South Africa: Crisis of leadership or is it of capitalism?

It is not the best of times, but it is also not the worst of times. It is also not the tale of two countries, though that is often how it appears to a casual observer.

The obscene inequality which blights this society, and the baleful consequences it engenders, has resulted in a very weak social compact.

These are not end of times in the traditional, apocalyptic sense. The era of optimism, which was the 1990s, is now most certainly dead and buried. Now we live in yet another interregnum, where the seeds of hope are sown alongside the seeds of despair. Our challenge: to weed, and do so accurately, knowing which saplings and old shrubs of despair to remove, and which stunted old growth of optimism to nurture and irrigate. Only, even water is at a premium these days.

The crisis can too easily be understood to be confined to, or even unique to South Africa. Our history of exceptionalism goes back a long way, and old habits die hard. Saul Dubow, in A Commonwealth of Knowledge traces the history of this exceptionalism to the construction of whiteness in South African educational and research institutions from the colonial epoch to the post-apartheid era.

We would do well to do similar archaeological work on the history of capital in South Africa. In fact, some of the ground-work has already been done for us. One thinks of Merle Lipton’s Capitalism and apartheid: 1910-1986, which traced the complex relations of cooperation and contestation between capitalists and various colonial and apartheid era governments from the origins of industrialisation in this part of the world to the time of state instability during the states of emergency.

South Africa’s transition from apartheid is too often misconceived as merely a political shift in multi-party democratic ‘freedom’. What is forgotten is that while South Africa shifted through those torsions, the rest of the world also changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the invasion and bombing of Iraq, and the shift in political direction across Western Europe and North America, led to changes in the global financial system which had been envisioned since the 1970s. Bretton Woods was well and truly cut down.

In the new, triumphalist phase of capitalism, what some even dared to call ‘the end of history’, and what another rather regressively imagined to be a ‘clash of civilisations’, a New World Order was declared. Time magazine even imagined that this new order placed the surviving antagonist of the Cold War, the United States of America, as a ‘global cop’. The break up of the Soviet Union had, after all, left the world seemingly unipolar.

But things were not as easy as it seemed. The requirements of the global economy shifted, and the tyrannies of the twentieth century had to be changed and their economic arrangement accommodated into the new phase, which many thought of as ‘neoliberalism’. Samir Amin, the Egyptian economist, wrote of this as a viral visitation upon vulnerable societies. South Africa, newly unshackled from legislated white supremacy and the crimes against humanity necessitated by it, was one such vulnerable society.

Now, 24 years later, we once more confront our own vulnerability. The political economy of post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa is pockmarked with some spectacular failures of the democratic vision of freedom. The arms scandal was our first fall into post-1994 disgrace. We were to have several more, including our mishandling of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the political transition from the Thabo Mbeki presidency to the decade of Jacob Zuma’s tenure.

State capture, of course, is not new. Lipton’s economic history of twentieth century South Africa demonstrates this only too well. But the point of 1994 was meant to undo the past, not repeat it. And the Marxian dictum about the repetition of history in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon may well apply. To repeat the mistakes of a crime against humanity in the name of democratic freedom is not only farcical, but obscene.

But, once more, the trouble is not local. Our propensity for self-isolation, for exceptionalism, could mask just how much we are more like the rest of the world than we are different from them. We are not all that special. The tension between capitalist organisations and governments is a global one. Also, for too long and too easily, some have mistaken capitalism for democracy, and vice versa. Some have even assumed the two are ineluctably connected. But as any materialist history of political economic relations in the past and the present shows, this is more ideological than phenomenological truth.

In contemporary South Africa, the crisis is two-fold: it is moral as well as intellectual, and it is occurring in the institutions of both the public and the private sectors. And not least these have been so intertwined because in the neoliberal phase of late industrial capitalism, the door between the public and private sectors is not merely revolving, but actively spinning.

It may be useful to remind ourselves of Noam Chomsky’s analogy of the role of the state when he spoke at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1997. Despite being an anarchist, he indicated that in times of crisis, a stronger state could be better for a population than a weaker one would. If the state is a prison, the organisations and institutions of multinational neoliberal capital can be seen to be a man-eating tiger. Chomsky indicated that if one is trapped in the prison, one would want the bars to be stronger rather than weaker to save one from the man-eating tiger roaming outside. Additionally, he stressed, states can be changed, either by democratic means or by insurgent revolt, whereas neoliberal capital, here as elsewhere, is often beyond accounting.

In South Africa in 2018, using the strong but challenged institutions of our not-so-new state, we are attempting to prove Chomsky wrong, and we ought to take courage from this moment, and be optimistic. We are challenged by a troubled state, but we dare not leave those who are keen to weaken that state untroubled.

Angelo Fick is a broadcaster and writer who has taught across a variety of disciplines in various faculties at universities in South Africa and Europe over the last 24 years. He is currently the senior researcher at eNCA and regularly publishes columns at

On March 2, Busara Leadership Partners will host a seminar entitled: The State of the South African Economy: Crisis of Leadership or is it of Capitalism? To attend or for more info email:


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