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MOTHER OF THE NATION: The spear has fallen

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In this third and final part of a three-part series, ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE revisits the funeral of Winnie Madikizela Mandela, the Mother of the South African Nation who defied both apartheid and patriarchy till her dying days. The eulogies paint a picture of woman with a fighting spirit who served as an enduring inspiration to her people.

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maWinnie: Lessons in Feminist Approaches to Storymaking
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April 2018

‘‘She talked about forgiveness, and it’s one of those things that whenever she spoke about, she would have tears in her eyes but the tears wouldn’t roll down her face,’’ Zodwa Zwane, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s personal assistant, stated in her eulogy on April 11, 2018, during an ANC memorial service at Orlando Stadium in Soweto, Johannesburg. ‘And she would say Zodwa, I don’t have tears anymore. I have felt pain up to the highest threshold.’’

Seth Mazibuko, who was the youngest member of the Student Action Committee that led the Soweto students’ uprising starting in June 1976 – which resulted in the killing of hundreds of students by apartheid police (estimates range between 176 and 700 deaths, with over 1,000 injured) – said that Madikizela-Mandela was an eternal source of strength to his generation. He recalled that fateful 16th of June 1976 when school children were shot by apartheid police for participating in a protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the official language of instruction in schools. Madikizela-Mandela – driving a maroon Volkswagen Beetle – and journalist Sophie Tema – driving a white Volkswagen Beetle – rushed to the scene and ferried the dead bodies of the massacred children away. Among those killed was 12-year-old Hector Pieterson who became the face of the uprising when the photo of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying a fatally shot Pieterson was widely circulated across the world.

Mazibuko credits Madikizela-Mandela with admitting him into a proper psychiatric hospital after he was released from prison at the time when he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He says that decision alone – of getting him proper medical care – could only be taken by someone who truly cared for him. Madikizela-Mandela taught him how to cook, as well as reprimanded Mazibuko whenever he transgressed.

‘‘The saddest part of the news of her passing is that it has happened at a time when we needed the energy and gallant spirit of a mother of the nature and stature of Mama Winnie,’’ Mazibuko stated. ‘‘Some of us in the struggle are still hurting. We needed the motherly side of Mama Winnie that would urge us to keep going. We needed a voice as strong as that of Mama at this time when the ANC is talking of renewal and unity.’’

People like Mazibuko had not just lost a leader, but a mother-figure as well. When he was sent to prison at Robben Island aged 16, it was Madikizela-Mandela who went out of her way to look after his own mother. There were many more instances where Madikizela-Mandela went above and beyond the call of duty to assist. That being said, it wasn’t lost on Mazibuko that there were sustained onslaughts to isolate and discredit Madikizela-Mandela as she fought apartheid and even after the ANC assumed power in 1994.

‘‘There is no struggle that is clean,’’ Mazibuko said. ‘‘The struggle was conducted on the dirty streets of Soweto, and here was someone willing to fold her sleeves and get her hands dirty. When other people were in exile, it was Mama who kept us together. When freedom came, she never enjoyed it. She was pushed away. We owe her an apology before we say ashes to ashes.’’

Tokyo Sexwale, the former Premier for Gauteng province, the Minister for Human Settlements and an ANC liberation stalwart, was the only person who had lived in the same house with Madikizela-Mandela before being jailed at Robben Island in 1977, where he served 13 years after being convicted for terrorism and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government. Sexwale had taken shelter at Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto residence as a 17-year-old ANC activist, a home where he stayed in for three years before embarking on Ukhonto we Sizwe activities, which landed him in jail. On arriving at Robben Island, Sexwale said that the prison’s most famous detainee, Nelson Mandela, wanted to know every little detail about life in his Soweto home, asking about his wife and two children – how they dressed, how each of the kids performed at school, how they coped with his absence – information Sexwale readily volunteered.

‘‘There is no struggle that is clean,’’ Mazibuko said. ‘‘The struggle was conducted on the dirty streets of Soweto, and here was someone willing to fold her sleeves and get her hands dirty. When other people were in exile, it was Mama who kept us together. When freedom came, she never enjoyed it. She was pushed away. We owe her an apology before we say ashes to ashes.’’

‘‘I saw with my own eyes the torture, the humiliation by the police who came in to break things, to take clothes off the laundry line and throw them into the rubbish dump… and she would go and pick them up and wash them all over again with tears in her eyes,’’ Sexwale recalled. ‘‘I saw the tears of joy whenever it was time to visit Mandela at Robben Island and the tears of sadness whenever she returned from Robben Island. I saw the police slapping her. I saw them calling her bitch in her own house.’’

‘‘When they slapped her she fought back,’’ Sexwale continued. ‘‘They would hit her with fists and whenever I tried getting up to intervene they would kick me. And the children, Zenani and Zindzi, would be there from time to time whenever they were back from school in Swaziland. Then on the night they came to take her away for detention, she was kicking and screaming, telling the men that the things they were doing to her wouldn’t stop her people’s liberation.’’

‘‘No person should go through the life of Winnie. Let alone a woman, a mother,’’ Sexwale said of Madikizela-Mandela on April 2. ‘‘We have lost one of our best. Winnie was like a candle caught in the crosswinds. She was an indefatigable person, a fighter and a defiant resistor to the end. She even refused – when I spoke to her last week – to have a wheelchair. She would not succumb. She was defying gravity. The nation has lost a heroine… one of our best… a mother not only to her two daughters but a mother to the nation of our unwashed masses….’’

ANC Deputy Secretary General Jesse Duarte – who is the only woman serving as a member of the party’s ‘‘top six’’ officials – remembers Madikizela-Mandela as nothing but a nurturer, a mother to whoever needed one. No child who needed a place to stay was ever turned away from Madikizela-Mandela’s home, and whenever anyone was arrested, Madikizela-Mandela made sure their families were taken care of and lawyers were hired for them. When Duarte was released from prison in 1988, where she was detained without trial for close to a year, she first stopped to see Albertina Sisulu, the struggle stalwart and wife of Walter Sisulu, who had recruited her into the ANC back in 1979 when she was 26. Her next stop was the Soweto home of Madikizela-Mandela, who told her that now that she was back from prison it was time to recommit to the liberation struggle because the difficult work they had started was not yet complete.

‘‘Comrade Winnie Mandela is the Winnie Mandela of the people of Ivory Park, the Winnie Mandela of the people of Slovo Park,’’ Duarte eulogised Madikizela-Mandela on April 11. ‘‘She is the Winnie Mandela of the poor, the Winnie Mandela of the working classes of this country. She gave everything she had. She kept very little for herself and her family. She gave us her life, her commitment. She never betrayed our struggle. She did not betray the revolution….’’

Speaking at the United Nations headquarters in New York on April 4, former South African Vice President (to Thabo Mbeki), UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-Women, Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, elaborated on how and when Madikizela-Mandela was christened Mother of the Nation, and why she was enormously deserving of the reputable title.

‘‘She believed she was a rock, and therefore she had to be there for people to lean on her,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. ‘‘She fought a system that was brutal, and the fact that she was defiant at every turn gave many of us the courage to fight back in our own small ways because we had this larger-than-life personality who was leading from the front. She was not the wife of an icon. She was an icon in her own right, standing next to another icon.’’

‘‘For decades when we couldn’t relate to the leaders,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka continued, referring to top ANC leaders who were either in jail, underground or exiled, ‘‘she was the go-to person who helped glue the different groupings in the country together. That is why she was called Mother of the Nation…She will be solely remembered as a gallant fighter against apartheid who fought for women, fought for her community and fought for the oppressed people. Period.’’

