According to Arundhati Roy, in part of a talk published on You Tube, 12 June 2013 when the struggle in South Africa ‘started ‘it was the Black consciousness (BC) people who were most powerful but the ANC killed them, even in the prisons. When I would like to know, does Ms Roy think the struggle in South Africa started, given that BC was only formed in the mid 1970s? Was there nothing before then? Or is this history of no consequence in presentations of the character of the struggle against apartheid?
What one may ask, if I heard this correctly (and I listened more than once) is the basis for saying that the BC were more radical than the ANC? By what criteria does one assess radicalism, in any context? Especially in relation to Roy’s preoccupation with capitalism, one would have thought that the early BC would not be categorised that way. That is not to deny the significance of BC, whatever their relationship may have been to socialism or any other doctrine.
What is the empirical evidence for ANC people killing them in the jails? I have myself had a lot of discussions with BC people like Saths Cooper, who was in jail from the SASO/BPC trials of the 1970s and no mention was made of this. All I have heard of violent conflict on Robben Island between BC and ANC was how the late Muntu Myeza stabbed Terror Lekota with a garden fork after he defected to ANC.
This is not to say there was not political intolerance on all sides, though there were some efforts to curb this and in many cases this conflict has proven to have been instigated or fabricated by apartheid intelligence agents like the Rev Ebenezer Maqina. These are details and data found in TRC evidence and findings that do not fit into the framework Roy wishes to present nor the level of rigour she wishes to pursue.
Having given this cavalier summary of the liberation struggle Roy paraphrases how Mandela and the ANC were, according to her presentation, co-opted by big capital. Capitalism, (depicted as very wise and crafty) she says, called in Nelson Mandela and said: apartheid has to end. It’s not good for business. ‘You will be the hero but do not mess with us. ‘ They pumped money into the ANC. For that reason there was no nationalisation and various forms of redistribution did not happen. Post apartheid SA worshipped the God of neoliberalism.
Note in this account, it is the all-powerful capitalism who ‘decide’ that apartheid has to end. There is no mention of the masses. Roy’s radicalism is one that accords power only to capital.
Anyone who knows Mandela will say that it is inconceivable that big capital could simply tell him what to do and fob/buy him off by feeding his supposed desire to be recognised as a hero. It was both his strength and sometimes his weakness, as Walter Sisulu relates, that Mandela was very stubborn. If he made up his mind to do something it required very great effort to get him to change. The warders found this when they tried to get the prisoners to run and Mandela walked very slowly, followed by the other prisoners, until the warders had to beg him to walk a little faster.
Sisulu also relates how the NP government misunderstood Mandela, thinking that because the man was not ‘wild’ they could determine the course of the transition. But they did not appreciate how ‘stubborn Nelson could be’. Now the warders found this from their experience, the NP government discovered this but Arundhati Roy tells her listeners that she knows better or consciously creates a fictitious Nelson Mandela who can be toyed with –‘you can be the hero’, ‘don’t mess with us.’
I understand that if there are myths about heroic figures or if they are not really heroic that it is the job of engaged intellectuals to demystify this. This is not what Roy does. If the engaged intellectual aims to empower people to understand and act on their conditions, this can only be done if truth is told and fabrication and exaggeration are avoided. Roy is not writing in solidarity with those who still remain marginalised in contemporary South Africa. What she does is to show contempt for them by removing their agency and fobbing them off with versions of history tailor made for her narrative.
In an article, called ‘When the saints go marching out’, found on the Internet, she refers to the notion of a miracle, a category that I would not use to describe the transition. She says ‘South Africans say that the only miracle they know of is how quickly the rainbow has been privatised, sectioned off and auctioned to the highest bidders. Within two years of taking office in 1994, the African National Congress genuflected with hardly a caveat to the Market God. In its rush to replace Argentina as neo-liberalism’s poster boy, it has instituted a massive programme of privatisation and structural adjustment….’
The newly elected democratic government of 1994 faced an environment that was far less propitious than they had envisaged in their earlier planning. Already in the 1980s (and John Pilger also ignores this) the ANC’s constitutional guidelines had spoken of a mixed economy and nationalisation was being rethought as only one of a range of tools that could be deployed.
At the time of democratic elections it was a unipolar world and there was a threat of large-scale disinvestment. In this climate various conservative economic steps were taken. These included the Growth Economic and Redistribution (GEAR) macroeconomic policy and removing trade tariffs, which contributed to the collapse of the textile industry and others.
But unlike other states described as neoliberal, there was little retreat of the state from the economy and even today there is still a very substantial part of the budget devoted to social grants and basic utilities.
There are indeed questions to be raised about the way things have turned out. In the first place, some of these decisions were made behind closed doors, and I as a member of the leadership at the time only heard of GEAR when it had been decided and was told it was non-negotiable. It did not pass through democratic processes. Likewise there were earlier negotiations with the IMF. I have only read about these. They never came before the leadership of the time.
What is at issue here is not simply worship of the market, but undermining of internal democracy and a wider question of displacement of popular involvement, which was also happening at that period. Instead of popular involvement and driving of democratic development we have seen centralisation not in the ANC as an organisation with constitutional structures, but the state, in the main.
In most recent times the failure to deliver a better life for all has been undermined by patronage and corruption on a large and shameless scale, shameless in the sense that the president Jacob Zuma and his allies do not appear to appreciate or have concern about the difference between state and private wealth and property and simply appropriate state resources for their own enrichment and those who are close to them in various ways.
The other problem I have with Roy’s purported intervention is that she does not engage the political. Her work is class reductionist and if capital is as clever and powerful as she makes out, that so proud a man as Mandela can be humbled or flattered into submission, what can ordinary people learn? Can they not draw the conclusion that there is nothing they can do to better their lives?
Because Roy is unconcerned with the displacing of the popular subject, the active citizenry, and does not address how the masses can actively set about remedying the present state of affairs, she ultimately contributes to their disempowerment.
The language is all very evocative, for this is a skilled writer. But she is playing with serious matters. If she had real concern and engaged in good faith, she would see and present the problems as requiring careful discussion and join in grappling for answers. That requires humility.