Zuma’s ‘pro poor’ masquerade

“We just have to take it!” Our old friend Mitchell’s hands claw into the air, his eyes fierce. “The companies, the land, the banks. Take it! Get rid of those white bosses! Like they did in Zimbabwe and Mozambique!” Yeah, because that worked so well there, too, I want to say, but I can’t get in a word edgewise.

Mitchell’s tone becomes sadder, more reflective, when he talks about the many times he ran into white walls in his life: from the day he had to explain to his young son in the public swimming pool that the Great Slide was there for other children and not for him, until the time a white boss explained to him that the advertised salary of two thousand Rand was only for whites; that a coloured bookkeeper could not expect more than five hundred.  “And I had already bought so many things for my family with that two thousand Rand in my mind.” You have a trauma, I nod, immediately realizing that out of my mouth this sounds patronizing again. His face tight, he says: “It’s not trauma. It’s rage.”

Then: “I know what you want to say now. We’ll run it all into the ground. And why not? Let’s go back to the jungle. Then at least we’ll be equal.” After which he says good night and we watch him driving off in a Porsche.

The ‘bee’ that buzzes around you

That night I think of David Ndwendwa, the father of a former school friend of my daughter. At that time of primary school, more than a decade ago, he had been trying to set up an internet cafe in Tembisa township near Pretoria. He had enthusiastically told me how everyone in the neighbourhood had an email account and Facebook, but no internet access, so what could go wrong? Unfortunately, and that obviously was a problem, he had no investment capital. Asked whether he received support from any black economic empowerment, or BEE, structure, he had said that, again sadly, his business plan had been rejected. “That BEE for me starts to look more and more like a real bee, which buzzes around you but you can’t get at it,” he had sighed.

‘That BEE starts to look like a real bee to me’

Our daughters were big now and we had not seen David and his wife for years. But when I throw the name, address and key words like ‘internet’ and ‘medium enterprises’ on Google, the only entry that shows up is a bankruptcy petition. David Ndwendwa had toiled for years and no one had helped him.

“Black economic empowerment unfortunately is very slow,” explains an economist attached to the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI), which runs a number of BEE programs. “A man like Ndwendwa comes from a family that has been dispossessed for generations. How must he suddenly get expertise, connections and business experience to say nothing of capital?” The DTI website shows about a hundred initiatives that are supported: not a lot for a country with a population of over 50 million.

Pot plants

There were always small black retail businesses in the informal township economy. Some of these taxi bosses, street vendors, shebeen queens and hairdressing chains even grew big, often the Wild West way, with business plans that amounted to ‘grab what you can’ and sometimes with violence against the competition.

ANC members were invited to boardrooms

However, it was not they, but a new political elite, who became the face of ‘black business’ in South Africa. In the first years after apartheid scores of high profile ANC members were invited into the boardrooms of white capitalists who needed ‘black empowerment’ credentials if they wanted ANC government contracts. The investment bank Johnic, for example, scored with the appointment to its board of now vice president Cyril Ramaphosa in 1996 in a move that was good for more than Johnic’s colour palet, since the former union leader had plenty of organisational skills too. Quite a few others like him followed in quick succession.

But the stock of ANC politicians who had actual management experience was finite. While the hardened tavern- and taxi bosses from the townships had learned ‘entrepreneurship’ on the streets, the political ANC-contingent consisted of former political activists and exiles, Umkhonto we Sizwe camp soldiers, students who had obtained degrees in Moscow, or rather unsuccessful poets: a bunch of people hardly prepared to run complex organizations. And those among them who did possess such qualities did not need the ANC to get a job, or had other reasons not to covet a fat monthly cheque as  -as it would soon be called- a pot plant.

It was perhaps no coincidence that Herman Mashaba, founder of the successful hair and make-up chain for black women ‘Black Like Me, “and now mayor of Johannesburg, went into politics as a candidate of the still largely white-liberal opposition party DA and not the ANC.

The politically and economically ambitious did not remain satisfied with their roles as ‘pot plants’ for long. During the 2000s they began to unite as ‘black business,’ an alliance which resulted in 2011 in the founding of the Black Business Council as an offshoot of the multiracial Business Unity South Africa. Their strategy: to build and strengthen a political alliance with the ANC government. Their goal: government contracts -and preferably a lot of those.