‘‘She believed she was a rock, and therefore she had to be there for people to lean on her,’’ Dr. Mlambo-Ngcuka said. ‘‘She fought a system that was brutal, and the fact that she was defiant at every turn gave many of us the courage to fight back in our own small ways because we had this larger-than-life personality who was leading from the front. She was not the wife of an icon. She was an icon in her own right, standing next to another icon.’’

One group which understood what Madikizela-Mandela’s motherhood and nurturing side felt like was the then expelled leadership of the ANC Youth League, among them Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu, the duo which went on to become president and deputy president of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). On learning of their expulsion from the party for supposed ill discipline in their push for a radical economic transformation agenda, the expellees’ first stop was the Soweto home of Madikizela-Mandela, who embraced and comforted them. Much as the group went ahead to form a political party that became a sharp thorn in the ANC’s flesh, Madikizela-Mandela maintained a very public, uninhibited motherly attitude towards them.

During the 2017 doctorate graduation ceremony of MP and EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, Madikizela-Mandela, who was in attendance, congratulated ‘‘her boys’’ in her usual joking manner, telling them that ever since they went to parliament they had been doing exactly what she had asked them to go and do. Madikizela-Mandela spoke of how she had told the EFF to go and wake the ANC up, since the liberation movement was sleeping. ‘‘You have done a better job because no parliamentarian sleeps anymore,’’ a jovial Madikizela-Mandela said to enormous applause. ‘‘Everyday you insult us, you are doing exactly what I sent you to do in parliament.’’

In their condolence message to the Mandela and Madikizela families – typed in their characteristic red ink – the EFF castigated the ANC for denying South Africa its first woman president. This was in reference to the December 1997 ANC Mafikeng elective conference, where Madikizela-Mandela intended to offer herself for election as the party’s deputy president to Thabo Mbeki, a move which could have seen her rise to the country’s presidency post-Mbeki.

The bottleneck was that Madikizela-Mandela had not been nominated by ANC branches before the conference, as was procedure, meaning she needed a nomination from the floor of the conference backed by 25% of delegates. Madikizela-Mandela requested Mbeki, who was chairing the session – flanked by Jacob Zuma on his right and Nelson Mandela on his left – to briefly adjourn the conference so that she could speak to delegates and get her nomination on course, something Mbeki called canvassing. Mbeki declined to adjourn, leaving Madikizela-Mandela with no choice but to quash her ambition. Jacob Zuma was elected ANC deputy president unopposed, setting on course his future disastrous presidency.

Yet when Mbeki and his friend-turned-foe Jacob Zuma were threatening to tear the ANC apart during the party’s 2007 Polokwane elective conference – which they eventually did following Mbeki’s defeat and subsequent recall as president of South Africa – it was Madikizela-Mandela who summoned the moral courage before the conference and confronted the two men, asking them to shelve their ambition for the ANC presidency and instead settle for a compromise candidate, an initiative which bore no fruit, seeing that the livid duo was keen on going all the way. As she spoke to the two men, Madikizela-Mandela reported that they both used one phrase in reference to each other – ‘‘Mama, you don’t know that man.’’ It took a decade after Jacob Zuma’s 2007 election as ANC president in Polokwane for the party to regain a semblance of unity following the December 2017 Nasrec elective conference where Cyril Ramaphosa was elected ANC president, leading to the recall of a stubborn Jacob Zuma, who had hugely dented the party.

Asked how Madikizela-Mandela should to be remembered during an April 6 interview, Thabo Mbeki ardently pushed the argument that it was ill-advised to single out personalities and celebrate them as individuals, when in fact they had been part of a collective. Mbeki insisted that Madikizela-Mandela was part of the liberation effort, and that she should therefore be remembered in that context – as one in the midst of many. He seemed to be making the argument that even if individual members of the movement – like Nelson Mandela – had previously been celebrated as icons in their own right on the occasion of their passing, then it was time to change that culture. It appeared the former president feared that Madikizela-Mandela was about to be lionised. Unfortunately for Mbeki, there was never going to be moderation in the remembrance of the Mother of the Nation, a nation extending beyond South Africa’s borders.

Mbeki’s perception of Madikizela-Mandela as an attention-seeker is best illustrated by an incident during the 25th anniversary of the 1976 Soweto students uprising in 2001. Mbeki, at the time South Africa’s president, had already arrived at the anniversary celebrations when Madikizela-Mandela made her late entry. Amid cheers from the crowd, Madikizela-Mandela walked up to the high table where she went to hug Mbeki, who while declining the hug, knocked Madikizela-Mandela’s cap off her head, an act Mbeki says was accidental.

‘‘She did something wrong… she liked arriving at meetings late, deliberately… in order to get applause,’’ Mbeki said of the incident. ‘‘She comes in alone, and people’s attention is drawn away from the person speaking… she did that systemically. So when she came on stage and wanted to embrace me I told her you can’t do wrong things like that repetitively.’’  His remarks attracted the wrath of Madikizela-Mandela’s supporters, coming as they did just days after her passing.

The irony of the whole situation is that during the anti-apartheid struggle, when the ANC leadership was either exiled in Zambia or imprisoned, it was Mbeki and other ANC intellectuals who made a conscious decision to settle on Nelson Mandela as the face of the movement, a choice hugely influenced by the fact that Mandela’s wife had built her own larger-than-life profile as a revolutionary who was constantly targeted by the apartheid regime. For Mbeki and his comrades, pairing the profiles of Nelson Mandela and that of Madikizela-Mandela was an act of genius, Mandela having served 27 years in prison and Madikizela-Mandela having become the globally renowned liberation stalwart and persecuted wife of the long-serving prisoner. While it suited the ANC to exploit Madikizela-Mandela’s “Mother of the Nation” stature, she was also isolated and labelled as an ill-disciplined disruptor when it was convenient, especially when she posed a direct political threat to the powers-that-be within the organisation.

The irony of the whole situation is that during the anti-apartheid struggle, when the ANC leadership was either exiled in Zambia or imprisoned, it was Mbeki and other ANC intellectuals who made a conscious decision to settle on Nelson Mandela as the face of the movement, a choice hugely influenced by the fact that Mandela’s wife had built her own larger-than-life profile as a revolutionary who was constantly targeted by the apartheid regime.

Mbeki may or may not have an axe to grind with Madikizela-Mandela or her legacy – and he recently stated that he and Madikizela-Mandela had a cordial relationship despite the mishaps – but what remains clear is that theirs could be a manifestation of the divide between forces on the ground, as represented by Madikizela-Mandela and Chris Hani, and the top exiled ANC leadership, as represented by Mbeki – two groups who hugely contributed to the struggle but who seemed to look at the frontline from different prisms.

The ANC has always refuted the perception that its ranks are split into three: the Robben Islanders, constituting Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia trial comrades; the external exiles, consisting of the likes of Mbeki; and the in-xiles (internal exiles) consisting of the likes of Madikizela-Mandela. The jury is still out on these divisions.

Mbeki had wanted to join the Umkhonto we Sizwe fighting force after his undergraduate studies, but ANC president O.R. Tambo declined his request, insisting that Mbeki needed to return to Sussex University to pursue his Masters degree. Much as Mbeki would later undergo military training in Moscow, where he and Chris Hani marked their 28th birthdays together, he would remain an intellectual and ideologue within the ANC, never a gun-carrying fighting cadre. On the other hand Chris Hani and Madikizela-Mandela commanded ground forces. This in turn set the stage for the grouping of perceived militants like Hani and Madikizela-Mandela on one side, and supposed moderates like Mbeki on the other, which affected how they related with each other within the organisation.

****

‘‘I am not used to hearing such nice things being said about me,’’ Madikizela-Mandela said on the occasion of her 80th birthday in September 2017 as she entered the Johannesburg venue of the gala. ‘‘I am one of the lucky few to be told such heartwarming things when I am still alive.’’

