We  are not there yet. There is still a way to go. But the dark territory is along here somewhere. The signposts loom more frequently out of the night and you can feel the icy chill.

If I was the director of this movie I would have the little children huddle closer and the music would be so low and scary you could hardly hear its threatening groan. The camera, mounted on the rickety cart, would creep and shudder through the dark forest. Suddenly: there! In the gloom …

That we are in danger should not be a surprise. To be where we are requires us to have taken the path here – with all the twists and turns and accidents and choices along the way. And it is not like we have been lost in the woods – we are more Frodo Baggins than Hansel and Gretel.

Architects of Poverty

What brought the dark metaphor to mind is I am reading Moeletsi Mbeki’s Architects of Poverty (Picador, 2009) . The next post will be a full review of his interesting contribution, but meanwhile let it be said that it is a huge relief to read a leading South African intellectual fingering all those who have conspired to make Black Economic Empowerment and transformation something of a venal orgy (is there any other kind?) that has encouraged bureaucratic corruption and obscene consumption in almost equal measures.

Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of Thabo) is at pains to pin the blame on white capital. Black Economic Empowerment, he argues was precisely an attempt (hitherto successful) to co-opt and corrupt key black leaders. This would pull the sting of pent up black demand for more thoroughgoing redistribution.

While it is useful to identify the full range of those who are complicit in the unfolding disaster that is BEE in South Africa, it is important to remind ourselves that BEE (later BBBEE – Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment) was not the only option for redressing the wrongs and distortions of Apartheid. This policy is government policy and it should have known better: a quick glance at the harm the Bumiputra process did to the supposed beneficiaries, indigenous Malaysians, would have given them pause.

The Cycle of Abuse

Moeletsi Mbeki needn’t fear being thought to be criticising black people per se – although you can bet your last, increasingly cheap dollar, that his book will be seized on with the same joy by the same people who seized on Dr Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger. He describes the emerging elite as being characterised by ostentatious (let alone conspicuous) consumption and being largely unproductive – taking a rent on politically leveraged shares in private companies. The fact is the Nouveau riche, in all times, places and ethnic guise, is the same, especially when it owes its advantage to access to state power.

Our parasitism sprung from the poisonous union of capitalism and Apartheid – midwifed, as it were, by the officers and princes of the National Party.  That system created distortions of all kinds by distributing wealth and power in ways that were in deep conflict with the needs and potentials of members of society.

In this sense Apartheid was ultimately a massive and complex intervention into the markets and it profoundly distorted the distribution of wealth and power in this country. It left us like a tightly wound spring. The overwhelming victory of the ANC in the 1994 (and subsequent) elections was the first, welcome, unwinding of the spring. The second, less welcome, unwinding, has been the the rapid growth of crony capitalism.

The ANC, with all its idealism and hope, became the focus of irresistible pressures of built-up demand from within the ranks of its members and supporters.

Despite being cognisant of the dangers, and with the best will in the world, the ANC bowed to the pressure.  ANC decisions (perhaps made by Moeletsi’s brother, but codified by the Department of Trade and Industry and vocally supported by the new Zuma administration) determined how government handled the demand for redress. There were other ways to do this thing (more about that in a later post), but they chose the way that has led to: 

  •  state tendering becoming a feeding frenzy for the politically connected – resulting in massive misallocation of scarce resources;
  • local and provincial government, in fact any geographically or legally bounded area with a budget and some form of expenditure, becoming the fiefdoms of the political incumbents;
  • corruption and bribery becoming endemic throughout the state.

As far as I can see Moeletsi Mbeki’s book (I will finish it during the course of the night)  compares the new business and political elite with the tribal chiefs who sold other Africans to the Europeans as slaves in exchange for the guns and brick-a-brac that could be used to capture more slaves and to laud it over their countrymen. That is harsh, and I am sure his final version will be nuanced, albeit angry.

The South African journey is entering the dark and creepy territory where we know the Count rules and has free reign. In the Dracula mythology the bad guy is vulnerable to light … well sunlight, anyway.  Moeletsi Mbeki’s book – whatever details I quibble about later – and blunt public assertion of the issues in articles and interviews over the last week,  is a real and welcome attempt to bring some light into the darkness.

It would be cute to end with saying: “and if sunlight fails – and garlic and Christian crosses – then we can always hammer a wooden stake through the monster’s heart.” But it is clear from everything we have learned that the monster of venality and corruption threatening this democracy is older, more powerful and a lot trickier than the dumb old aristocrat from Transylvania. More importantly it doesn’t live in the creepy castle up ahead. This monster lives inside of us and in South Africa today he fears precious little.

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