South Africa needs a new public debate

Economic and political crises typically encourage new avenues for conceptualizing a reordering of society. This is because they open up spaces in the realm of discourse due to the discrediting of traditional narratives and systems of thought. If that is generally the case, it is interesting to note that one could hear a pin drop in the mainstream forums for discussing South Africa’s political and economic system, in spite of the heightened sense of crisis that pervades since President Jacob Zuma appointed his fourth minister of finance in two years, and ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the country’s credit rating to “junk” status. (Basically, “…the financial downgrading is likely to make it more expensive for South Africa to borrow on the international markets, as lending to the country would be seen as riskier.”)

Elsewhere in the world (particularly in advanced countries – the United States, Britain, Greece, France) we see significant reconfiguration of the political landscape with left and right populists leading wave after wave of attack on the political center, given the latter’s complicity in failing to resolve a series of social crises. Some of the most pertinent dimensions of these crises are economic. The crisis has been particularly pronounced for parties to the left of center that have over the course of much of the last three decades fallen prey to the hegemony of neoliberal ideology.

What is interesting about South Africa, in terms of these dynamics, is that unlike the center-left in the aforementioned advanced countries, much of the current noise about neoliberalism is coming from the dominant faction of the center-left party that is trying to hold onto power. In spite of the fact that the Zuma faction has been comfortable with a neoliberal orthodoxy for almost two terms, it now realizes the political value of populist left rhetoric. This might not be such an issue were it not the case that the Zuma faction is basically the only contributor to a discursive critique of neoliberalism at the moment.

It is true that there have been one or two other spaces where such critique has cropped up in recent times. For example, Joel Netshitenzhe, who served as advisor to Zuma’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki, wrote a piece in the country’s leading business daily on the need for a non-financialized black capitalist class. Another was former Deputy Finance Mcebisi Jonas’ recent piece, in Sunday paper City Press, showcasing his awareness of the radical analysis of the “secular stagnation” debate, via reference to financialization (the increasing role of financial motives, financial markets, financial actors and financial institutions in the operation of the domestic and international economies) and underconsumption (the idea of inadequate consumer demand, arising for reasons including high inequality and systematic depressing of wage income, can constrain growth).

Until Zuma fired him last week (along with his Minister Pravin Gordhan), Jonas was the second most senior politician in the Treasury, and yet we have no indication that his analysis fed into Treasury action in a way that is distinct from the decades of orthodoxy that have left South Africa mired precisely in stagnation and decay. (Netshitenzhe also fails to relate his criticism to his time in government). It may or may not be unfair to provide a critical line on Treasury orthodoxy amidst the hostile political situation (from an intellectually and morally bankrupt Zuma regime) and potentially binding global constraints, but at the very least given the state of crisis more could be done to bring about a more vibrant public discourse about the restructuring that is clearly needed.

Moreover, as a point of significance to those who seek to mobilize against the Zuma faction at present (those associated with the Save South Africa campaign, for example), and who seemingly do not have a critique of neoliberalism, the extent to which a technocratic and constitutionalist discourse around preserving state institutions serves as a useful basis for organizing opposition to the Zuma faction seems limited. So far, it seems to have been most successful in mobilizing a smattering of, particularly white, middle and upper class South Africans to public protests. This is clearly a problem that must be seriously engaged with.

Some questions that would be worthwhile engaging on in mainstream publications for progressives aiming to break with the current political moment: Around what program should opposition to the Zuma faction cohere around? Will a program centered around “good governance” and anti-corruption be sufficient to successfully rival the Zuma faction and achieve mass support? What role has the post-apartheid economic program and structure played in leading the country to this current conjuncture? Do we want to center our opposition to the Zuma faction in terms of a defense of a fiscally conservative Treasury? What would a genuine program of “radical economic transformation” (the slogan used by Zuma and his acolytes) currently look like and how can we push for it? In a global and country context where the capitalist class shows diminished interest in investing, what role should they play in our society? What role should a predatory, collusive and parasitic financial sector, that restricts industrial development, play in our society?

I think these are all highly relevant questions for the current moment and it is clear to me that the narrow and cynical harping on about the admittedly bad state of government corruption does little to answer them. All it does is undermine the potential for a vibrant public debate and function as rhetorical cover for efforts at erosion of state intervention as a means of correcting the depravities of the market. Responding to this, it is easy for those in the Zuma faction to make cynical bastardized critiques of the current economic order through shallow reference to “radical economic transformation” and “white monopoly capital.” In other words our public debate around political economy is not a meaningful one – it currently only functions to wage factional battles. If we are to move beyond this, and counter the Zuma faction’s kleptocratic politics, the country desperately needs an open and honest exchange of ideas between a new generation of discussants versed in radical political economy and its older generation. Without this, opponents of Zuma and his cronies give all the rhetorical space to the Zuma faction to make cynical and successful use of radical discourse to maintain power.

Adam Aboobaker

Adam Aboobaker is a South African economics graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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