Historically, the African liberation struggle – in all its forms and shapes – has been a highly patriarchal affair, both by design and by default that seeks to quarantine and limit women. The rise of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela from Nelson Mandela’s wife to a tour de force within the ANC and beyond should be viewed in the context of an African woman beating not only her cultural and societal inhibitions, but going ahead to challenge – head on – the oppressive white occupational state which even the men in her midst who had all the privileges patriarchy afforded them found hard to confront. Madikizela-Mandela first defied patriarchy, before proceeding to defy apartheid. According to South African feminist writer and journalist Gail Smith, in the final analysis, Madikizela-Mandela won the battle against apartheid but she lost the fight against patriarchy, which reared its ugly head even in her death.

Young women across the world have pushed back on Madikizela-Mandela’s demonisation and retold her story – warts and all. Standing outside Madikizela-Mandela’s Soweto home, Cape Town’s executive mayor Patricia de Lille was overcome by emotion as she spoke to a reporter after viewing Madikizela-Mandela’s body, which was brought back to the residence that April 13 evening, where it spent the night before burial the following day.

‘‘It’s really hit me now… because the whole week, two weeks, you know you still hope… and you know we prayed for her… she’s our mother…’’ de Lille said, unable to weave words together, teary eyed, her voice shaking with palpable grief. ‘‘You know she’s no more and her memory will live with us,’’ de Lille continued after regaining composure. ‘‘But we must continue to put up the fight for the poor, the landless, the homeless, because that’s what Mama lived and died for. When I saw her tonight for the last time I recommitted myself to that path of making sure that there are more people in our country who must taste the fruits of freedom and not just a few. That has always been the dream of Mama.’’

De Lille, who was reportedly in trouble with her party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), for choosing to attend a memorial service for Madikizela-Mandela organised by her party’s rival, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), next to the Brandfort house where Madikizela-Mandela was banished in 1977, had retorted that in African culture, when a mother died, it was mandatory for one to go and pay one’s respects. She referred to Madikizela-Mandela as her sister, mother and comrade. She didn’t need to ask anyone for permission to mourn, De Lille said.

‘‘The violence and the torture just made her more resolute,’’ de Lille continued. ‘‘Later she was saying there’s no more pain left and there’s no more fear left but at the same time she was a very soft person, with a heart of gold. We could come to her at anytime. If I just wanted to let off whenever I questioned myself whether it’s worth it to carry on with the struggle, I used to come here and spend hours with Mama and by the time I left I just knew I couldn’t give up. I had to continue. Now that she is no longer there we all have to commit ourselves to work even harder to make sure we look after the poor of this country… tonight I can feel that I have seen her for the last time, but she taught us to never give up… to press on… press on… press on… and that is what I will continue to do.’’

‘‘The violence and the torture just made her more resolute,’’ de Lille continued. ‘‘Later she was saying there’s no more pain left and there’s no more fear left but at the same time she was a very soft person, with a heart of gold.”

Barely an hour after Madikizela-Mandela’s body returned to Soweto, a high-level memorial event attended by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was held at the United Nations in New York. The words of Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Anayansi Rodriguez Camejo, possibly captured best the collective mood and sentiment of the evening:

‘‘The Apostle of our independence Jose Marti said, ‘Death is not true when the work of life has been fulfilled.’ Winnie was and is living history. She was Nelson’s voice on the streets of her country and around the world when he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime…Her spirit of resistance earned her admiration from honourable people but also the fear of her enemies who could never bring her to her knees. She has been rightly called the Mother of the South African Nation, but she was more than that. Her motherly embrace transcended the borders of her homeland because with the victory of the South African people over apartheid Africa was reborn… Winnie is the expression of the rebellious and fearless spirit of all African women.’’

Asked why it was imperative for her to be present to witness Madikizela-Mandela’s casket – draped in the ANC’s green, yellow and black flag – being carried off the hearse and up the hill leading to her home, a woman wearing a red doek said, ‘‘It was important for me to be here. Mama Winnie was the Mother of the Nation. She fought for us through thick and thin,’’ she said. ‘‘No woman can stand the pain that Winnie withstood. She was strong in jail. She never had time to stay with her family or her kids but she remained strong. I wish I could be like Winnie. I wish every woman can be as strong as her.’’

Asked what she felt at that emotional moment, a younger woman standing next to the woman in a red doek quoted Madikizela-Mandela. ‘‘You strike a woman you strike a rock,’’ she said, ‘‘She was the embodiment of the strength of the African woman.’’ A young man standing behind the two women – dressed in a yellow ANC T-shirt and a black marvin and carrying a black backpack, said, ‘‘I felt like crying because uMama Winnie fought for us… today I am literally still here because of people like her… go well uMama.’’

‘‘No woman can stand the pain that Winnie withstood. She was strong in jail. She never had time to stay with her family or her kids but she remained strong. I wish I could be like Winnie. I wish every woman can be as strong as her.’’

‘‘The sad news that has led us to this moment, this moment when you see the casket of uMama Winnie Madikizela Mandela draped in the ANC flag,’’ South Africa Broadcasting Corporation’s (SABC) Aldrin Sampear reported, standing on a partly deserted street corner outside Madikizela-Mandela’s home. ‘‘Inside this house is the body of uMama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. The body that was bruised and battered. The body that said there’s no type of pain that I have never experienced. The body that spent 491 days in prison. The body that after seven days (of non-stop interrogation) was urinating blood. The body that was electrocuted. The body that made sure that body would overcome and fight for the freedom of South Africa.’’

At the poignant moment when Madikizela-Mandela’s body was being carried past her gate and into her Soweto home – with the gathered crowd ululating and shouting Amandla! once the casket entered the compound – a somber-looking American civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and members of the Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans association sang in unison the liberation dirge Hamba Kahle over and over again in line with the tradition of honouring struggle stalwarts. Hamba kahle mkhonto//Wemkhonto/Mkhonto we sizwe – safe journey spear, yes spear, spear of the nation. The spear of the nation had indeed fallen.

The ANC logo has a hand holding a spear. On the logo of the opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a hand-held spear sits across the map of Africa. When Nelson Mandela and his comrades Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo decided to launch an armed struggle against apartheid and formed a military wing of the ANC, they named it Umkhonto we Sizwe (Xhosa for spear of the nation).

It goes without saying that nothing symbolises the anti-apartheid struggle more than the spear. It increasingly appears that that spear is a woman, and that woman is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the Mother of the Nation.

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

Politics

John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief

Late president John Magafuli never was the anti-corruption saviour international media claimed.

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John Magufuli: The Death of a Denier-in-Chief
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Tanzania, a country that produced Julius Nyerere, is a country tottering on the precipice of a pandemic catastrophe. The philosopher-president ruled for 23 years and put the nation on the international map as a frontline state that stood up to Apartheid South Africa and helped liberate modern Uganda by ridding it of Idi Amin.

With the abrupt death of its populist president John Magufuli on March 17, 2021, ostensibly from a COVID-19 related ailment, Tanzania finds itself at a crossroads, insofar as tackling the devasting disease is concerned. Magufuli who was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, became the denier-in-chief of COVID-19. The disease has decimated scores of Tanzanians, including top government officials.

Magufuli was hailed as a tough anti-corruption crusader, as he entered state house in 2015. Ordinary Tanzanians initially saw him as their saviour in the fight against institutionalised state corruption. The international media also saw him as a man keen on tackling state corruption, “but Magufuli was all about optics,” said a Tanzanian journalist. “He wasn’t fighting state corruption pers se, what he was doing was to get rid of Jakaya Kikwete’s (immediate former president) networks in the government and replace with his own. So, it was just a matter of time before Tanzanians and the world realised Magufuli was just interested in musical chairs.”

