4 percent. In South Africa itself the already vast gap between rich and poor has continued to widen since 1994.
“True,” Saul writes, “a few more Blacks have joined the whites at the top of the table. But is there really much consolation to be found in that? Such outcomes are-there is no other word for it-irrational….
“In the ‘real world’ of South Africa people do starve.”
Colin Bundy, vice president of Witwatersrand University, acknowledged some years ago that to hold out the prospect of a socialist transformation in South Africa required a “leap of faith.” But he continued, “To imagine that a milder-mannered capitalist order can secure a decent future for the majority of South Africans-or that deracializing bourgeois rule will meet the aspirations of exploited and oppressed people-now that really requires a leap of faith.”
What about socialism then? Saul states that “in principle it makes a lot of sense, surely: From each according to their means, to each according to their needs. Unfeasible?”
“Not very long ago,” Saul continues, “there were alternatives to neo-liberalism proposed in South Africa. … Nelson Mandela’s celebrated call for nationalizations on the very day he was released from prison in 1990 (soon retracted in the name of accelerated privatization).
“Recall, for example, growth through re-distribution, a modestly radical proposal once used in ANC circles to suggest a possible first step towards challenging capital and prioritizing the needs of the vast mass of the population within the productive process.”
The present governor of the Reserve Bank, Tito Mboweni, stated in 1992: “The ANC believes that a strategy of ‘growth through redistribution’ will be the appropriate path for the South Africa economy. In our growth path accumulation depends on the prior redistribution of resources. Major changes will have to take place in existing power relations as a necessary condition for this new growth path.”
Today even these rather moderate and vague proposals have been forgotten. “Black empowerment” now means the creation of a Black capitalist class, a Black bourgeoisie.
“Ours,” says President Mbeki, “is a capitalist society: the objective is the deracialization of the ownership of productive property.” That, he says, “is the key to the struggle against racism in our country.”
For those former liberation fighters who now sit on the boards of the big corporations, this is the best of all possible worlds. As Saul puts it: Where once they asked, “what can capital do for us?” They now ask, “what can we do for capital?”