Political Watch

Deadly race virus a symptom of deeper social illness


South Africa is in deep trouble over the issue of race. Its impact is spreading and it can destroy the country unless we come to grips with the root causes of a much wider illness.

It is an illness that affects much of the world – although the symptoms differ from country to country – the root causes are the same: All over the world both democracy (with the rise in populist politics) and the so-called ‘free market’ system (which, in the way it has developed over decades, is failing the masses of the population in favour of an ever-shrinking minority) is in deep trouble.

The latter was sharply highlighted last week by the release of the report An Economy for the 1% by the charitable organisation Oxfam, which concluded: “… our current economic system – the economy for the 1% – is broken. It is failing the majority of people, and failing the planet.”

About how the free market system and its underpinning, the Bretton Woods structure, have developed and operated over recent decades, the report stated: “Over the past 35 years, decisions on deregulation and privatization, combined with the advent of the information age and globalization, have created new opportunities.

“But these forces have also allowed sectors, firms and individuals to capture a disproportionate amount of economic power.”

I therefore use the term ‘so-called’ advisedly when referring to the free market. There is also other evidence that the globally dominant economic system has become a troubled one and a threat to democracy.

Impact on democracy

In an insightful article for Guardian News last week under the heading “An Oligarchy Has Broken Our Democracy. It Must Be Dislodged”, one-time establishment insider and staff member in the US Congress, Mike Lofgren, wrote: “America’s growing income disparity is not the inevitable result of impersonal forces like globalization or automation. It is the outcome of hundreds of trade, tax and regulatory measures that achieved the preferred outcome – enrichment – of economic elites who contribute to politicians.”

About the interaction between politicians and the captains of industry, and how it affects the functioning of democracy, he describes the result as “… a hybrid association of elements of government and top-level finance and industry that is able, through campaign financing of elected officials, influence networks and co-option via the promise of lucrative post-government careers, to govern the United States in spite of elections and without reference to the consent of the governed.”

And, to realise that this is not just an American phenomenon, one just has to read the analysis of Vishwas Satgar, a senior lecturer in International Relations at Wits University. Under the heading What #ZumaMustFall and #FeesMustFall have in common and why it matters he writes on The Conversation website:

“All of this (a country that is distrustful, dangerous and angry) has come in the context of a contracting economy and increasing unemployment with no hope or expectation of change from above. … There is a disconnect between South Africa’s rulers and the needs of citizens.”

Populist politics

Martin Gilens of Princeton who studied the correlation between American popular opinion polls and public policy outcomes, concluded: “[T]he preferences of economic elites have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do ... ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

In the process we have seen in the United States, and in Europe, the rapid rise in populist politics. A recent report in The Wall Street Journal stated: “While the causes of the political upheavals are similar in Europe and the U.S., they aren’t identical. Many middle-class Americans are upset because they think recovery from the global financial crisis of 2007-08 has been uneven, benefiting mostly those at the top of the income ladder. In parts of Europe the feeling is more that recovery has never come at all.”

One commentator, quoted in this report, said: “What’s happened is the social compact between the European governments and its people has collapsed.”

In Europe anger, frustration and a feeling of disempowerment have been channeled into existing extremist parties in a number of countries. In the U.S. we have seen the rise to prominence of political actors like the Republican Party’s Donald Trump and the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders.

These populists throw up simplistic slogans on which ordinary citizens can focus their fears and frustrations. In Europe it is mostly immigration and in the U.S. ‘outside’ threats like extreme Islamism.

South Africa

In South Africa the details might differ, but the process and results are very similar. Frustration at the lack of economic progress and alleviation of the scourge of poverty and unemployment have given us Julius Malema and his EFF and simplistic slogans around the themes of “economic liberation”, race and “monopoly capital.”

And, like Europe and elsewhere, established traditional political parties try to meet the extremist challenge on the agenda set by the populists instead of directing their attention at rectifying the root causes of the broad disaffection among citizens.

Wider causes

Traditional institutions, however, also often make the mistake of oversimplification in their analysis and the solutions they offer.

The Oxam report, for instance, almost exclusively focuses attention on the network of so-called ‘tax heavens’ and lost tax income that could be used for social support programmes.

The larger problem is probably the concept of a so-called ‘Deep State’ (from the modern political history of Turkey, implying the existence of a state within a state, hidden from the public eye).   

Lofgren highlights the role of corruption in his article about the role of an oligarchy in present-day governments, which he describes “… as a hybrid association of elements of government and top-level finance and industry that is able, through campaign financing of elected officials, influence networks and co-option via the promise of lucrative post-government careers, to govern ….”

For the U.S. he quotes the example of that “…in 1992, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney privatized much of our military’s logistics. A decade later, Halliburton, a company he headed from 1995 to 2000, received $39.5 bn in logistics contracts to support operations in Iraq, while Cheney, having been elected to the vice presidency, was receiving deferred compensation from his old firm.”

He also points out that half the money given to presidential candidates in the 2016 campaign comes from just 158 families.

In South Africa we have the recurring controversies about contracts and tenders going to a selected few ‘well-connected’ individuals and the special relationship there seems to exist between President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family.

Also read: Race, racism and racists: pots and kettles abound

                     Coming to grips with racism – simplistic approaches won’t do

                    Race and racism

by Piet Coetzer

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