Somewhat unusually I begin this article, in which I engage in particular with Moeletsi Mbeki’s opening contribution (1) to this series, with a personal anecdote: On a day in 1990, during my second year as a student, with the promise of radical political, economical and social changes in the air, I once had a discussion with a black woman working as domestic at the people where I lodged.
The exact details of the discussion I can’t remember any more and perhaps the anecdote says more about my then political naivety than anything else, but what I do remember clearly is the realisation that I gained in the discussion, namely that the greatest desire of the woman in front of me was not to invent another country, but simply to gain access to the existing system and to imitate the then (white) ruling classes. Against the background of my growing understanding back then of the extent to which Afrikaners themselves mostly but not completely eventually decades after 1948 walked the typical road of Western modernisation rather than inventing another form of it, this realisation in discussion with the woman in front of me was quite depressing.
Naturally this single woman with her lack of formal education could neither represent all blacks, nor without further ado become the founder of a new South African political philosophy, but what has since become all the clearer on a grander scale, is the extent to which the former slave – to use Hegel’s parlance – does not want to be different from the former master, but like him. Stated differently, the mimetic or imitating desire with the former slaves is a formidable force in current South African politics, and perhaps it has been so since the first encounter between the indigenous and the foreign from the middle of the 17 th century in South Africa.
Much has already been written on mimetic desire in the Western world, but less on how it functions in the (former) colonial world. Following on Moeletsi Mbeki’s sensitivity for local variants of global capitalism I also can’t but argue that mimetic desire manifests in different ways in different (former) colonies.
In the South African case it is undoubtedly so that the commencement of the importation of the reigning Western technical dispensation two hundred years before the rest of colonial Africa, and the acceleration that this importation underwent since the beginning of British colonisation in 1806 placed South Africa in front of the following fascinating paradox: while the material destruction to which black South Africans were exposed was perhaps not as bad as in some other colonised African countries, the symbolic destruction was perhaps of the worst. This degree of symbolic destruction – with which I refer to the damage to indigenous traditions, worldviews, practices, technical systems, etc. – isn’t so much to be ascribed to the greater will to this destruction with the colonisers, as it may be understood as the side-effect of the intensified and heightened importation of Western technics to South Africa as it got underway especially since the discovery of gold and diamonds in the 1860’s and 1870’s – the date that Moeletsi Mbeki per implication indicates as the years of birth of the Minerals and Energy Complex (MEC).
The destruction that spread from the importation of Western technics for indigenous communities may be understood as a consequence of the fact that technics is not only a form of execution, but also embodies a whole symbolic order. To illustrate this with an example: although a broom and a vacuum cleaner have more or less the same function, the worlds from which they have been born differ radically from each other. Due to the greater efficiency and capital underlying the imported Western technical system, imported technical systems and symbolic worlds have been damaged and humiliated wherever they encountered the imported system. Since this clash occurred primarily in those areas that presently form the most important cities in South Africa, the degree of ruin and humiliation decreases the further one moves into the countryside – which then also today are the areas where pre-modern traditions subsist in varying degrees. (If I use the word pre-modern it is not at all with a connotation of backwardness, on the contrary.)
It is then the specific nature and extent of the clash between Western and indigenous technical systems, and the accompanying destruction of indigenous self-respect in the face of the coloniser that have left indigenous communities with a predominant urge to regain self-respect.
The regaining of self-respect in such a situation where master and slave stand opposite one another may take place in two ways: either the slave must beat the master at his own game and improve on it, or the slave must create his own game that leaves behind or at least relativises the master.
It is my contention that South Africa’s indigenous communities in their anti-colonial resistance struggles have up to now followed the first strategy, as it especially took shape first in Afrikaner nationalism and later in Afro-nationalism. It is also my contention that the second strategy has never been used as main strategy by the indigenous anti-colonial movements, and that when it is about transformation there can be no transformation without following the second strategy.
Moeletsi Mbeki’s analysis of the inception, rise and self-maintenance of the MEC is in my opinion an important and penetrating contribution towards understanding modern South Africa but his analysis asks for some qualifications and supplements if one has to come to a real possibility of transformation.
The essence of Moeletsi Mbeki’s argument is to analyse South Africa in terms of economic power constellations: in classical Marxist vein the economy is understood as the final terrain of freedom and the struggle for freedom as an economic struggle.
There can be no doubt on the central importance of the economy in the struggle for freedom but freedom is not exclusively (or even at all) an economic concept. In the same vein the overemphasis of the economy may blind us for some of the other determining factors that still today keep South Africa in an essentially colonial situation, and where the foremost indigenous resistance strategy is that of imitation rather than reinvention.
