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A New Dawn For South Africa?

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

2 March 2018

The election of Cyril Ramaphosa as president of South Africa has produced a plethora of articles hailing a new dawn for the nation.  The Irish Times published an article written by the South African psychologist and current John Hume and Thomas P O’Neill chair in peace based at the International Conflict Research Institute, Ulster University, Professor Brandon Hamber.  The title of the article was the unimaginative A new dawn for South Africa, but a false start for Northern Ireland.(1)

Hamber in the article shows that despite or perhaps because of his academic position at Ulster University he either does not understand or refuses to acknowledge the reality of the sectarian statelet.  But here I want to focus on South Africa.  He is after all from there and Ramaphosa was hailed in Ireland as a champion of peace and an important figure in the decommissioning process.  If his election as president of South Africa is a new dawn, then it will not be long before he is once again held up as an example to us all, which is what Hamber does, in effect.

He acknowledges problems in South Africa, but states that with Ramaphosa’s election “A wave of new-found optimism has swept the country. In his state-of-the nation address on Friday, Ramaphosa spoke of a new dawn, turning the tide against corruption and tackling inequalities, while maintaining economic stability.”  He further states that “South Africans have a new belief in democracy and people power, and have learned first-hand the value of a free media and an independent judiciary. There is new hope in the constitution, the rule of law and the institutions developed to protect democracy.”  Were that true it would be a remarkable accomplishment in a matter of days.  The hypebole of people power is overwhelming and nauseating.

To be clear, the new president of South Africa is a mining magnate, a multimillionaire whose fortune is calculated, depending on the source as being between USD 450 and 700 million.  Yes he was once a lawyer and a leader of the National Union of Mineworkers.  But that is in the past.  How he became rich says more about the South Africa he will build than all the fine words that we expect at inaugurations or the sycophantic faith of academics who should know better and perhaps even do know better, but go along with the tide.

Ramaphosa became a very wealthy man, very quickly after the ending of Apartheid.  Between 1996 and 1998 he amassed a fortune in excess of 40 million rand.(2)  A figure in the region of 8 million dollars at the time, a not insignificant sum for a former activist.  The short period in which it was amassed would cause anyone to doubt the character of the person, regardless of the legality or otherwise of how he came about it.  Liberation leaders don’t come into that amount of money without jettisoning their politics.  Ramaphosa was a beneficiary of the Black Economic Empowerment policies, on repeated occasions it would seem.  In 2001, he set up the Shanduka Group, a South African Holding Company with a wide range of investments, including the mining sector, for which Ramaphosa would become infamous.  The company has investments not only in South Africa but also in a number of other African nations, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.  Ramaphosa withdrew from the group in 2014, in order to help Zuma run the country, as he put it, placing his other investments in blind trusts.

Amongst his investments, was the Lonmin platinum mine in Marikana.  On August 16th, 2012, 34 miners were murdered by the South African police in front of TV cameras.  The images are even more shocking and unequivocal than the footage from Bloody Sunday in Derry.  The cameras were only some 15 metres or so from the largest group of murdered miners, standing right beside the police as they opened fire.  The footage sets the opening scene of the outstanding documentary Miners Shot Down, a film which has had many difficulties in being shown in South Africa itself.  Ramaphosa was a director of Lonmin PLC at the time.  Hamber is aware of the massacre just as he is aware of Bloody Sunday, that he just overlooks Ramaphosa’s role tells us everything we need to know about his attitude to peace.

The massacre was investigated by the Marikana Commission of Inquiry, otherwise known as the Farlam Commission, after its chairperson.  The Commission absolved Ramaphosa, in fact it found nobody guilty, a judgement that might have even caused some older Apartheid judges to blush.  The workers were provocative etc. was the line trotted out, the same line that Ramaphosa who described the strike as a criminal act, also trotted out.  His calls to politicians and the calls made on the company’s behalf to the police were dismissed as unimportant in the unfolding events.  No recommendations for compensation were made and nobody went to jail, after a report that was three years in the making.  Shorter than the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday, but the type of whitewash is all too familiar to us.  “But it says inquiries should be held into the fitness of the national police chief, Riah Phiyega, to hold office, and into ascertaining the criminal liability of all police involved in the tragedy.”(3) That is as far as it went.  As the lawyers for the families pointed out, the report could not even state why the police opened fire, a simple enough question.

Ramaphosa is to Marikana what Faulkner, General Ford and Heath were to Derry on Bloody Sunday, yet Hamber gushes about a bright new dawn.  To be fair to him, he is not alone in his praise.  Many newspapers were equally gushing in their praise for him.  The Guardian ran the headline 'It's a new day' - cautious optimism greets Ramaphosa era in South Africa.(4) Other contributors to the newspaper engaged in even greater flattery.  Ramaphosa had won the beauty contest.

