The Racist Underside of Guptagate

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The City Press made an astonishing error of judgement in deciding to publish Phumlani Mfeka's more or less fascist rant on Sunday. Presenting this extraordinarily crass form of ethnic chauvinism under-girded by a clear threat of violence as if it were a legitimate contribution to the national debate only compounded the newspaper's disgraceful editorial decision. But while Mfeka's anti-Indian diatribe is certainly the most extreme instance of an increasingly dubious set of responses to Guptagate it is not uniquely problematic.

Let's be clear: the Guptas are vile. But there are some serious problems with the way that their position at the apex of the increasingly corrosive intersection between business and politics is being discussed. For a start it’s sometimes implied, in a manner that draws directly from colonial stereotypes, that Zuma is the naïve but well-meaning victim of their cunning machinations. This is nonsense. It’s perfectly clear that Zuma, perhaps well named as Gedleyihlekisa, is as cunning as anyone. And while national sentiment may make it attractive to blame the overweening power that the Guptas have assumed on the intrusion of an alien evil this is nothing but the empty comfort of a narcissistic fantasy. Corruption in the interests of a predatory elite, and as a form of social control, is rampant, Zuma's record in this regard is abysmal and while the Gupta's have adeptly exploited this situation they didn't create it. On the contrary the Guptas are a symptom, a particularly acute symptom to be sure, of a problem that is entirely ours.

There has been a striking difference in the way the Guptas, recent immigrants from India, have been received in our national conversation with, say, the fact, that the equally odious Gaston Savoi came to South Africa from Uruguay. And when the Guptas are mentioned, as they often are, in the same breath as Schabir Shaik and Vivien Reddy the racism animating the reception of Guptagate is no longer bothering to disguise itself. Why, for instance, is Brett Kebble not on this list? And why is it that S'bu and Shauwn Mpisane are left out? And if our concern is with the conflation between business and politics in the personal interests of a predatory class then why are we not also talking about Kenny Kunene and Julius Malema? Or Khulubuse Zuma?

The racialised reading of Guptagate is itself symptomatic of a deeper social failure. Various forms of anti-racist or non-racial politics were developed in the struggles against apartheid. From the black consciousness movement, to the trade union movement and, in at least some parts of the country, the United Democratic Front, forms of political identity were forged that were not rooted in narrow conceptions of race or ethnicity. But these forms of political identity are whithering away.

One reason for their decline was the multi-racialism, a racialising discourse, that the ANC brought into the country after 1990. Another is the pseduo-liberal multi-culturalism, another racialising discourse, to which many white institutions turned to legitimate themselves without having to give up on their investment in whiteness. And with none of the major political parties taking a credibly pro-poor position the promise of democracy hasn't been realised in the manner that many people had hoped. The DA and the ANC are both able to engage in systemic, illegal and violent denial of people's basic rights without consequence.

The ANC failed to develop an inclusive emancipatory vision after apartheid and has degenerated to the point where it is dominated by a predatory class that mobilises nationalism to present its ruthless drive to accumulate wealth and power as a noble patriotic endeavour. While there have been some innovative and courageous attempts to achieve an emancipatory vision from within society, some of which have attained real local significance, none have attained the critical mass of popular support required to make a significant national intervention.

Outside of party politics the hegemony of human rights discourse, with its fantasy that rights and ideals recorded on paper would somehow trickle down into reality, has also been part of the problem. With some exceptions the human rights project generally takes the form of a fundamentally elitist conception of politics in which NGOs and the state contest on the legal and media terrains. These are both terrains on which elites are much stronger than most of us and for this reason elites will always be the most effective actors within the human rights paradigm.

There was never an effective reckoning with white racism after apartheid. It has festered in the white family and, often legitimating itself in the name of fantasies about 'world class standards' or even human rights, it continues to reproduce itself in some institutions too. But in the absence of mass mobilisation and an emancipatory vision this fact has not sustained the black solidarity that was, albeit imperfectly, forged in struggle. And growing cynicism about the political class and the direction of society creates fertile ground for the temptation to mobilise political support on an ethnic or racial basis.

Future historians will remember 2008 as the year when any remaining innocence about time being on the side of our hopes for the new South Africa turned into culpably naivety. This was the year that the campaign in support of Zuma took on an overtly ethnic aspect that, in Durban, often took an openly anti-Indian and anti-Xhosa form on the ground. It was also the year of the xenophobic pogroms.

Five years later various forms of coloured identity politics, some of them that go so far as to refer to Xhosa people as 'settlers' and to deny Xhosa people the right to participate in meetings, are gaining ground in Cape Town. And in the wake of Jimmy Manyi's open expression of neo-Verwoedian racial fantasies its hard to see how the ANC could recover the broad credibility it was once able to reach towards in that city. In Durban you can encounter the casual performance of Indian racism on any given day and read about Indian nostalgia for apartheid in The Post . Even if you avoid spaces grounded in an assumption of white normativity you can't read an online newspaper without having to endure the most sickening forms of white racism in the comments section. And xenophobia is rearing its demonic head in Sebokeng and Orange Farm.

Of course every ethnic entrepreneur emerging from this mess will say that their politics is motivated by nothing but a profound concern for the poor. But the reality is that, as we can see so clearly in India or Kenya, when politics becomes a primarily communal or ethnic matter the issue is simply who has power rather than any meaningful discussion about the nature or function of power. Ethnic politics is often an intra-elite battle waged in the name of the poor that functions to destroy any prospect of effective political solidarities amongst the poor. If we go down this route we can forget any hopes for a progressive resolution of our social and political crisis.

The Guptas, like Kebble or the Mpisanes, are vile. But, as a Syrian by the name of Matthew asked a long time ago: “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?”

Written by: Richard Pithouse

Picture credit: GovernmentZA/Flickr

  • Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University. This article was published on South African Civil Society Information Service.



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