Magufuli was re-elected on October 28, 2020 in one of the most controversial post-Nyerere’s Tanzania elections with a whopping 84 percent. His “true colours” revealed themselves after Benjamin Mkapa’s death in July 2020. After mourning the ex-president, Magufuli turned his attention to the business of crippling the opposition.

Magufuli was a protégé of Mkapa who served as president between 1995–2005. It was Mkapa, who in 2015, prevailed on the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM, ‘Party of the Revolution’) national executive council (NEC) to pick newcomer Magufuli as its flagbearer for what was to be a hotly contested general election in October 2015. Magufuli was then primed to run against Edward Lowassa, a CCM stalwart, who had bolted to Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA), after not clinching the CCM ticket, in which he was touted as one of the hot favourites.

The “true colours” was the ruthlessness with which Magufuli pursued the opposition in the lead-up to the presidential elections. That massive victory came in the backdrop of President Magufuli’s continuous campaigns since being inaugurated as the fifth president in 2015. “Magufuli never stopped campaigning,” said a Tanzanian journalist: “He rode on the wave of populism – dishing out money and favours to select supporters and well-choreographed individuals wherever he went.”

The 2020 Magufuli campaigns were a mirror-image of his mentor’s similar campaigns in 2000. Just like Mkapa’s mission was to presumably pulverize the nascent opposition, Magufuli’s mission 20 years later was similarly to ensure that the “irritating” opposition is no more and is, literary ran out of town. Mkapa in the October 2000 elections unleashed so much violence on the opposition that many of its supporters sought exile in neighbouring Kenya, after the elections.

Mkapa’s use of unmitigated force by Jeshi la Polisi (Tanzania has a police force, as opposed to a police service) and Field Force Unit (FFU), a paramilitary outfit much like Kenya’s dreaded General Service Unit (GSU) was unprecedented in Tanzanian politics. Just like Magufuli, it seems Mkapa’s “true colours” were revealed only after his mentor’s death the previous year on October 14, 1999. Mkapa was a protégé of the founding father Julius Kambarage Nyerere.

It was Nyerere who held Mkapa’s hand in 1995, after influencing his nomination by CCM, and single-handedly campaigned for him throughout the country. Tanzania held its first multiparty general elections in 1995, pitting CCM against a disparate opposition for the first time since its formation in 1977.

He dished out money and favours to select supporters.

Revisiting this unparalleled violence orchestrated on fellow Tanzanians, Mkapa, the former journalist-turned-diplomat-turned-president in his memoirs: My Life, My Purpose – A Tanzanian President Remembers published in January 2019, regretted the 2000 election ordeal. To some Tanzanian journalists and political analysts, Mkapa and Magufuli are today referred to as the chief advocates and perpetrators of state violence in post-independent Tanzania.

Both the presidential elections of 2000 and 2020 happened under a cloud of America’s own election problems: In 2000, it was the “Florida fiasco.” Florida was then governed by the Republican’s presidential candidate, George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush. Bush was running against the Democratic Party’s Al Gore. Jeb was allegedly accused of rigging on behalf of his elder brother.

Like the Americans say, the electoral college vote was too close to call: the vote was not only going to determine who was going to be the winner of the states’s 25 votes, but the next president after Bill Clinton. A recount was called by the Democrats and for a brief moment, the democrats believed they had taken it, only for the Republicans to also ask for their own recount. Bush won with a razor thin win vote. The democrats were not persuaded. To cut a long story short, the sunshine state’s case found itself in the supreme court, where the republican-led court declared George Bush the eventual winner.

In 2020, with both the Tanzania and US elections being held days apart, America once again came under the world spotlight after the “Pennsylvania problem”, in which President Donald Trump claimed his votes had been tampered with and paid for a recount. The MAGA Republican Party candidate was defending his seat against “sleepy Joe” a derogatory tag given by Trump to Joe Biden.

The citing of both examples here is to emphasise that America in 2000 and 2020 could not claim a moral compass to the Tanzania government’s excesses in its elections. Covering the 2000 elections, I remember in Dar es Salaam, a CCM top official telling us journalists that America could not lecture Tanzania on matters election – “they should first deal with their own election rigging in Florida, before accusing us of unleashing violence and rigging the islands’ results.”

Nyerere had always been opposed to the twin islands of Pemba and Zanzibar’s divorce with the mainland Tanganyika – a sticking sore thump between the mainland and the islands, since the republic turned to plural politics. But he never advocated state violence, instead, he sued for dialogue and persuasion.

Magufuli was determined to put the opposition in its place this time round: In a parliament of 261 members, the opposition only won seven. “By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country,” said the deceased in one of his campaign rallies.

There is not a doubt that he loathed the opposition, so much so that he warned the regional commissioners and election officials, “I don’t pay you so that you can allow opposition to win.” Tume la Uchaguzi (National Election Commission) flatly refused any presidential debates and told the opposition it could debate among itself if it so wished.

In Tanzania, CCM ni tasisi,” a local journalist reiterated to me. Literary it means the ruling party CCM is an institution. Figuratively it means, CCM is Tanzania and Tanzania is CCM. Anybody going against the “wishes of the party” would be crushed. The CCM’s propaganda machinery against the leading opposition figure Tundu Lissu of CHADEMA was geared to pulverize all his efforts of running a successful campaign. “He was being hunted down like a wild animal,” said the journalist.

Magufuli claimed Lissu was a supporter of LGBTQ and that he was a tool of the West being used to campaign for mashoga, homosexuals’ rights. Several African presidents during their re-election campaigns have turned the hot-button issue of LGBTQ, their favourite bogeyman: In the terribly conservative African societies, nothing evokes emotions of antipathy like suggesting gay-ism could be mainstreamed. Yoweri Museveni has done it, John Magufuli did it, just like Robert Mugabe did it before him.

CCM being Tanzania and Tanzania being CCM, not even the bravest of private media would dare report on the opposition or against Magufuli and CCM. “There was total blackout on the opposition by the media. All what Tanzanians could read and listen to, on politics, was on the ‘indefatigable Magu’ and his infrastructural developments,” said my Tanzanian journalist friend. Hence, Tanzania media did not report on politics – it reported on Magufuli, the person.

By the time I’m through with Tanzania, there’ll be no opposition in the country

Being heavy users of social media, Tanzanians turned to VPN – virtual private network. Found as an app in many smart phones, it protects one’s communication from snoopers like government agencies and hackers. What VPN does when activated is to bypass the conventional internet service providers (ISP) when connecting to the internet. In the case of Tanzania’s government shutting down its ISP, tech savvy Tanzanians resorted to VPN to access facebook and especially Twitter, to fend off the states’s eavesdropping.

This is the reason why Magufuli ordered all social media outlets shut, said the journalist. All what the Tanzania Communication Authority needed was a nod from Magufuli. A consumer of foreign news outlets, Tanzanians also resorted to BBC, Deutsche Welle (Sauti ya Ujerumani) and VOA, to stay informed on their country’s politics. “This is how many of them were informed and kept tabs on Lissu’s campaigns,” said the journalist.

Even after being sworn-in for the second term, President Magufuli pursued the browbeaten opposition. Chief opposition figure Lissu had to escape the country a second time. “Run or be run over, these people are not joking,” Lissu was ostensibly warned by his intelligence team. In September 2017, Lissu had survived an assassination attempt in Dodoma, that saw his vehicle sprayed with bullets by “unknown” assailants, as he left parliament for his house for lunch. On November 7, 10 days after the elections were over, he hid at the German embassy, then onwards to Brussels, where he had been recuperating for three years after treatment in Nairobi.

The former MP for Arusha Urban Godbless Lema also skipped the country and sought refuge in Kenya after claiming government people were after him. Lema, with his family was granted asylum in Canada.