The praise for him, is allegedly based on his determination to root out corruption and break with the kleptocracy of the Zuma administration.  Zuma, was a crook and a clown, too obvious, uncouth and corrupt.  Ramaphosa is smoother than that, a better public speaker, he scores on the all the points that matter not.  He is a product of the ANC’s corruption that did not start with Zuma, but with Mandela himself.  Ramaphosa was major beneficiary of the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) schemes on more than one occasion.  The BEE schemes did not lead to a rise in entrepreneurs in South Africa but helped a clique within the ANC to tap into established companies within industries, quotas were issued for ownership of companies and participation in industry, so a coterie of well-connected ANC leaders ended up getting their hands on sections of the mining industry amongst others.  They became fabulously wealthy individuals.  The authors of Class, Race and Inequality in South Africa, described it thus.

The basic model for a BEE deal was that a consortium of (mostly) black investors bought a discounted stake in a company (sometimes through holding companies or trusts), financed through a combination of bank loans, dividend flows and capital appreciation in the shares of the company involved. In return, the company retained or gained favourable access to government business.  Established businesses sought BEE partners "with inside knowledge of the government and easy access to ministers and top officials", who could "schmooze" with top people in the government, as ANC MP Ben Turok noted. In the political context of post-apartheid SA, the informal contacts via (black) BEE partners and the appearance of compliance with transformation represented forms of insurance against political risk.(5)

This is a more stylish form of corruption than Zuma’s and worse because the basis of it is telling the mass of black people in South Africa that they are being “empowered”, when the reality is that a small group is licking the cream off the milk.  The BEE did not open up the economy to black participation, it was a form of transferring wealth to a newly emerging black elite, who did not seek to challenge the white elite but come to an understanding with them on how the wealth would be shared out amongst elites.  So whilst some people have become incredibly wealthy in the mining and other industries, the situation for poor blacks has changed little.  Thus it is not surprising that income inequality as measured by the GINI index has worsened from 57.8 in 2011 to 63.4 in 2016, according to the UN Human Development Reports.

As a recent paper by Alan Hirsch, Haroon Bhorat and Aalia Cassim noted, BEE seems to be the outcome of a pact between a section of the ANC government and previously wholly white-owned firms who, after the transition, were still concerned with preserving their property rights and influence on economic policy. Such an elite pact has had little redistributive impact and has largely excluded low-skilled labour, the unemployed, and those in the informal sector from consideration. Moreover, because the profitability of much BEE business depends on the exploitation and marginalisation of the poor, the flourishing of that elite class depends on the continued exploitation of the black majority.(6)

This of course is part of the ANC’s legacy but also that of Cyril Ramaphosa, who at the end of the day became rich on the backs of black miners just as the Oppenheimers and other white mining magnates did.  He is unlikely to make any significant changes to that.  He may have more class than Zuma, he may not be a kleptocrat in the same sense as Zuma, but he is like a whole layer of the ANC the heir and beneficiary of a system that gave rise, not to black empowerment or even the standard development of a black entrepreneurial class, but of a system that spawned a Russian style oligarchy, safely ensconced in the bosom of white national and international capital.

It is not hard to understand why Hamber would so enthusiastic about the rise of such a man.  He may be a multimillionaire, he may have got rich through the sweat of those miners he used to defend, he may be an out and out neoliberal, but he is a man of peace.  Ramaphosa was a key player in the peace process in South Africa and the transition and threw his tuppence ha’penny’s worth into the ring of the Irish peace process.  The essential character of the liberal peace establishment in academia is that those who lead peace processes are supported in all of their efforts.  In the name of peace, academic rigour, analysis and critique are thrown into the dustbin, just like the struggles of the people are consigned to the dustbin of history.  It is a clear example of the utterly reactionary nature of the ideology of peace that we are expected to support multimillionaire reprobates like Ramaphosa.


 (1) Brandon Hamber, Irish Times (20/02/2018) A new dawn for South Africa, but a false start for Northern Ireland

 (2) Bond, Patrick (2000) Elite Transition: From Apartheid to Neoliberalism in South Africa, London & South Africa, Pluto Press and UNP, End Note No. 7, Chapter 2 page 266.

 (3) The Guardian (25/06/2015) South African deputy president cleared over Marikana massacre

 (4) The Guardian (15/02/2018) 'It's a new day' - cautious optimism greets Ramaphosa era in South Africa

(5) Jeremy Seeking & Nicoli Nattrass (21/11/2016) How BEE gives sweet riches to an inner hive

(6) Michael Nissan Smith (20/06/2016) Black economic empowerment is not economic empowerment

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