The farce of “Radical Economic Transformation”- what is the behind Zuma's revolutionary phrase-mongering?

Over the last few weeks many people have been baffled by president Zuma’s apparent more “radical” speech-making. In particular the term “radical economic transformation” had many tongues wagging. What does it mean? And how is this different from current policy?

Although it might seem like empty rhetoric, there are concrete reasons behind this “revolutionary” phrase-mongering.

“Today we are starting a new chapter of radical economic transformation. We are moving beyond words,” said Zuma at the now habitual chaotic annual State of the Nation Address (SONA). Apparently this is a “sweeping programme...that would seek to change the ownership and control of the economy through legislation and empowerment regulations.”(Rand Daily Mail - 9 February 2017).

Zuma sounded very serious: “Political freedom alone is not enough without economic emancipation,” he said. But anyone familiar with South African politics would immediately ask if this is not the language of the EFF of the past three years?

floyd shivambu and julius malema floyd shivamby credit floyd shivambuEFF leaders Floyd Shivambu and Julius Malema - Photo: Floyd ShivambuHowever, Zuma was one step ahead. Before anyone could accuse him of taking his cue from the EFF, Zuma quoted the words of the former ANC president, Oliver Tambo:

“The objective of our struggle in South Africa, as set out in the Freedom Charter, encompasses economic emancipation. It is inconceivable for liberation to have meaning without a return of the wealth of the country to the people as a whole. To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the roots of racial supremacy and exploitation, and does not represent even the shadow of liberation. It is therefore a fundamental feature of our strategy that victory must embrace more than formal political democracy; and our drive towards national emancipation must include economic emancipation.”

Having warded off accusations of copying the EFF’s “populous” rhetoric, the other reason behind the quote from O.R Tambo was to give the impression that he is now embarking on a long standing ANC position. But Tambo said this in 1981, before the revolutionary upheavals of the 1980s which would formally overthrow the apartheid government. That did not stop the ANC elite from coming to an agreement with the white capitalist class at the CODESA negotiations to keep the economy in the hands of the old ruling class. This rhetorical “return” 23 years later is pure hypocrisy.

Then there is the myth of “political freedom”. What we have in South Africa today is bourgeois democracy. This means that while formally the masses are “free” to chose their “representatives” in parliament, it is the capitalists who decide what happens. Thanks to the crisis in the political arena over the last few years this is now patently obvious for many people to see. It is people like Atul Gupta and his brothers on the one hand, and the likes of the Oppenheimers and Rupert's on the other hand, who are truly in charge. As the Communist Manifesto says: “The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”    

White Monopoly Capital vs Black-Crony Capital

So what does Zuma mean by “radical economic transformation”? After weeks of confusion, he finally offered a more coherent meaning: “

“We mean fundamental change in the structure, systems, institutions and patterns of ownership, management and control of the economy in favour of all South Africans, especially the poor, the majority of whom are African and female, as defined by the governing party which makes policy for the democratic government.”

After informing us that “only” 10 percent of the top one hundred companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange are owned by black South Africans, he explained how he intended to implement this “fundamental change”:

“The state will play a role in the economy to drive that transformation. In this regard, Government will utilise to the maximum, the strategic levers that are available to the state.

“This includes legislation, regulations, licensing, budget and procurement as well as Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment Charters to influence the behaviour of the private sector and drive transformation.

“We seek to open up the economy to new players, give black South Africans opportunities and to make the economy more dynamic, competitive and inclusive. This is our vision of radical economic transformation (…) Radical economic transformation should mean moving beyond share ownership schemes only. We would like to see black people involved directly in business, owning factories. The development of the black industrialist programme is thus critical.”

So Zuma’s idea of “radical” transformation is to increase the share of black capitalists in the economy! This is of course nothing new. The whole point behind Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy was to create a black elite. This in turn would chain the BEE “partners” directly to the big bourgeoisie in the form of shareholding, directorships, etc. In this manner, the leaders of the ANC have been chained to the  coattails bourgeois for the last two decades.

For the last 23 years the ruling class has governed society indirectly through the leaders of the ANC. On the basis of a growing economy the alliance between the black elite and the white capitalist temporarily managed to stabilised the situation after the revolutionary storms of the 1990s.

But now the situation has changed into its opposite. The economy is stagnant or barely growing, inflation is rising and formally a quarter of the workforce is unemployed. This is in line with the previous years of slow growth since the global crush of 2008. In addition to this the currency has lost more than a quarter of its value prompting the Reserve Bank to hike interest rates.