Nyerere’s CCM may have operated in the one-party era during the cold war, but many Tanzanians of the post-independent generation remember those days with nostalgia. “The party was more democratic and free, unlike today,” said a former CCM mkereketwa (party diehard).

Magufuli’s populism was laced with autocratic tendencies. He told fellow Tanzanians msinijaribu mimi ni jiwe (don’t try me, I’m as tough as a rock), meaning he prided himself in being tough-headed.

“Magufuli’s CCM in the era of multiparty brooks no dissent, is dictatorial and dangerous, while Nyerere’s CCM preferred a palaver type of democracy where party issues were discussed until it arrived at a consensus,” said a University of Dar es Salaam don.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?

Assuming today’s socioeconomic crisis benefits the Left is folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision to make class the fault line of social polarisation, and for that we need to face the challenge of constructing a new party.

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South Africa: A New Politics From the Left?
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Over the last decade, the Left in a number of Western countries has undergone a historic transition from “protest to politics,” to borrow the words of the late Canadian Marxist Leo Panitch and his frequent co-author Sam Gindin. From Podemos in Spain to Sanders in the United States, a new wave of parties and electoral coalitions have emerged and made rapid gains. Despite setbacks and defeats, Panitch and Gindin’s indispensable analysis of these events in The Socialist Challenge Today, casts them in an unambiguously positive light. None of the examples they study offer formulas for resolving the vexing dilemmas facing the socialist movement in our globalised present.

But in their determination to take state power seriously they constitute an unmistakable step forward, after decades in which the Left’s confinement to episodic instances of mobilisation left the electoral field wide open to the parties of business. Part of this “new new” Left’s success stems from a willingness to shake free of its own past. Building a viable socialism of the 21st century, they argue, requires dispensing with the outmoded parts of the Leninist model, like its wager on insurrection, while retaining that which still holds value, like its internationalist spirit.

These developments hold important lessons for us on the South African Left. Just under a decade ago it seemed that we were on the verge of effecting a similar transition “from protest to politics.” During the first decade and a half of democracy, a socialist opposition had found a locus in the so-called “new” social movements—like the Anti-Privatisation Forum—which grew in reaction to various parts of the ruling African National Congress’ neoliberal agenda.

These waged a number of important defensive struggles and scored a few key victories but fundamentally did nothing to loosen capital’s grip on policymaking. By the end of the 2000s most were a spent force. It became clear to a growing segment of the Left that lasting gains would not be achieved unless social agitation were more effectively linked with efforts to seise governing power. The ability to think these more ambitious terms received a major boost when the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (NUMSA), the nation’s largest manufacturing union, appeared to redraw the political map of the country by breaking from the ANC, amidst a wave of working class militancy.

Of course for the “official” left which NUMSA represented there had never been any turn away from politics as such. But decades of compromise had bred a form of politics that had become completely unmoored from the guiding thread of class antagonism. NUMSA’s move thus constituted a kind of mirror image transition—from a back-room corporatism to a politics more grounded in the methods and spirit of “protest”. This is what imbued the “NUMSA moment” with such hope—it promised to re-connect the two sides of South Africa’s bifurcated Left, and supply the strategic elements that had been missing from each. By matching the militancy and class-independence of the social movement Left with structural and organisational might of the “official” Left, it seemed possible that a mass socialist movement could be rapidly brought into being.

That was not to be. From today’s vantage it’s impossible to regard the NUMSA moment as anything but an abject failure. The political party which eventually issued from it is the farthest cry from the unifying force that so many had hoped for. While the international left has been able to advance by breaking with its shibboleths, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP) has fallen back on a slavish appropriation of Bolshevik ideology, almost comical in its extremes.

Despite enormous resources, a large part supplied by a US-based billionaire, the party ran a dismal general election campaign in 2019 where it failed to get even a tenth of NUMSA’s own membership to vote for it (it ultimately only amassed 25 000 votes nationally, below the threshold to obtain one seat in Parliament). It’s since never recovered, joining a host of other failed socialist parties on the margins of political life. Marginality seems in turn to have degraded the internal culture of the party, which now resembles closely the Stalinism of the ANC-aligned South African Communist Party in all its worst aspects.

The floundering of the NUMSA moment is a terrible blow. But the setback inflicted on us will far greater if we fail to draw the correct lessons from it. Perhaps the most worrying outcome is that it precipitates a slide back into movementism, and shuts the window that we’ve had to execute the transition from “protest to politics.” Party politics acquired a bad name during the era of “protest” in South Africa, and many on the Left already feel that the SRWP’s example vindicated their worst suspicions.

But what the SRWP actually reveals to us is are not flaws inherent in the party-form as such, so much as the limits of a certain kind of party, one founded on a hidebound Leninism. If the Left were to abandon party building altogether there would, quite simply, be no socialist future. All visions of radical change that eschew parties and an active takeover of the state suffer from a principal defect in that they misconceive the nature of class formation—the process by which individuals become aware of their class position and begin to articulate their politics through it. This is presented as a quasi-automatic effect of the capitalist class structure.

But history offers no support for such a view. Class is impactful because it frames the options we have over so many major decisions in our lives—but not so narrowly as to make resistance to one’s employer, or the system behind him, inevitable. Indeed, the extreme vulnerability of workers under capitalism means that individualised modes of coping tend to be more commonplace than collective action. That’s why socialist consciousness has been the exception rather than the norm in the global history of capitalism, and exceedingly rare in the absence of a well-organised party. As Panitch argued with the force of a life’s work—parties make classes as much as they are made by them.

Thankfully, an outright repudiation of the party-form is not really where we are at in South Africa. The variant of movementism which took hold here, and which has revived in the aftermath of the NUMSA moment, was not really this more extreme kind, which denies the ultimate need for a party. Rather what it advocates is a downgrading of the role of party building or its deferral to some indefinite future.

What seems to be the common premise for this position is that party building can only succeed when perfectly timed to the right “objective conditions” —conditions which are only likely to form in the wake of a rupture moment defined by intensified street-level mobilisation. Only the transformation of mass consciousness brought about by such an episode of struggle can furnish the base for a party. Moreover, efforts to “impose” a party on the working class before this are liable to be rejected by its most conscious and active layers. Cut off from nourishing energy of grassroots movements, they are likely to grow in authoritarian directions. The task of socialists in the present, therefore, is devote ourselves to strengthening movements, and hope that a party may gestate from within them in some future context.

Related but distinguishable from this, is an ingrained hostility on the South African Left towards electoral politics. This view tends to draw a sharp line between the electoral arena and movements. While movements unlock popular power by sensitising their participants to their potential for collective action, elections offer no such platform for consciousness-raising. Instead, they tend to reproduce the atomisation of liberal democracy, and to fortify the myth that progress is possible within it. Moreover, movements which take the electoral road subject themselves to debilitating pressures. The logic of getting the vote tends to conflict with the logic of grassroot mobilisation, and all too often to overwhelm it.

Movementist positions contain many insights. It is wise, for example, to be attuned to the importance of ruptural breaks—the likelihood that we will ever get to a mass party simply through a molecular accretion of our ranks is slim. But the contention that movement building alone is the best way to prepare for such a rupture fails to take seriously the inherent weaknesses of social movements.

Of the numerous movements which sustained the first era of “protest” in post-Apartheid South Africa virtually none remain (barring one major exception). New ones have of course cropped up, and a tide of less organised community protests has continued unabated across the country. But these show equally little likelihood of autonomously cohering into anything bigger or more resilient.

It’s now very hard to avoid the conclusion that their failures resulted from internal rather than external factors. The model underpinning them rested on localised mobilisation around immediate demands, while actively eschewing efforts to politicise a leadership layer. Some of their more excitable proponents portrayed them as crucibles of anti-capitalism, in which the mere experience of collective decision making offered a form of political education beyond what traditional forms of Left organisation could hope to match.

