Beyond South African Neo-Corporatism

Happening last Sunday, the #GlobalCitizen concert at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg was a showcase of some of the world’s biggest musical artists. It was also a showcase of South Africa’s fetish for overly-sentimental displays of unity, and grand ‘coming together’ occasions for tackling our problems by uniting government, business and labour – an unholy trinity, and it’s about time we realised that.

To start, I will be upfront and admit that I had a decent time at the concert. Prior to it, I had so diligently prepared to play the role of buzz-killing and begrudging concertgoer, ready to deliver my smug and well-rehearsed, ‘I don’t even listen to this music,’ monologue to any and all who were innocently committed to a good time. But look: Beyonce, is probably the best live performer of this generation, and I may or may not have half- danced to Pharrell Williams in spite of his recent endorsements of the Israeli Defence Forces.

Besides my bizarre and peevish dancing to Pharrell, another bizarre feature of the concert came between the acts when goody-goody political and business leaders would grace the stage, and proudly announce their benevolent contributions of millions of dollars to multiple causes. The figures were so emphatically declared, and received with such rapturous cheer from the crowd, you would be forgiven for feeling seated at Sunday service.

But how would you feel if the devil stood before you singing praises to God?

Oscar Wilde’s esoteric 1891 essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” foregrounds many of the complaints that the left generally level in critiquing philanthropy, and capital-driven social justice reform:

“Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

If many of the campaign’s benefactors were sorted through a Manichaean hat of good and evil, they would likely be confirmed as Slytherinean bad guys. Historically, the face of global charity has been the large, multinational NGO like Oxfam, who, despite being governed by good intentions, nevertheless wreak systemic havoc in developing nations by operating as parallel government’s; disrupting public service provision and poaching competent civil servants.

But, the poster boy of Global Citizen is literally Patrice Motsepe. Patrice? Really?

When Motsepe shoddily assembled the crew of awkwardly-jittery representatives of farming and agriculture (both black and white), and proceeded to pledge R3.5 billion towards land reform, the audience erupted into applause. These actions, however, are not motivated by a sincere commitment to alleviating poverty and redressing inequality. Instead, they primarily serve to obfuscate the role that Patrice, and everyone he represents, play in giving rise to conditions of poverty, inequality and misery. Motsepe’s own ticket to wealth and status is derived from South Africa’s age-old agent of evil, an unscrupulous mining sector that routinely deprives people of their land, dignity and livelihoods, while generating profits from resources who’s natural occurrence makes them belong to everyone. As Wilde would later point out, “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”

And that’s the inescapable problem of all reformative efforts that are oblivious to the social dynamics and power relations constituted by capitalism. It goes without saying that capitalism has produced tremendous amounts of economic growth through technological advancement, thereby improving productive forces which more efficiently and expansively cater to the needs of society. The perplexing reality has been, how amidst all of this remarkable progress, so many persist in devastation on hopelessly massive scales. The short and incomplete answer to this complex question, is that capitalism principally functions around the interests of capital, which has as its object the expansion of share value, the generation of ever-growing profits, and the ceaseless shrinking of labour value and power to make it all possible.

Yet, but for a few, outspoken red beret-donning voices, South Africans are reservedly critical of capitalism and its discontents, readily explaining away or overlooking the evils it perpetrates, in doing so revealing a devotion to seeing big business as entities that act towards the common good . For example, look at the discourse surrounding our ongoing corruption and anti-corruption moment. While the state and its functionaries play the unassailable role of incompetent and corrupt agents governing badly, those valiantly crusading against their efforts first began as civil society, and then inseparably, business and civil society. Businesses, small and large, assumed the role of well-meaning and disaffected stakeholder, tirelessly working with their sleeves folded and bootstraps tightened to get the country back toward “growth” and “recovery”, yet whose plans were always thwarted by government’s inability to properly pander to their interests : which, if you’d just give them a chance, you’d realise are actually just the interests of ordinary citizens, and more so, the interests of, “the poor.”

For most of our post-apartheid history, criticism directed at corporate South Africa has never meaningfully said anything beyond calling for greater racial and gender representation amongst the capitalist class they represent – the feeble rhetoric of “transformation”. What’s vexing about this prevailing attitude, is that it so starkly contrasts with the vigorous organisation around and in solidarity with labour, and against capital, during the apartheid years. In trying to understand this departure in disposition, I believe it can partly be attributed to a legalistic liberalism that tries to positively adjust the nature of businesses to behave more ethically, married with a political logic of multi-stakeholder co-operation which, although looking to mitigate and prevent economic injustice, ends up producing a chilling effect which masks the true motivations of big business. By compelling them to act more ethically, we are deceived into thinking that they can fully and authentically, become ethical.

Alas, when the devil goes to church, expect it to sing praises to God.

It first starts with our constitutional and democratic dispensation, which we widely celebrate as being the most liberal and socially conscious in the world. Our constitution, unlike most, contains substantive provisions for socio-economic rights which place actionable duties on governments to work seriously towards tending to people’s housing, healthcare and subsistence needs. We’ve had landmark case, after landmark case addressing these issues, with each new one affirming the last, in turn intensifying government’s duty to address the demands of social security, with harsher and harsher consequences for failing to do so.