In the meantime the crony-capitalist wing of the bourgeoisie, which is organised around the Zuma clique, grew fat on the back of state tenders and now slipped out of the control of the traditional big bourgeoisie. This circle has now become a competitor to the traditional South African ruling classes. The declining economy - which has squeezed these “tenderpreneurs” -  and the political crisis of the ANC, has increased the tensions between these two wings of the ruling class which is now in open struggle with each other.  

zuma guptasThis is the issue behind the fierce infighting in the ANC. On the one hand there is the old traditional mainly white private sector elite which is close to the party apparatus and on the other hand there is the upstart black elite around the Gupta family and the Zuma clique which is close strong in parts of the state apparatus. The essence of their conflict is to decide who gets the bigger share of looting the state and exploiting the South African working class.

That is what is behind the “revolutionary” phrase-mongering of Zuma and his backers. In the absence of a revolutionary party of the working class, Zuma, the Guptas and their henchmen are trying to demagogically use the language of the Congress movement of the past in their fight against “White Monopoly Capital.” That is, they are trying to convince the working class to let themselves be exploited, oppressed and cheated by their wing of the ruling class, which happens to have darker skin than the other wing.

Talk left, walk right

A dirty war has been launched by the Gupta family and their media network, ANN7 and The New Age newspaper. This campaign is backed by the leaders of the ANC Youth League, the Women’s League, the Progressive Professionals Forum of Mzwanele Manyi and pseudo-black consciousness campaigner, Andile Mngxitama and his Black First Land First (BLF) sect.

All of this is a massive disinformation campaign aimed at confusing issues in aid of Zuma and the Guptas. Mngxitama positions himself as the biggest enemy of “white monopoly capital” and the Rupert and Oppenheimer families. All this sound and fury not, in defence of the interests of the working class, but those of the competing black capitalists who are positioning themselves to plunder the resources of the economy and accumulate wealth. That is the reason behind Zuma’s apparent doubling down in pseudo “radical” rhetoric.  The aim of BEE and Zuma’s programme of creating “black industrialists” is based on a commitment to a black capitalist class and not a commitment to fight for the interests of the black mass of people, most of whom live under enormous daily pressure to keep their lives afloat.

Fight for Socialism, not black capitalism

FMF Wits thobekani loseAll of this is nothing new of course. The ANC has a history of this “talk left, walk right phenomenon. Even the attacks on the working class over the last two decades have been disguised in near-Marxist phraseology. In addition to the obvious betrayal by the leaders, the fact that you can only address the workers with this “radical” language is at bottom reflection the balance of class forces in favour of the working class. In South Africa, the late development of Capitalism together with the brutal way it was imposed meant that the working class was forged in the white heat of struggle. This is a very young working class, very fresh and very militant. It is wide open to radical ideas. But now this working class is tired of empty words. Over the years there have been a dramatic increase in the class struggle, More and more people are reaching far-reaching conclusions. This process will only deepen in the next period. Society is gearing up for a level of the class struggle never before seen in South African history.

Lenin repeatedly warned against what he calls revolutionary phrase-mongering:

“Revolutionary phrase-making, more often than not, is a disease from which revolutionary parties suffer at times when they constitute, directly or indirectly, a combination,alliance or intermingling of proletarian and petty-bourgeois elements, and when the course of revolutionary events is marked by big, rapid zigzags. By revolutionary phrase making we mean the repetition of revolutionary slogans irrespective of objective circumstances at a given turn invents, in the given state of affairs obtaining at the time.The slogans are superb, alluring, intoxicating, but there are no grounds for them; such is the nature of the revolutionary phrase.” (The Revolutionary Phrase - V.I. Lenin)

He repeatedly warned to look at the class interests behind the prevailing ideas in society:

“People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realise that every old institution, however barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes.” (The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism - V.I. Lenin)

It is no surprise that in the same year that revolutionaries across the world celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, there is a renewed interest in radical ideas and with this the radical language which accompanies these. Marxism is a science and like all sciences it has its own terminology. All the great Marxists have always paid the most scrupulous attention to their words, phrases and terminology in order to explain the meaning of their ideas as precisely and logically as possible to the working class.

In these turbulent times on a global scale large sections of the youth and the working class are rediscovering the lessons of past battles. This is vitally important for the future of the world socialist revolution.

The political independence of the working class is now more important than ever. In the absence of the mass party of the workers and the poor on a socialist programme which must educate the people on the crisis capitalism the masses map the way forward for socialist reconstruction of society, the working class cannot be absorbed into the factional fighting of the ruling class.

In the battle between the two wings of the South African ruling class, the working class cannot take sides. It’s only salvation lies in fighting both of these wings and to expropriate all capitalists - black and white! The workers must take the means of production into their own hands of and plan production on a rational basis for human need, not private profit. That is the only real radical economic transformation which exists today. It is called socialist revolution.

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