But in doing so they exhibited the same fallacious thinking about class formation that informs all ventures aimed at “changing the world without taking power.” Much less a break with capitalism, it’s not clear that social movements even succeeded in getting most of their members to question their loyalty to the ANC. That left them prone to demobilisation and disorganisation when circumstances changed, when defeats where incurred or when key individuals drifted off or were co-opted.

One strategic upshot of this critique is that the trade-off between movement and party building posited by movementists is a false one. It’s likely that there is no winning formula for transforming single issue mobilisations into lasting, mass organisations without NGOifying them. But what we can do is to ensure that the small advances made by movements each time they arise are not dissipated. After all—the notion that struggle develops consciousness is not a false, what movementists get wrong is overstating the extent to which it does so organically. Virtually every movement throws up militant leaders, who stand to become tribunes for socialist politics if they can be identified, recruited and supported appropriately. This is work that a party is best suited to undertake.

But facing up to the limits of social movements should lead us to even stronger conclusions than this. It should lead us to question the overwhelming strategic significance that they have been accorded in the politics of the “independent left.” If movements are tough to sustain and to politicise, they may not be the vehicles best suited to bringing about a political rupture or ensuring that it outcome favors the Left.

Of course this was a strategic orientation that was largely foisted on us by circumstance. The stranglehold that the Tripartite Alliance (whose third member is the Congress of South African Trade Unions) exercised on organised labour and mass politics generally left little room for an alternative. But the situation has changed. The factionalisation of the ANC, the split in COSATU and the emergence of its rival, the South African Federation of Trade Unions, have created an opening for a more militant socialism to regain a foothold in organised labour. This ought to be the clear priority of socialists.

For all its infirmities, the union movement still presents a much more promising site for grounding socialist politics in a mass base. Although this may not hold for much longer, unions remain mass membership organisations with considerable resources. Most importantly, and most differently from social movements, they have access to structural power (i.e, the power to withdraw labour and shut down the economy). Here is one insight of Leninism which time has not invalidated– that our project will most likely fail unless that structural power is at its center.

If organised labour is once again to become our strategic focal point, this strengthens the case for not consigning the party to an intangible future. The synergies between party-building and organisation building are arguably stronger in the case of unions than social movements. At a fairly abstract level, one reason for this is that union building (or revitalisation) typically relies on a few individuals being prepared to take bold action out of moral conviction. Marxists have often argued something very different—that shopfloors collectivise as soon as workers wake up to their material interests. But narrow self-interest is unlikely to ever motivate someone to take the first steps towards organising their co-workers, since doing so incurs enormous risks but yields no extra benefit—the essence of the “free-rider” problem.

Thus, it’s not a coincidence that so often in history, socialists of various stripes have been significantly overrepresented among the “militant minority.” The values that draw people to the banner of socialism are often the same as those that move them to action against workplace injustices. It’s also not a coincidence that a militant minority is more likely to take shape when socialist ideas are more prominent in the public realm.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at  least broadly resembles a party. Without one we have no real means of translating strategic debates into action—of coordinating our energies towards the tasks most likely to yield long-term gains.

There’s therefore a case for not delaying in building a fighting organisation, that tries to cohere leading militants from workplace and community struggles around a socialist program. But such an organisation should do more. As soon as it has the numbers needed, it should seek to involve itself in elections. In all likelihood it would have to start at the local level, and logic would dictate that it seeks out community and social movement partners in doing so. But as quickly as possible is should seek to graduate to the national stage. South Africa’s unusually proportional representation electoral system (which was in fact designed to provide space for smaller parties), makes this a reasonable short-term goal.

Arresting the decline of South African unions, and returning them to their proud history of worker control and grassroots democracy will require a herculean organising effort. At the simplest level this is why we need an organisational vehicle that at least broadly resembles a party.

The first thing that sceptics of this strategy tend to get wrong is that they overstate, or misunderstand, the legitimacy problem facing formal political institutions. The SRWP seems to think that any worker with lingering attachments to electoral politics is suffering from “false consciousness.” But in our current circumstances, there is nothing the least bit irrational about remaining invested in the electoral arena, even while recognising the severity of its class bias. The simple reason for that, is that there is no existing social force capable of challenging state power while remaining entirely outside its institutions, nor does one show any prospect of coming into being in any foreseeable horison. Worker organisations in SA are locked a desperate defensive struggle—not preparing to set up a parallel state.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

It’s thus not surprising that despite the tremendous alienation produced by decades of neoliberalism, electoral movements in the West have been able to engineer a political realignment that was much deeper than what post-2008 movements were able to achieve on their own. Their location within the domain of mainstream politics provided both visibility but also a kind of credibility—they promised to take over the institutions in front of us, rather than replace them with ones we can’t see and can’t yet imagine. Several of these examples stood the movementist model on its head. Rather than an electoral breakthrough growing out of a period of intensified movement activity, it was the electoral arena itself that has delivered the rupture moment, the energy from which can then be filtered down to social and labour struggles.

In the process they challenged another fallacy of movementism—that the electoral arena is entirely inimical to a politics of struggle. Sanders, Corbyn, and others imbued their campaigns with a spirit of insurgency that succeeded in appealing to many otherwise turned off by politics, particularly among younger generations. Rather than sucking energy from the streets, these examples provided a renewed model of “class struggle elections” —not their own invention but one that had faded from the Left’s repertoire during the era of movementism.

Class struggle elections seek to deliberately leverage electoral campaigns, and political office itself, to bolster movements. They use every platform available to raise awareness of, and encourage solidarity with, labour and social struggles. In doing so they try to inculcate the understanding that radical policies can only be won with an inside-outside strategy, in which legislators are supported and pushed forward by powerful movements. At the same time they use campaigns as tools of organisation building.

They recruit and deploy a mass of activist to spread a socialist message, and simultaneously try to develop those activists by building political education into their activities. Done properly, this can bridge the gaps that supposedly separate movement from electoral organising, infusing the latter with a powerful sense of collectivity. That’s why so many thousands of young Americans (to pick a recent example), were politically activated through their involvement in the Sanders campaign, which became a gateway to organising in their workplaces, campuses and communities.

Note that this is completely different to the SRWP’s narrowly propagandistic approach to elections which didn’t promote social struggles so much as fantasies of revolution, whilst denouncing ‘bourgeois democracy’ as a sham and doing nothing to actually win. After a predictably disastrous outcome, the party chose to compound the embarrassment, and feed into a profoundly dangerous trend by denouncing South Africa’s independent election management body and claiming the result was rigged.

It’s not a failure of dialectical imagination that causes people to conflate politics with elections, but an appraisal of our situation that is more accurate than the one provided by the apostles of imminent revolution.

Contrast its subsequent marginalisation with the early trajectory with the Economic Freedom Fighters (now South Africa’s third-largest party), which leveraged the electoral know-how of its ex-ANCYL cadre and Malema’s media savvy to run an enormously successful first campaign. It then built on the success, steadily expanding its vote share each cycle, while using parliamentary office to bolster its national profile. Sadly it drifted off the orbit of the Left along the way. But the two diverging cases provide an obvious lesson: if elections are to be useful to us, we have to show that we are capable of succeeding in them. If we can’t, how on earth will we convince anyone that we’re capable of transforming society from its roots up?

None of this is to suggest that the concerns movementists raise about electoral politics are meritless. Its unquestionably true that electoral competition imposes its own logic, which can be ruinous if it totally subsumes the party’s strategic purview. We can trace the decline of many a worker’s party, at least proximately, to misguided efforts to capture middle-class votes by abandoning a politics of class antagonism. But all socialist strategising in our dismal conjuncture is the consideration of perilous alternatives. Far better for us to confront the dangers of succumbing to a narrow electoralism than the near certitude of permanent marginalisation should we choose to abstain from mainstream politics altogether.

