Suffer the black capitalists

2014-09-14 15:00

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The news in recent weeks has shone a light on transactions entered into by members of the black capitalist class.

This group of politically or otherwise connected individuals, like their white counterparts now and under apartheid, is rapidly amassing capital wealth.

They do so by invoking black excellence, black empowerment and other offshoots of the black solidarity we were raised to believe in.

The expectation is that the likes of you and I, blacks with neither 40 acres nor a mule, will celebrate their achievements as if they were our own.

It’s not too dissimilar to the sentiment expressed by former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe in his toast at the ANC’s centenary rally.

“The leaders will now enjoy the champagne and, of course, they do so on your behalf through their lips,” Motlanthe said to the champagne-less masses.

Then there’s the case of Khanyi Dhlomo, whose latest business venture, high-end fashion boutique Luminance, was back in the news after it reportedly paid back its R34.1?million loan to the National Empowerment Fund (NEF).

It was neither of public interest for us to know how the private company did this, nor had the company done anything exceptional to warrant scrutiny. But its refinancing of the loan was the introduction to the story anyway.

People grumbled on radio talk shows and social media. They said it was another instance where the news media showed they existed to delegitimise black achievement.

Cyril Ramaphosa, dressed in khaki attire, pays full attention at a big game auction. Picture: Cornel van Heerden

Then there was Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who reportedly auctioned off three white-flanked impala for R28?million last weekend.

We were provided with details such as how he arrived at the auction (in a Bell 407 helicopter) and what he was wearing (khaki from head to toe).

We were also told he assured the mostly white audience that their private property rights on the farms over which they hold title were secure.

Unsurprisingly, the reports were met with a reprise of accusations that Ramaphosa is “ibhunu elimnyama” (a black boer).

Last month, at the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, he was mocked for his previous foray into game auctions, where his R19.5?million bid failed to secure a buffalo cow and a calf. Some in the audience shouted: “Buffalo head killed people in Marikana.”

Veteran journalist Max du Preez suggested that many of those who criticise Ramaphosa’s wealth do so by deploying the subtext that black people should not be wealthy.

After all, Jaco Troskie, the white man who outbid Ramaphosa for the buffalo, has never been subjected to criticism for his wealth. And whoever bought Ramaphosa’s impala this weekend is seemingly invisible to the news organisations that reported on the auction.

There are also never any reports about the debt-refinancing arrangements other private businesses enter into unless they publicly announce them or if shady dealings are involved.

But to reduce this as an opposition to black wealth is a mistake. It ignores that there exists a special relationship between us, the common black folk, and the black owners of capital.

We celebrate black success because we expected liberation for one would be liberation for all. Those are the terms under which the struggle was waged.

But when political freedom came, it became a case of every person for themselves. Black politicians declared that they did not struggle to be poor and black capitalists proclaimed it was their turn to eat, abandoning previously held notions of a collective struggle.

Maybe it was always that way and black solidarity was an illusion necessary to avoid utter despondency amid state-sponsored racist oppression.

What’s most aggravating is the paradox this creates.

The daily struggles of black people against poverty, inequality and structural exclusion are used as the justification for the preferential access black capitalists, aspirant and real, are given to company shares, the supply chains of the public and private sectors, and support from state-sponsored development finance entities such as the NEF.

Yet the benefits don’t “trickle down” as they are supposed to. This isn’t an aberration. It’s how capitalism works, regardless of the capitalist’s skin colour.

For these enterprises to prosper, they must keep costs low and income high.

This might mean importing luxury goods manufactured more cheaply elsewhere at the expense of the local manufacturing sector.

It might mean profiting from a national wage structure based on the historical exploitation of black workers.

It might mean aggressively marketing their products and services to stoke a culture of consumerism and overindebtedness.

And the developmental support black enterprises receive mostly stops with them.

If we landless and otherwise assetless blacks can understand this, we might understand, too, that the black capitalists will not save us.

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