Attempts to foster a Black capitalist class in South Africa in co-operation with white capital have failed spectacularly. The price that white capital extracted for their co-operation was a neoliberal state that trapped the Black working class and poor in unemployment, inequality, poverty and gender based violence inherited from Apartheid and made worse.
Does the majority of Black people have an interest in supporting the development of a Black capitalist class?
If Mike Morris did not manage to raise this question it would be easy to see his article 'South Africa's problem is greater and deeper than the Guptas, Zuma, and their cronies' as just another repetition of the racist assumptions underlying the dominant liberal position on the Zuma group. All the familiar tropes are there.
White business is 'productive' in the 'real economy' and have 'real skills and capabilities' to start and operate businesses in a 'competitive environment'. Black business depends on 'state patronage' and while a few of them have learnt these economic-moral virtues from being co-opted into white business, the current crop associated with Zuma are 'corrupt predators' who 'lack competency, qualifications and solid technical and business skills'. Sigh.
Moving on for the moment to the question of a Black capitalist class, Morris argues that the creation of this class is necessary to 'drive the national democratic project'. He does not explain what this project is and why we need a class of Black capitalists to 'drive' it, so we can assume it is the same national democratic project as that of the South African Communist Party and the ANC.
But how will this class come into being? According to Morris the Mandela/Mbeki years and the Zuma years should be seen as two different approaches to the creation of a Black capitalist class, the one through legitimate and legal means, and the other through 'shadowy' and illegal means. This is a somewhat useful way of looking at the issue, although it is oversimplified as Morris himself alludes when he refers to corruption associated with the Arms Deal. However, in his eager assumption of the moral superiority of white monopoly capital (WMC) over the Zupta group, he misses the political point of this 23-year experience entirely.
Before we discuss this point, let us pause at the moral issue. Even before the #GuptaLeaks emails, it was known that Zuma and the Guptas were morally odious. Black feminists such as Kwezilomso Mbandazayo were early and clear voices foretelling the corruption of a Zuma presidency, long before Secure in comfort, State of capture and the #GuptaLeaks. Neither Zuma nor the Guptas have been found guilty in a court of law, but that only means the state is not authorised to impose punishment on them. It does not mean we have to suspend our moral judgement of them, and it certainly does not mean we have to support them politically until 'found guilty in a court of law'. Politics, morality and the law are related but separate spheres in capitalist society, and even if Zuma wins his political battles and him and the Guptas are never convicted of anything, it is clear that they are morally indefensible.
However, the crimes of white monopoly capital on any given day overshadow anything the Zuptas have done over their entire lives. Morally the founders and owners of the mining-industrial complex, commercial agriculture and the dominant financial sector are among the worst the world has seen. At the basis of their 'business success' lies unrelenting violence perpetrated on Black people through massacres, land robbery and enslavement, all continuously reproduced in the social economy of South Africa as the unrewarded labour of Black women and the cheap labour of Black women and men. It is only the continuous 'white is right' racist conditioning of this very system that makes it even necessary to say this. If it comes down to a moral choice, then the Zuptas are the lesser evil.
But what about politics? Should the Black working class and poor support the Zupta project as a lesser evil? Morris does not locate this question within the historic project of the ANC to foster a Black capitalist class. He contrasts the Mandela/Mbeki years to the Zuma years through the frame of legitimacy/legality versus illegitimacy/illegality. It would, however, be more accurate to say that the Mandela/Mbeki years represented the attempt by the ANC to create a Black capitalist class in close co-operation with white monopoly capital, while in the Zuma years the ANC's leading group strove to create such a class in greater competition and confrontation with WMC.
Legitimacy is clearly a matter of opinion. Morris might think it is legitimate for the Oppenheimers and Lonmins to decide who among the Blacks will be allowed to join them in exploiting the Black masses, but I think it is not. I also think it is ridiculous to assert that white monopoly capital is committed to lawfulness given its history.
Be that as it may, the important point is that attempts to foster a Black capitalist class in co-operation with white capital have failed spectacularly. Furthermore, the attempts came at the massive expense of the Black working class and poor. The price that white capital extracted for their co-operation was a neoliberal state that trapped the Black working class and poor in unemployment, inequality, poverty and gender based violence inherited from Apartheid and made worse in many aspects.
All indications are that the Zupta associated project to foster a Black capitalist class will also fail. For this discussion, however, the more important question is how the Zupta political project relates to the Black working class. Oupa Lehulere has, in a series of papers, documented and theorised the development of the Zupta project out of the Polokwane bloc that ousted Mbeki in 2007. He characterised the social base of the Polokwane bloc as a petit bourgeoisie dependent on the state for accumulation of wealth for the purpose of consumption. The Zupta project grows out of this bloc when this petit bourgeoisie becomes frustrated with its exclusion from the arenas of mining, energy, manufacturing, agribusiness and finally finance, all of which are monopolised by white capital.
Lehulere notes that the petit bourgeoisie represented by the Polokwane bloc was deeply implicated in the corruption that became generalised at local and provincial government levels, and that they specifically appropriated from that part of state expenditure meant to improve or mitigate the circumstances of the Black working class and poor. When the latter responded with protests and resistance, the ANC-led state became more repressive and violent. The limited rights and recourse afforded to poor Black people by the constitution were increasingly undermined at the local level. Black women specifically were the main targets of these attacks.
With the coming of the Zupta project, this dynamic was taken to the national level. State owned enterprises such as Eskom and redistribution processes such as land reform were diverted from their mandates to uplift the poor and became sources of accumulation for the aspirant Black capitalist class. At the same time the institutions that were supposed to protect rights and facilitate recourse were undermined and neutralised in the same way as was done at the local level long before. Whatever the differences (which are often exaggerated) between the Zupta project and the Black Economic Empowerment project initiated by white monopoly capital, they are both premised on attacking the socio-economic welfare and political rights of the Black working class and poor.
The Black working class, therefore, has no interest in supporting a political project dedicated to the development of a Black capitalist class, whether in co-operation with white monopoly capital like Mandela and Mbeki did, or in limited confrontation with them as Zuma and the Guptas are doing.
RONALD WESSO works at the Casual Workers Advice Office, South Africa.