The NUMSA moment may have come and gone. But the many elements of the broader conjuncture which produced it, and which seemed to augur a new direction for socialist politics, persist. The Alliance coalition is in the doldrums. Expecting its inevitable demise is of course a pastime of which we “independent leftists” should now be wary. But the material facts this time really are different. The state faces a fiscal crisis that President Cyril Ramaphosa has neither the wherewithal nor the institutional tools to escape from. His factional opponents preach a “radical economic transformation” that offers nothing whatsoever to workers.

Social strains look set to keep accumulating. But assuming that any crisis they produce will automatically redound to the Left’s benefit would be folly. That will only happen if we have the political vision and the organisational capacity to ensure that class becomes the fault line of social polarisation. And for that we need to face up to the challenge of constructing a new party.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media, but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

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Is a Plutocratic America in Terminal Decline?
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As President Joe Biden begins to get comfortable in the White House, there are those who might say that America, under a democratic system of government, has once again allowed the voice of her people to be heard, and that they have elected a new leader into office. Some might go so far as to say that the world’s most affluent democracy has once again proved that government of the people, by the people, for the people is alive and well.

But just below the surface, there are questions deserving of a deeper examination. One is how narrow the margins of victory were. For while it is true that President Biden won the highest number of votes in American electoral history, it is also true that President Trump won the second-highest number of votes in American electoral history; 10 million more people voted for President Trump in 2020 than did so in 2016. Mr Biden’s margin of victory in Georgia was 0.48 per cent, while that in Arizona was 0.63 per cent. Further, even as the Democrats belatedly won a majority in the Senate, again by the finest of margins, the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives actually narrowed. Why, if the choice was so clear, were margins so narrow?

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy – not merely because true democracy has never existed, but because even that imperfect form of democracy that characterises modern politics long perished in America. The United States today is in fact a corporatocracy; mega-corporations rule the country, a polite way of saying that that nation is now a plutocracy. This development is not really new – wealth has always, eventually, determined leadership, in America and elsewhere.

This article attempts – colossally log-in-eye, and at a distance of thousands of miles, admittedly – to furnish proof of the existence of this plutocracy; to demonstrate the effects of this plutocracy on American life and politics; and to establish whether there is any way out of the present morass.

That America is a plutocracy

A total of US$14 billion (KSh1.4 trillion) was spent on campaigns in the US this year, twice as much as in 2016. Where is this money coming from?

In 2010, the US Supreme Court handed down a decision called Citizens United that allowed unions, corporations and associations to spend unlimited amounts in elections provided they would not coordinate their efforts with a candidate. As a result, political action committees (or PACs – private organisations established to raise money in support of a candidate or an issue) morphed into Super PACs that could receive unlimited amounts of money for campaign purposes. The effect was immediate: in 2012 non-party outside spending tripled 2008’s total and topped US$1 billion for the first time. Of that amount, Super PACs spent more than US$840 million.

The regrettable truth is that the US is not a democracy.

Yet the amounts spent in 2012 pale in comparison with spending during the 2020 campaign; in October 2020 alone, outside spending by super PACs and other big-money groups totalled nearly US$1.2 billion. President Joe Biden alone raised US$1.6 billion. President Trump raised US$596 million, itself a significant haul. Given the closely fought nature of the presidential election, it would not be wrong to conclude that money helped tip the scales in favour of the new president. Nor was this true only of the presidential race; it was true across the ballot. Eighty-nine per cent of House races and 71 per cent of Senate races were won by the better financed candidate. The conclusion is clear: money – corporate money – wins American elections.

The effects of the plutocracy on American life

It is all very well and good to conclude that corporate money runs and wins American elections. The issue is what the effect of all this money is on American life. If corporate hegemony is harmless – even beneficial – arguments can be made that it should be left alone. If it is not, however, then that fact should be exposed, and reform commenced.

The American mega-corporation has achieved a number of victories (from a corporate standpoint) that have constituted assaults on the wellbeing of the American people and populace. For example, these corporations have been allowed to outsource American manufacturing jobs to China and other nations. The iPhone, signature product of America’s second largest company by market valuation (Apple), is assembled in Shenzhen. Nike began outsourcing manufacturing in the 1970s; today it has plants in Vietnam and South Korea as well as China. IBM now has more workers in India than in the US. As of April 2012, Walmart’s supply chain included some 30,000 Chinese factories, producing an estimated 70 per cent of all of the goods it sells. This trend has gone on so long that there now exists a portion of the northeastern US, formerly known as the Manufacturing/Steel/Factory Belt, that is now known as the Rust Belt, owing to industrial and economic decline occasioned by outsourcing and the automation of jobs.

Meanwhile, for those jobs that have escaped being shipped overseas, the average wage has been stagnant for 40 years. A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents. To make up for stagnant incomes, American citizens are drowning in private debt (US$14 trillion worth) including mortgages (US$9.44 trillion) and student loans (US$1.5 trillion). Indeed, absolute US household debt was higher in November 2019 than prior to/during the great recession, although the debt-to-income levels during the great recession were higher than the 2019 levels (83 per cent to 73 per cent). High house prices, supported as they are by mortgage lending, coupled with student loans, together mean that new graduates are experiencing “failure to launch”, i.e. the inability to leave one’s parents’ home and start one’s own family.

(We should pause here to note, parenthetically, that the level of any nation’s private debt, and America’s in particular, is a very important metric. The level of private debt was the key indicator that enabled Professor Steve Keen, one of the Bezemer 12, to predict the North Atlantic financial crisis of 2007-8, a prediction mainstream/neoclassical economics, quite criminally, failed to make.)

The US$14 trillion of private debt that American citizens owe is owed to the very same mega-corporation class whose wage stagnation has necessitated the need for lending (since the early 1970s, the hourly inflation-adjusted wages received by the typical worker have barely risen, growing only 0.2 per cent per year). Most unfortunately, this wage stagnation is not uniform: the ratio of CEO-to-worker earnings has soared from 21-to-1 in 1965 to 320-to-1 in 2019.

A generation has now arisen in America that will be the first in modern American history to end up poorer than their parents.

Has the American mega-corporation been censured by the political class for these excesses? Hardly. In fact, the large American corporation, while using American infrastructure, using some degree of American labour and selling to Americans, is allowed to pretend that it operates outside America, by invoicing from nations with low tax rates, such as Ireland, thereby avoiding paying federal taxes on its income. From 2009-2018, for example, Amazon paid an effective federal tax rate of 3 per cent on profits totalling US$26.5 billion. In 2018 alone, the company received a tax relief of US$129 million dollars on profits of US$11.2 billion. Such is the scale of tax avoidance by American corporations that by 2016 a staggering US$2 trillion in untaxed corporate profits was stashed outside the US, according to the New York Times. (What makes this doubly lamentable is that the Internal Revenue Service tells the American citizen in unambiguous terms that “Your worldwide income is subject to U.S. income tax, regardless of where you reside.”)

Corporations, therefore, enjoy egregious advantages. It is in order to keep them that they are so willing to fund political campaigns. In other words, corporations will do everything to avoid paying the taxes that would improve American infrastructure and healthcare (to their own benefit) but spend billions on political campaigns to inoculate themselves from losing the unfair advantages they have carved out for themselves.