Although our legislative and judicial landscape is unsparingly harsh on government (which it should be), it is only ever occasionally harsh on business, and sometimes mysteriously lenient. The post-apartheid dilemma of needing to both fast-track economic development, while simultaneously preventing economic injustice on the scale of apartheid from happening again, led to the neo-corporatist coalition of government, capital and labour. This is the grand compromise no one really talks about. While it meant that we have one of the most stringent regulatory environments for businesses in the world (about which businesses never fail to theatrically lament), it is coupled with some of the worst employment conditions for workers. Marikana happened, with little to no real or symbolic consequences for those responsible. Labour-broking practices prevail. Domestic workers are still union-less and vulnerable, and government, perpetually finds itself in the shaky position of ultimately having to pick a side. No matter how many strikes and protests take place, the side has already been picked. If the state exists fundamentally to preserve order and stability, it will always bend to the will of the forces who have the greatest potential to seriously destabilise its rule, and that happens when capital goes on strike.

South Africa’s bureaucratically dense regulatory landscape, combined with all manner of multi-party planning and developmental forums, exists as a show of aimless, box-checking compliance exercises and talk shops, truly intent on placating the revolutionary tenor of a serious and well-organised labour movement that should be adversarial in organization and ideology. Substantive demands are much harder to make when the actions of corporates are legitimated through their self-referential adherence to procedural expectations. Laws which require businesses to be mindful of community impacts, social responsibility, and sustainable development (to use the cloudy, corporatist jargon), and to “consult” with other stakeholders in conducting their affairs, have the double effect of both reigning in their more obscenely-amoral sensibilities, as well as cloaking them in a veneer of legitimacy when they inevitably manifest. And when that happens, our responses will assuredly be timid, because such conduct will be construed as uncharacteristic of them, of being the fault of a government failing to properly enforce regulations and agreements between business and labour, of businesses understandably acting out violently toward an economic system that expects so much of them. This neo-corporatist dynamic, enforced by and through complex laws and arrangements, makes us believe that relations between government, capital and labour are friendly and equal. They are not.

Fashioning the role of economic messiah, big business is able to deflect any responsibility for destabilization because it does so with civility and bureaucratic soundness, simultaneously blaming the outwardly disruptive tactics of labour as a self-inflicted cause of South Africa’s economic decline. The corporate burden is only really to address poverty, inequality and other social ills as and when they are inimical to corporate interests. Given recent political developments, it is unsurprising then, that Motsepe’s seemingly generous donation, was specifically targeted at land reform. In South Africa, most meaningful reform unavoidably comes at corporate behest-the mistake to make, is believing that they do so out of goodwill, and that they are our saviours.

So then, who can save us?

Minister Jeff Radebe, Patrice Motsepe and Global Citizen co-founder Hugh Evans. Image Courtesy: Motsepe Foundation

I don’t know, but it’s certainly not Patrice Motsepe, nor is it through political strategies bent on preserving our neoliberal, neo-corporatist purgatory. Unfortunately, the Jacob Zuma years amounted to being so ideologically ineffectual, that it derailed the Mbeki forged path which, setting aside it’s numerous shortcomings, at the very least responded to the lingering tension between the pursuit of economic justice, and the pragmatic necessity of making tactical concessions toward capital on the state’s terms. The mistake Cyril Ramaphosa could make were he to be elected president next year (and by the way, very sneaky of him to kickstart the #CR19 campaign using Global Citizen as a platform), is to nostalgically throwback to the tactics of Mbeki’s bygone era. South Africa’s window for state capitalism has long expired. Capital here, has mutated to the point of preceding, determining and shaping the state and its affairs, not the other way round. All Zuma did was transparently embrace this fact. What we shouldn’t have done, was believe that big business is our ally in curbing it. If anything, my admittedly fanciful hope for Cyril is that he will cease to be a champion of big business, and return to the temperament of his trade unionist political upbringing – South Africa’s political upbringing.

Either way, one lesson emerges: South Africa, has no saviour. Hacking the strengthening corporate stranglehold of government, and instigating radical structural reform (such as restructuring ownership of firms to extend to workers, and democratising decision-making to include workers), can only come from building a working-class consciousness with teeth. Which isn’t to say that no one is trying, but simply to say that what obstructs it’s revolutionary prospects is that those with the biggest memberships and platform have to operate tethered to the very establishment they are antagonistic towards, finding expression either within the ANC, mass democratic tripartite alliance, or affiliated to the unhelpfully unpredictable Economic Freedom Fighters. With both options, the rules of South African political engagement include business as a collaborative partner, a neighbour whom despite hating, one must treat with ingratiating diplomacy.

To truly achieve progress that isn’t fixed to the terms of capital, working class power must abandon the unholy alliance, embrace it’s fundamental antipathy towards the state and capital, and unapologetically represent working class interests. There are no quick fixes. If we sincerely want to come together to address our most pressing problems, we must first acknowledge how our unequal social dynamics give rise to them.

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