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Market Versus Populist Talibans



Editor's note: We wrongly described Andile Mngxitama as a she. Andile mngxitama is a he. Our apologies.


May 14, 2007.




By Andile Mngxitama



Developments around the South African presidential succession debate have brought to the fore, at least on the analytical plain, two main contending forces. These forces are symbolically represented in the persons of President Thabo Mbeki on the one hand and his former Deputy Jacob Zuma on the other.


For lack of a useful coinage these forces can be characterised as a Market Taliban versus a Populist Taliban. However at the base they are really just two sides of the same coin. It is in unmasking what these forces represent that we can hopefully get a glimpse of the future, and see if we cannot perhaps influence the outcomes. After all politics is the art of the possible.


The rise of the Market Taliban can be more clearly linked to the 1996 adoption of the GEAR policy without consultation not only with the broader society but even with the ruling alliance as well. GEAR was based on the acceptance of the supremacy of market logic and the aggressive implementation of the Washington Consensus ideology.


In the specific situation of South Africa this meant that the structure of society as inherited from colonialism and apartheid could not be transformed. Representation would be sought by the representatives of the formerly excluded in the economy but still geared towards the satisfaction of white settler interests.


At the base of it, the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy seeks to achieve this integration without disintegrating the political economic structures build on black dispossession, exclusion and exploitation. In terms of this schema the majority of blacks are bound to remain servants, as a tiny new but subordinated bourgeois enters the boardrooms of the established white capital.


The predictable result of these policies was the stabilisation of the macro-economics, super profits for corporations and increased hardship for the masses in whose name the policy was implemented. When President Mbeki says business has never had it so good in SA he is speaking to the outcomes of the market Taliban processes.


This same logic ensured that South African foreign policy is closely linked to the interest of the corporations. Hence the big four companies had the liberty to leave the shores of this country, at the same time the African continent has been prised open for further penetration by capital, in a process akin to the second colonisation. The woes of the continent according to this logic would be solved by the trickle down miracle.


The Market Taliban process reduces everything into a commodity to be traded in the market. Basic necessities for life such as water, electricity, health care, education, land, love and even justice to mention a few, have not escaped the all encompassing power of the market. All of sudden your family home in Soweto has a monetary value and if you like you could place it on the market and money would come out at the other end of the deal.


Literally nothing is untouched or beyond the reach of the hegemonic logic of money and profits. We must brace ourselves for the body bags count in the form of a new wave of homelessness bred by the property market boom in the townships. In accordance with this thinking only those with money can enjoy full citizenship rights.

It also true that under the era of Market Taliban there emerged a precarious, highly indebted, but consuming and bubbly black middle and also tiny real monied black capitalist class whose market value has now reached billions of rands. These are the new high priestesses of the Market Talibanism.


Their accumulation of capital is justified and fought for in the name of the whole formerly oppressed people. The painful history of exclusion is mobilised to line the pocket of individuals, whilst those who benefit from this extension of the historical robbery are standing on the heads of the majority who remain excluded.


What is removed from the naked eye is the fact that all this has been done in the interest of the patriarchal, racist white capitalist structure inherited from colonialism and apartheid. On the other hand the lot of the black poor majority has only been marginally improved by this market success. The insult of poverty, the bucket system, squatter camps, floods and fires, schooling under trees, RDP (Reconstruction & Development Programme) houses or dog kennels in the middle of nowhere, treatment of people as fodder for the ballot box ensues unabated.


Only 4% of the land has been returned during the first decade of democracy, at the same time about one million farm dwellers have been evicted from white owned farms. The Red Ants administer their cruel medicine of forced removals during winter, unemployment and poverty are the daily bread of the multitudes.


But the most important out come of the Market Talibanism is the expulsion of ordinary people from making history. Only the state experts, and spin doctors have been allowed in the house of history. Their job, in the main, is to defend the indefensible, and if necessary to beef up the statistics until they speak the language of power. We have now entered the neo-colonial hell- hole Frantz Fanon warned against.


The Populist Taliban project emerges as a direct consequence of the failures of the Marker Taliban. The masses who have been expelled from meaningful participation in the life of the nation, now places their hopes on the new man. This is the birth of populism without popular politics.


When former Vice President Jacob Zuma, after the acquittal for rape, said to the expectant plebeian crowds, “I love you as much as you love me”, then “I’m prepared to die for you”, it was not a mere mortal speaking. Those are the words of a messiah on the cross. What connects the expelled crowds to Zuma is not political programme different from that of the Market Taliban force, it’s a sense of collective marginalisation and persecution. It’s a pain not clarity of purpose. Emotion eclipses politics and thought.