Their lobbying was successful. The slogan ‘Radical Economic Transformation’ was earlier this year, during his State of the Nation speech in parliament, elevated to battle cry by none other than President Jacob Zuma himself.

Friends of Zuma

“We want radical economic transformation, just like the President has said,” says George Sebulela, secretary general of the BBC, combatively. “We are not satisfied with the current thirty percent (quotum of public moneys to be spent on services provided by black companies, EG). “The government has to allocate annually 600 billion Rand (40 billion Euro). We say 51% must go to black business.” When I ask whether there is enough black capacity for more than half of all the needs of the state -from computers to water supply-, Sebulela says yes, and he repeats again: “We fully support the President.”

‘South African Airways corruption costs 19 million Rand per day’

The reality of delivery on state contracts shows a different picture though. It looks like ‘empowered’ black businessmen who have benefited from contracts with Zuma’s government have, to use our old friend Mitchell’s words, run things quite considerably into the ground. Headlines like “Water Affairs Bankrupt,” “Railways squander 14 billion Rand,” South African Airways corruption costs R 19 million per day,” appear almost weekly in South Africa today, and the list of suppliers that have delivered little or nothing of value in exchange for millions of taxpayers’ money grows by the day.

In earlier days of the new South Africa, deals with black empowerment companies had often worked well. But recently, it had seemed as if this President Zuma had come to like incompetent people. Under his watch functioning executives were removed from state companies such as South African Airways, Transnet, and the defense company Denel and replaced with blundering loyalists. In a recent scandal around a shady contract for the sensitive and enormous task of distributing social grants and pensions he had strongly supported a minister even after she had been declared “totally incompetent” by the Constitutional Court.

Whether it’s on purpose or not -some, disparagingly, say that ‘incompetence is required because chaos makes stealing easier’-, President Zuma is known to regard friendship above things like competence or honesty. And you can be friends with the President if you pay. “The president is open,” says PR woman Busi Mahlobo who organises “Meet the President” events. “I can set something up for you.”

The campaign against ‘white capital’ was designed at the Gupta’s office

When I tell her I can’t pay 750 000 Rand for a table at a dinner with Zuma, -as was the price for an event she recently organised-, she says that she’ll see what she can do. “Just write to me with an offer.” She terminates the conversation after I ask where that money actually goes. Through business contacts in KwaZulu Natal, I hear later that the recipient of the ‘table money’ in Umhlanga was the Jacob Zuma Foundation.

Dark arts from London

Another close ally of President Zuma is Mzwanele Manyi, once known as Jimmy Manyi, but that was when he was working in a white company himself. He had left his ‘white monopoly capital’ and ‘white slave name’ far behind since then. Now, Manyi tweets: pro-Zuma, all day, every day, an activity which has earned him the nickname ‘Executive Director of Paid Twitter,’ also thanks to the scores of bots who retweet him at regular intervals. Manyi is the ‘campaign manager’ for Radical Economic Transformation and the general of the propaganda battle against White Monopoly Capital.

The term White Monopoly Capital, however, even if he uses it dozens of times every day, seems not to have been thought up by Manyi. The Sunday Times, quoting inside sources, revealed in March 2017 that the ‘anti-WMC’ campaign was officially designed early 2016 at the offices of President Zuma’s other good friends, the Guptas. The controversial business family from India, which gets a lot of government contracts in exchange for benefits in these contracts for Zuma relatives and associates, had, according to the Sunday Times, hired a PR company to improve their -and the Presidents’- admittedly very bad image.

White Monopoly Capital had been the magic that the PR company had come up with. White Monopoly Capital, or WMC, and not Zuma’s and the Gupta’s patronage network was the enemy, the campaign said. Zuma and Guptas wanted black transformation of the economy and ‘WMC,’ those evil white capitalist exploiters who still owned almost everything in the country, stood in their way. The Sunday Times article also mentioned the use of Manyi in the campaign to be executed by the company the Guptas had hired: UK-based Bell Pottinger, famous for ‘dark arts’ (as it called them) for dictatorial regimes worldwide and as white and capitalist as they come. (In the aftermath of the Sunday Times article, Manyi tweeted that he would sue because of this ‘defamation,’ but no news on such a lawsuit has transpired since.)

