South Africa’s future is a human economy, not a political fix

Long before the medium term budget speech in October, several voices had suggested that South Africa’s economic future is not so bright.

For example, in 2015, political economist Moeletsi Mbeki argued that by 2020, high youth unemployment would most likely result in South Africa experiencing an uprising similar to the Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia in 2010 and then spread elsewhere in the region, especially to Egypt.

At the same time, political analyst RW Johnson predicted that in 2017 the government would approach the International Monetary Fund for a bailout — but so far it hasn’t.

Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s budget speech likewise painted a rather dim picture. He lowered growth forecasts and noted that, in the next two years, the country will be living beyond its means.

Things get worse.

The ongoing state capture scandal has required huge bailouts of failing parastatals, with destabilising consequences for the government.

This also not just a local matter.

 A global British public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, produced campaigns that to legitimise the Gupta family, implicated in state capture.

KPMG, one of the four leading auditors worldwide, produced a report which appears to have given ammunition to those trying to unseat Gordhan. (KPMG later repudiated its own report.)

The report was more politically biased than objectively professional.

The consultancy firm, McKinsey, was awarded a R1-billion contract to improve efficiency and cut waste at Eskom. Thirty percent of this sum was subcontracted to a company associated with the Guptas.

Finally, German software giant SAP allegedly paid a 10% sales commission to another Gupta-linked company for contracts awarded by state-owned enterprises.

The global media are complicit in advancing the corrupt agenda of these companies.

Global banks have also been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. Britain’s banking regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority, recently announced that it was investigating HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank for possible links to the Gupta family, while the FBI began to look into individuals, bank accounts and companies linked to the “state capture” fiasco.

A consortium that included China South Rail, in partnership with a local firm linked to the Guptas, was awarded a contract to supply more than 1 000 locomotives — Transnet’s largest tender so far.

And the Russians are allegedly involved in South Africa’s nuclear transactions.

The list of dodgy transactions is endless.

Meanwhile at home some trade unions, opposition parties and members of the public argue that South Africa’s future will be secured if President Jacob Zuma steps down.

In this view, national politics is the main cause of corruption.

This argument is cousin to the suggestion that former president Thabo Mbeki alone was a capitalist tool and that his removal would generate economic opportunities for the working and lower middle classes.

But the global reach of South Africa’s problem of state capture suggests that global capital is the problem, for which national politics must find solutions rather than focusing on one figurehead or parts of the local corporate elite.

In the end, if global networks of accumulation are the problem, South African citizens are their real victims.

We are all the fuel that drives the engine of global capital.

The inhumane actions of corporations are protected by legal impersonality, a protection that you and I can’t hide behind.

Their wealth, size and global reach more or less guarantee impunity from the law and, if they lose once or twice, they can come back again until they win — or they’ll just pay up out of their limitless coffers.

KPMG simply apologised to Gordhan and agreed to return to Sars the R23-million it was paid to compile the report — or donate it to charity. McKinsey agreed to pay back R1-billion to Eskom if a court determines that the latter had acted unlawfully.

Bell Pottinger was stripped of its membership of the British Public Relations and Communications Association, but it can apply to join again in five years’ time.

My point is this: even if the South African state implodes as a result of the ongoing scandal, multinational corporations will continue their operations, while citizens scramble for economic survival.

To hang South Africa’s future on the compassion of global capital is thus to concede that the human economy of ordinary South Africans is up for sale.

Similarly, to suggest that Zuma is the main problem is to forget what anti-apartheid activist Harold Wolpe taught us long ago. Apartheid was not just a political system, it was a sophisticated economic system that exploited cheap labour through capital accumulation.

We need to find out how ordinary South Africans are involved in innovative economic activities to improve their livelihoods. They need informed help from the government and corporations to carry on doing so. Popular initiatives need the co-ordination and financial support that large-scale bureaucracies can provide.

If South Africans have to gamble on the future, this is a bet more than a few people just might win.

Dr Jason Musyoka is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Human Economy Programme, housed at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship. 

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