The novelty of Zuma’s stance is his stony silence on any major policy issue. Where does Zuma stand on GEAR? On privatisation? On reclamation of the economy back to the people not thorough the castrated notions of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)? On the expropriation of land? On the moratorium on evictions? On occupied Palestine?


From the silence the plebeians create castles in the air and place their man in the middle of it to deliver their manna from thin air.


Zuma on the other hand sells nothing for which he can be held accountable for, except that he is prepared to perish for the plebs. What we have in the end is not a programme to change society but collective victimhood, which could and may turn to desire for revenge. This is not a political battle but a family feud, for the family silverware. Poverty of progressive ideas is the umbilical cord joining both sides.


The route to the Union Buildings for the Populist Taliban is not going to be easy. One can speculate that capital both national and international will do all in its power to thwart the ascension of the populists to the throne of power. This response is based on a misdiagnosis of Zuma as a revolutionary popular lefty leader in the mould of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales.


This misdiagnosis has been fuelled by the unreflecting South African media. It is important to draw a clear distinction between a populist politician and a popular leader as the Tanzanian scholar Issa Shivji argues


“A populist focuses on power… A populist is demagogic, that is, he would say and sloganise whatever he thinks people want to hear, even if it means playing on primitive prejudices of race, religion, gender or age”.


Secondly, the unpredictability of the Populist Taliban in power is unsettling for capital. It must be remembered that whoever inherits the presidency would take hold a of dangerously powerful machinery of policy making, spin doctoring, dispensing patronage, punishment and reward. Think of the Soviet system inherited by Stalin, created by Trotsky and Lenin in the name of the revolution.


The unravelling of the house of cards whose foundation was created by the Market Taliban occurs on the morrow of the victory of the Populist Taliban. Brussels, no 10 Downing Street and the White House will call and seek guarantees for the programmes pursued by the Market Taliban. Subduing the Zuma presidency would not take too much effort. A Zuma presidency, with the SACP in the background does not and will not present a threat to the interest of capital.


But there would still be other hurdles to jump and scores to settle. The media is likely to be first, for supporting the opponents of the Populist Taliban in the name of independence of the media; next will be the intellectual class; little or no distinction is likely to be made between the pro Market Taliban segment, the “independents” and those located squarely in the corner of the plebs but maintaining a critical stance in relation to the factional war between the two Talibans.


We can expect a section of the media to change horses and sing for its supper and the SABC would effortlessly serve the new master. It has now become adept at it.

It can be expected that the masses would be in the fore front of the “cultural revolution” against “counter revolutionaries”.


However, once the residual forces from the now defeated Market Taliban, media and the intellectual class has been dealt with, the sword of the victorious Populist Taliban would have to land on the restless and impatient plebs. Patience would be demanded and enforced. The truth of just how similar these Taliban’s are becomes apparent at that moment.


The Populist Taliban displays the same disdain for the expectant masses as was displayed by its predecessor and its might against the masses is as strong as it is impotency against the internal and national corporate power. Those who do not toe the line would have to face the wrath of the Populist Taliban, which of course by now would be firmly settled in its belief that it is carrying out its God given revolutionary duty which was betrayed by the Market Taliban. The irony of it all is that both pray to the same God of profit.


The point about these lines is to raise a warning and to invite a serious debate about the future of this country. It is clear that neither Mbeki’s Market Talibanism nor Zuma’s Populist Talibanism is the solution. Mbeki’s belated and somewhat cynical invitation of the people to play a part in the debate about who would become the next president must be taken with the caution it deserves. This move looks more like a call for confirmation of his leadership than to genuinely participate in decision making.


The track record speaks for itself here. His presidency by-passes not only the people but parliament itself. In the short term Zuma must be asked to show his hand, only because he threatens the future. Cosatu and the SACP must be implored to state on what political and socio-economic programme they base their support for Zuma.


Alternatively they must bring the nation into their confidence about what they have been promised. The opportunism of both must be exposed; their new found zeal for uttering left sounding critiques must fool no one. Now, is the time for presenting real alternatives to the two Talibans.


In the immediate term such alternatives may not seem political viable given the hegemony of the ANC over electoral political sphere. But the narrowing of politics to elections denies us to see the ample possibilities for a return to the politics of liberation. We can now again raise the question: what does it mean to be free?


We must have hope in the plebs; after all true liberation can only emerge from within the masses and with them. Whilst the middle classes, the media, sections of capital are in sixes and sevens, it is to those who have been expelled from history that we need to direct our analysis, conversations and warnings.


The chickens hatched by the Market Taliban are fast coming home to roost. We dare not to fail to dream again.


Andile Mngxitama is a South Africa-based writer. He blogs frequently at Black Looks.


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