The Zupta spider web

The Guptas, who had come to South Africa in the nineties as owners of a computer assembly plant, had been getting closer and closer to power in South Africa for years. Zuma-loyalists -like our old friend Mitchell, for example- saw them -being brown and Indian- as anti-imperialist and anti-white allies. Nowadays, anybody who is anybody in Zuma’s circles, uses the Gupta’s businesses for own advancement. We even find a business partner of Mitchell in the charts of Gupta businesses drawn up by investigative media that still work hard to penetrate the dark corridors of power.

The Gupta-Zuma (Zupta) empire had taken flight in 2010, a year after the inauguration of President Zuma. Then, the state’s Independent Development Corporation, gave the family a hefty loan for the purchase of a uranium mine. In 2013, money from the state broadcaster had been used to subsidise a new media company of the Guptas, who then dedicated their new TV channel ANN7 and newspaper The New Age to Zuma- government-friendly news. In 2016, the state arms company Denel embarked -without the required permission from the ministry of finance-, on a joint venture with the Gupta-associated VR Laser company, and in the same year Zuma’s new favourite mining minister Mosebenzi Zwane –also a good friend of our old friend Mitchell- facilitated the sale of a coal mine to the Guptas. That last deal elevated them in one fell swoop to being a supplier of the national electricity company Eskom.

The key to the state coffers

But all along the crowning glory, the key to unlock Radical Economic Transformation as well as South Africa’s state coffers, was still out of reach. Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan stood firm, not giving the hungry ‘contractors’ all the money that wanted for their ‘projects.’ That obstacle was, however, removed on 30 March, when President Zuma fired Gordhan and his deputy Mncebisi Jonas, who was also known for his insistence on good governance.

In the run up to the firing, the Bell Pottinger campaign had been unleashed on Pravin Gordhan in a big way. He was tainted as a ‘WMC shareholder,’ a neoliberal, and a stooge of the banks, capitalism, imperialism and the CIA. The lead Twitter King in this respect was still Mzwanele, formerly Jimmy, Manyi, who, some in the trenches of anti-Zuma activism suspect, may soon be rewarded for his efforts with a ministerial or parliamentarian post of his very own.

‘The real struggle is between the anti-white sloganeers and those who want to build the state’

The nail in Gordhan’s coffin had been an anonymous ‘intelligence’ report that had, without any substantiation, said that Gordhan -who was in London to convince investors to continue extending credit to South Africa- had in fact been overseas to conspire to overthrow the government. Zuma fired him the day after he read that report.

Petty bourgeoisie

“We need not be surprised that this is happening,” says Pravin Gordhan calmly.

“Frantz Fanon described how the petty bourgeoisie in the post colony situation would position itself as populist champions of the poor, whilst intent on usurping the state to the detriment of the poor. They use these‘pro-poor’ slogans for their own greedy and power-hungry interests. Hitler and Mussolini did that too. We need to stand firm against that.”

As I interview him at his modest home in Pretoria, weeks before his firing, Gordhan rejects any suggestion that he would have neoliberal tendencies. “Neoliberalism is deregulation, privatisation, leaving the country at the mercy of the free market. That is not what we are doing in the finance ministry. Our policies are designed to build a strong state that can deliver water and electricity and create conditions for decent jobs; that can assist real black entrepreneurs. You need a strong accountable state to empower people. But those who shout slogans about ‘white monopoly capital’ are weakening our state.”

On 30 March 2017, the ‘Zupta’ network fired Gordhan and his deputy (respected director general Lungisa Fuzile would resign shortly after) and finally grabbed the keys to all the money. A day later, the credit rating agency Standard & Poor relegated South Africa to junk status.

On Friday 7 April, South Africans took to the streets in tens of thousands, protesting Zuma’s rule, cheering for Gordhan and, in speeches and posters, warning against one particular upcoming ‘Zupta’ deal: the 1 trillion Rand (80 billion Euros) that President Zuma wants to spend on Russian nuclear plants and that is feared to bankrupt the country for decades to come. Gordhan had blocked this deal, saying it was not necessary and unaffordable, but the Guptas -who own a uranium mine after all- and their President may now well get their way.

Will the protestors win and will Zuma go, as they demand? Or will he hold on? South Africans at bus stops, at markets and on social media are anxiously discussing the prices of maize and potatoes. Many of this country’s poor already don’t eat more than one meal a day.

Watch this space.