It would of course be naïve to handle imitation and reinvention as two completely separate strategies and in reality it does not work like this. The danger of a strategy of imitation is nevertheless quite simple, namely co-optation, especially as the slave can’t beat the master without further ado – although we know that this does happen today in the world of sport if we look at where, say, England stands in soccer with regards to Brazil, or with regards to New Zealand in rugby!
That the different indigenous anti-colonial resistance movements - of which Afrikaner and Afro-nationalism were the most important – eventually came to co-optation is then also exquisitely set out by Moeletsi Mbeki. Especially the transformation equation that he emphasises confirms that the co-optation of Afro-nationalists by the MEC is currently in full swing. For the sake of comprehensiveness I repeat this equation, namely parliamentary democracy + globalisation + BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) = transformation.
Underlying the enormous energy that was first spent the control over on parliament and the state, and now by the way of BEE over the local branch of global capitalism is the wish of the former slave to beat the former master at his own game and improve on it (as it manifests for example in South Africa’s particularly high international ambitions). When one talks about the state and the local branch of the global economy, codes like demographic representivity are used to express the aspiration of a state and an economy that will serve the new masters even better than the former (and still existing) masters (as embodied in the MEC). And it is indeed not strange that the megalomania and materialism that stripped Afrikaner nationalism in the last two decades of the previous dispensation of all previous dignity are also already busy working in even more destructively on Afro-nationalism – with no sign that the basic patterns of production in the economy are changing. Even less does it look like the state may be used as power instrument in the current global economic climate by the Afro-nationalist elite to trump the MEC – as Moeletsi Mbeki writes the state elite is more vulnerable than the MEC since the MEC can support new parties to remove the current state elite.
The fact that the main strategy underlying the reigning transformation equation is imitation rather than reinvention also explains why the word “access” is repeated with fanatical zeal like a mantra by the Afro-nationalist elite. The hard truth of Afro-nationalism is that, just like its predecessor Afrikaner nationalism (that it has resisted besides the MEC), it rather wants to imitate than to create anew. There is a tragic lack of political imagination in Afro-nationalism and the wish to say “we” again with dignity are already being replaced with cries of “me, me, me”… In this farce the biggest clowns are those self-denying Afrikaner intellectuals and business people who, being poor of imagination and smothering in their historical guilt, think that to invite a few black and brown faces to the fleshpots of Egypt is “progressive” or “affirmative”. The spectacular decadence and poverty of thought embodied today by these clowns is to be ashamed of as it never occurs to them to investigate the grounding institutions of the South African political dispensation – the state and the MEC – in a thorough, critical fashion. New pilots in nuclear bombers won’t help to work the lands.
In the light of the fact that the underlying assumption of transformation today is rather to enlarge than to fundamentally transform it I would like to emphasise, as a first supplement to Moeletsi Mbeki’s analysis, the role that the state as institution has played since the British colonisation of South Africa. In Moeletsi Mbeki’s parlance the birth of the modern South African state precedes that of the MEC by some 60 years, but it is important to understand that both the South African state and the MEC share the same underlying colonial logic where a foreign minority dominate an indigenous majority and export the profits of domination. It is also important to remark that the MEC would never have been able to do it without the state, especially when it comes to the technical modernisation of South Africa. One example: the first railway in South Africa is built in the early 1860’s before the discovery of gold and diamonds, but after the latter the railway network is considerably extended and completed (c. 1905 by Milner, the actual founder of the modern SA state due to the fact that he converted the territory presently known as SA into one entity by means of a railway network).
Especially when it comes to the levying of taxes the state was considerably strengthened by the rise of the MEC – although the Afrikaner nationalists’ efforts in this regard with para-statals come in very handy for the Afro-nationalists to placate their constituency and create the illusion of broad-based empowerment. Currently the relationship between the state and the MEC is at once more intimate and tenser than ever, and this growing proximity must be thoroughly discounted in reflecting on transformation.
But how has the MEC succeeded in maintaining its powerbase over more than 130 years? Here I would like to suggest further supplements to Moeletsi Mbeki’s analysis. I want to do it from the claim that the single most important factor in South Africa’s political economy is distance: whoever is delivered to distance, is delivered to insecurity, poor services, poor education, little capital, etc. The inverse is also true: whoever controls distance, controls South Africa: the very same political aspiration underlies Paul Kruger’s dream of a railway to the then Lourenço Marques (Maputo) and the ANC’s current dream of internet for all.
The two most important ways in which distance in South Africa are neutralised and controlled, are through transport and communication. The modern South African transport and communication network’s foundation was laid between the 1860’s (commencement of a railway network followed by the telegraph and postal network) and completed by the 1960’s (completion of the motorway network, establishment of a national electronic broadcasting service). Each wave of modernisation of these networks accompanied new political control: from British colonisation to 1948 to 1994.