The effect of the plutocracy on American politics

The shock election of President Donald Trump in 2016 can be seen as a response to the deleterious effects of corporate hegemony on the American political and economic life. Candidate Trump campaigned as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp”, even though, ironically, he was himself a self-styled billionaire who shipped jobs to China and paid very little in taxes. America was suffering economically. He claimed that the blame for this could be placed squarely on the shoulders of China and immigrants. In an illuminating two-part, three-and-a-half hour 2019 interview with PBS, key Trump campaign advisor Steve Bannon (who was arrested for fraud and then pardoned by President Trump on his last full day in office) stated that the cost of the 2008-09 bailout was loaded onto the American middle class, and that American gig economy millennials are nothing but 19th-century Russian serfs. Many may disagree with Mr Bannon’s political views, but his statement had its finger on the pulse of post-bank-bailout America. The genius of the Trump campaign was its ability to identify these pain points; to incorrectly but convincingly blame foreigners – locally (immigrants) and abroad (China) – for what were and continue to be the excesses of the plutocracy; to identify the existence of a swamp in Washington and characterise Hillary Clinton as the personification of these ills; and to ride that wave all the way to the White House. The lesson – a lesson seemingly yet unlearned by mainstream politics – is that it actually worked.

Candidates however, campaign in poetry; rulers, on the other hand, govern in prose. During Trump’s presidency Faustian bargains, in Steve Bannon’s words, were made; here again the power of the corporatocracy made itself felt. One of the early indicators of the direction and tenor a presidency will take is a president’s cabinet picks; Steven Mnuchin, yet another ex-Wall Street executive, was placed in charge of the Treasury. While President Trump did not drag the US into another war – in spite of the assassination of Iranian Major-General Qassim Soleimani – his presidency did not up-end Washington in ways meaningful to the nation’s citizenry. Readers may recall the US$2 trillion of untaxed corporate profits mentioned earlier; President Trump’s signature legislative achievement was to open new windows for tax rebates for major corporations, reducing taxes on the wealthy. This legislation resulted in the repatriation of US$777 billion in 2018, but the Federal Reserve noted that “the strongest effect of repatriation was on share buybacks” by corporate America. This particular episode is a textbook example of the plutocracy at work.

Trump does not greatly differ in this way from the way in which Candidate Obama contrasts with President Obama. Candidate Obama campaigned on Change We Can Believe In. Yet, once elected, he bailed out the banks (the abiding question on this, some wonder, is why citizens did not retain their houses if the banks’ losses were made good). Obamacare, a very significant advance in the fight for decent healthcare for Americans, did not include a public option although it could have. Nor did President Obama succeed in extricating himself from American warmongering abroad: in a particularly sad and tragic episode he helped end the Libya Gaddaffi had created. Libya under Gaddaffi was a nation that had free university education, free healthcare, no external debt and reserves of US$150 billion – all ideals that America, ironically, declares it wants but has yet to achieve despite its claim to being the richest nation in history. Allied “intervention” replaced that Libya with today’s bombed-out nation, in which incessant internecine strife went on for a decade. This in Africa, the land of Obama’s fathers. Only two years previously, at a location just two hours from Benghazi by air, the new President had given his “A New Beginning” speech in Cairo, which speech contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

In these two presidencies, we see, microcosmically, the effects of the plutocracy at work: the lofty ideals of the campaigning candidate and the searing needs of the masses, once office is assumed, are replaced by a kind of neutered, ineffective pragmatism, as far as the wellbeing of American citizens is concerned, and a sly and insidious effectiveness where corporate welfare is concerned.

The 2020 campaign

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 2020 campaign is that it took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The cost of this pandemic – in the gruesome currency of American lives – has been more than 500,000 dead Americans and counting, nearly 10 times the number of US soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, and more than the number of American lives lost in World War II.

Uniquely among developed nations, the structure of America’s healthcare system is such that very often one only has healthcare if one is employed. So that when 44 million Americans filed for unemployment during the pandemic, they lost their medical cover at precisely the time they most needed it. The pandemic therefore threw into sharp focus the critical importance of having a healthcare system that is not based upon employment.

(Nor is the state of health insurance all that is wrong with American healthcare – in several tragic articles it has been reported that American diabetics have been driving to Canada in caravans to buy insulin – some driving up to 5 hours one way. Price-gouging by pharmaceutical companies means that the drug is ten times cheaper in Canada than it is in America.)

The bipartisan response to the pandemic was to pass the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that – while it gave individuals with less than US$99,000 a year annual income a check of US$1,200 a month – also gave further tax cuts to the wealthy. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, just 43,000 individual tax filers covered by one of the Act’s provisions would see their tax liability fall by a combined US$70.3 billion in 2020 (or about US$1.7 million each). This is the America that corporatism has created.

And yet, mid-pandemic, was healthcare on the national ballot? How, when pharmaceutical and health product industries have spent a total of US$4.7 billion on lobbying the federal government, US$877 million on state candidates and committees, and US$414 million in the 20 years to 2018? Indeed, by the time he won the nomination, Joe Biden had already said he would veto a Medicare for All bill if it landed on his desk (a colossal if, it must be said), proposing a public option instead.

So what was on the ballot? Democrats, choosing to characterise Trump’s presidency as the problem, instead of seeing it as the natural consequence of the decades of wage stagnation, high healthcare costs, inordinately high levels of private debt, etc., campaigned on the platform of “restoring the soul of America”. The president’s narrow margins of victory perhaps find an explanation here: the problems Americans face were not really on the ballot. And they were not on the ballot because the corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

Is there hope?

There is an American constituency that is in broad agreement on the issues raised above: a Fox News exit poll, for example, showed that 72 per cent of Americans were at least somewhat in favour of changing to a government-run healthcare plan. Florida, a state President Trump won, voted to increase the state’s minimum wage to US$15 an hour.

However, it is unlikely that this broad constituency will be allowed to unite under the current political system. The reality is that the US is a de facto one-party state. If that party were to be honestly named, it might be named the Megacorp Party, or, slightly more genteelly, the Corporatist/Establishment Party. It has two wings: a supposedly left-leaning Democratic wing and a supposedly conservative Republican wing. Under the framework of Citizens United these two wings will continue to swap power ad infinitum. Yet, even as the presidency bounces from party to party, a president from one party will bomb Iraq; the next president, from the other party, will campaign on the platform that he never voted to go to war in Iraq, only to subsequently bomb Libya. These tragic contradictions find their resolution in the fact that this war activity happens at the behest of the military-industrial complex.

Political consultants will keep finding new, misleading ways of “framing the political argument,” creating false choices and developing narratives such as restoring the soul of the nation. Meanwhile, the money that pays them will continue to fortify itself against the needs of the people; the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer and power will remain with the wealthy.

As long as this continues, we can expect two outcomes. The first is that the issues that Americans need solved will not be solved. (We are now reading, for example, that the US$15 dollars/hour minimum wage President Biden promised (during a presidential debate), is unlikely be included in the US$1.9 trillion-dollar stimulus package President Biden intends to bring to Congress.) The second is that, as a result of the failure to resolve these issues, America will, in the words of Robert Reich, continue to produce candidatures like Donald Trump’s as far as the eye can see. The American political system does not contain within itself the mechanism to correct the current malaise. As a result, money will continue to win out: it will continue to select which issues are on the ballot, and it will continue to choose which candidates win. America’s long decline, therefore, is likely to continue.

The corporations that stump up the money to fund electoral campaigns benefit from providing privatised solutions to the problems Americans face.

We may not be aware of it yet, because of the hold the nation has on global media (the concentration of media ownership in America is yet another triumph of the plutocracy), but America’s decline appears to be terminal.

I return to the beginning – this article is written colossally log-in-eye. As a Kenyan I know we have major, pressing domestic issues to resolve. If or as we make a detour to examine the American political situation, let our contemplation resemble our use of a mirror, and let our aims be those of helping us to avoid the problems others have experienced, in order to more wisely and speedily resolve our own.

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