What do, however, remain constant in these waves of technical modernisation are two very hard underlying assumptions: 1) that the indigenous must imitate the foreign (first Great Britain, today the US, but in essence the same Anglo-American worldview with its radical individualism) 2) that the indigenous must gain greater access to the system without essentially trying to reinvent the system after the image of the indigenous.
The reason why these two assumptions has remained constant over the past 130 years is that in its heart the MEC is carried by a particular Anglo-American sub-ethnic group (that is not necessarily white, but has been until recently). We shall never be able to understand the inner workings of the MEC if we don’t understand that the MEC also distinguishes itself in its formidable capacity to transmit itself internally from generation to generation (in which certain private schools and universities are determining), and externally from generation to generation by communicating away the potential for resistance against it due to its enormous share in the modern South African communication industry. In its communication to the outside the MEC was and is enormously efficient in its undermining and ridiculing of indigenous traditions and communities, except when these are utilised as harmless postcard image of South Africa’s much-vaunted diversity.
This undermining and ridiculing in its turn leads to a persistent crisis in the ranks of the excluded, namely a condition of symbolic misery as Bernard Stiegler describes it. Since the excluded – that is to say the majority of the country’s communities – essentially can’t participate in this system and are continuously alienated from their own traditions, they are plunged into a permanent condition of desire that can’t be fulfilled. Through the massive daily communication of the power and the glamour of the MEC, especially through TV, the majority of South Africans today become like the anecdotic man that can’t get away from his Viagra-induced erection. It is in the final instance these continuously stimulated and simultaneously unrealisable desires that plunge people into enormous psychological pain that can’t but lead to violence. It is when people can’t participate in that which is continuously held up as desirable that they finally attempt to access it through violence – and the vulnerable middle class become the target of their anger. From this we can see that mimetic desire in the colony of South Africa is stimulated on a massive scale by the MEC with the aim of neutralising resistance to it, but with the unintended aim of violence. (All those willing and useful transformation agents of the current South Africa may indeed reflect on the extent to which the crisis of violent crime in South Africa is a persistent and presently intensified characteristic of the colonial state and the MEC – notwithstanding 1994.)
But what is transformation if not imitation and co-optation? When risking an answer to this oldest and unavoidable historical South African question it seems to me that as if the only alternative for true change can come from the reserves of the excluded and the hitherto non-co-opted. In plain English: the communities of South Africa with their indigenous traditions and local yardsticks of what self-reliance, freedom or democracy could mean.
In addition to and supplementing Moeletsi Mbeki I want to propose that South African democrats strive for the following transformation equation: cultural and political autonomy + economic self-reliance + a plural (rather than a unity) state = transformation.
How can this ideal be attained? It is a comprehensive subject for another article, but I submit a few guidelines:
1) There will be no cultural and political autonomy or economic self-reliance without the continuous modernisation of South Africa’s indigenous languages. Language is not only the tool of participation in politics or the economy, but also our means of access to an indigenous worldview from our traditions. The persistent suppression of the indigenous languages through the hegemonic language of the ruling classes (normally English, but once also Afrikaans) is determining in the lack of freedom in modern South Africa.
2) A resistance struggle that merely has the goal of taking over and enlarging the South African state is bound to fail. The objective should be to radically reform the South African state according to the extent to which it puts financial and symbolic capital in the hands of the country’s communities, rather than to destroy or export this capital.
3) The radical reform of the South African state won’t take place simply on the basis of the dream of a (socialist or developmental) state that is simply fairer and more distributive, but only when communities are recognised as the most important agents of the political economy.
4) The MEC is structurally too strong to try and transform it merely economically. The only alternative is to establish a radically alternative cultural politics with local content. Here the total rethinking of the public media will be a first step, for as long as urbanised, individual consumerism is the main image in the public media, South Africa will remain a colonial backyard of the neoliberal world disorder.
5) Citizenship should not be firstly of a state but of a community. Where this is not possible participation must be the central virtue, since citizenship in South Africa today is at best a clientification and pacification of the majority of South Africans.
6) The basis of another South Africa is not a “world-class economy” or similar “world class-” categories, but a universally respected local economy and symbolic order that puts the people of this country rather than shareholders first. Being world-class will never happen through the imitation of elsewhere, but only through the reinvention of here (in dialogue with elsewhere). All “world-class” countries grab the imagination because they could first embody something universal locally.
To sum up: the persistent humiliation of the majority of South Africans – rich as well as poor – whether symbolically or materially (or both) has not decreased, but increased. As long as transformation is understood as imitation and access the crisis will deepen. Only when transformation is thought as reinvention and alternative creation the crisis will be ended.
This struggle has only just started – except if South Africa is institutionally doomed like Russia to still be ruled by the tsar.
The choice is ours.
(1) Moeletsi Mbeki, “The white roots of BEE”, Die Vrye Afrikaan, Friday May 19, 2006, http://www.vryeafrikaan.co.za/lees.php?id=574