Jacob Zuma’s departure from the South African presidency on February 14, after nearly nine years in power, has contradictory geopolitical implications. The emergence of an alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa in 2010 was his main legacy, he believed: BRICS offered enormous potential to challenge exploitative Western hegemony.
The reality, however, has been disappointing, especially in the most unequal and troubled of the five countries, South Africa, where Moscow-trained leadership expertly talked left… but walked right. After Zuma, more extreme fiscal austerity and a return to mining-centric accumulation under Cyril Ramaphosa will amplify the misery locally – while likely leaving South Africa’s commitment to the BRICS project in the doldrums.
Jacob Zuma’s fall was due to a balance tipping in recent weeks. On the one hand, we saw patronage-based support within his African National Congress (ANC) leadership, mainly as a result of large-scale corruption paid for by a fast-rising public debt (from 28 to 50 percent of GDP since 2009). On the other, the resulting threat to ANC electoral prospects in 2019 came from the often farcical way Zuma fused dubious personal ethics, an ethnic traditionalism founded on patriarchy, and capital accumulation via criminal syndicates. The ANC’s leadership narrowly voted in Cyril Ramaphosa (against Nkozasana Dlamini-Zuma, who had last served as African Union commissioner and was considered loyal to her ex-husband) with the hope he can restore the party’s prestige, won in the ANC’s 1912-1994 era as a liberation movement and then during the 1994-99 presidency of Nelson Mandela.
Yet Ramaphosa is himself also guilty of sustained corporate tax-dodging during his leadership of Lonmin’s platinum mines and the continent’s largest cellphone company (MTN). Also contributing to his riches were his controversial Shanduka coal mining house and the local McDonald’s and Coca Cola franchises – all of which were divested by 2016 when his estimated wealth of £500 million was placed in a blind trust.
Now Ramaphosa has little more than a 15 month window in which to erase the electorate’s visceral memory of the so-called ‘Zupta’ circuits that – along with Ramaphosa-aligned ‘White Monopoly Capital’ – so malevolently influenced the South African state over at least the past decade. The Zupta nickname fuses Zuma’s family and cronies, operating under the direction of three vulgar-rich brothers, the Gutpas. The latter ‘state capture’ strategy began in the early 2000s but only came to the citizenry’s attention during a luxurious Gupta family wedding in 2013 which notoriously violated immigration and airport security regulations for Indian guests. Moreover, to pay the £2 million bill, the Guptas and their allies – apparently including the new ANC secretary general, Ace Magashule – raided an agricultural support fund meant for black farmers in the Free State province, whose official leader is still Magashule. (In the ballot last December, Magashule barely beat Ramaphosa’s running mate, but his fate rests on the extent of prosecution of the Guptas and whether testimony emerges as to his involvement in raiding provincial coffers on their behalf.)
Nearly £900 million per year was lost to Zupta looting, reckons former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, particularly via the big energy and transport parastatals. To be sure, however, that is a small fraction of the £13.5 billion lost annually to overcharging on state procurement contracts by what is the world’s most corrupt business elite, as ranked by PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the Johannesburg, Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Durban circuits of White Monopoly Capital, PwC reports that “eight out of ten senior managers commit economic crime,” especially procurement fraud, money-laundering, asset misappropriation and bribery.
Upon winning the ANC leadership last December, when Ramaphosa defeated former African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (an ex-wife of Jacob), the new leader graciously thanked his predecessor. Only two legacies were mentioned: promoting the 2012 National Development Plan (NDP), and providing four million South Africans with free AIDS medicines. The latter accomplishment did indeed raise life expectancy by 12 years from the early 2000s trough of 52. But the Treatment Action Campaign’s world-historic battle against Big Pharmacorp profiteering and former president Thabo Mbeki’s AIDS denialism had already been won largely without Zuma’s visible assistance back in 2004, long before he assumed the presidency in 2009.
Ramaphosa himself will proudly enforce the NDP in coming years, as he was its co-author. Lacking climate-change consciousness, the plan’s top priority infrastructure commitment is a £50 billion rail line, mainly to export 18 billion tons of coal, entailing 50 major projects of which 14 have already begun. The rail agency, Transnet, has a £4 billion credit from China to finance Chinese-made locomotives that are sufficiently strong to carry 3 kilometre-long coal trains, though Zupta corruption is already a major problem with the acquisitions.
A wicked combination of patronage politics and neoliberalism is likely to continue, given that on February 26, Ramaphosa announced a new cabinet that includes the return of two former finance ministers celebrated by the financial markets – Nhlanhla Nene and Pravin Gordhan – and a deputy president, David Mabuza, who ran the eastern Mpumalanga province since 2009.
Mabuza’s predecessor in that job, Mathews Phosa – also a former ANC national treasurer – was scathing about his reputation as a corrupt thug: “He’s engulfed in this cloud of scandals and let me tell you it’s going to follow him where he is today… People fear him. They talk about the killings in the province, when they talk about them, they link them with him… I don’t think the ANC will win the 2019 elections.”
The leader of the new SA Federation of Trade Unions (second largest after the ANC-supporting Congress of SA Trade Unions), Zwelinzima Vavi, was just as critical of the new ministers: “Ramaphosa’s appointment has changed nothing. He has reshuffled names but remains rooted in the corrupt and pro-business ANC led by his predecessor. In particular it is incredible that he has appointed a deputy president, and therefore potential president, who has for years been implicated in of some of the most serious crimes when Premier of Mpumalanga. These crimes included alleged bribery in the awarding of contracts for World Cup facilities, threatening and spying on journalists and drawing up a hit-list of political opponents, of whom at least 15 were assassinated while no-one was arrested for any of these murders.”
However on the positive side, Ramaphosa fired Zuma’s closest cabinet ally – energy minister David Mahlobo – and as a result, Pretoria’s attempted £100 billion purchase of eight nuclear energy reactors from Rosatom is now highly unlikely. This is largely due to Pretoria’s worsening debt crisis, so that really leaves just one accomplishment as Zuma’s legacy: annual networking with leaders in Beijing, Brasilia, Delhi and Moscow.
Conventional wisdom, as expressed by foreign policy scholar Oscar van Heerden late last year, is that Zuma “ensured our ascendency into the BRICS Geo-Strategic grouping, made up of Brazil, Russia, India and China: the emerging economies in the world. This is important because in the pursuit of a more equitable and fairer world order, this grouping provides a counterweight to the dominant Western powers. BRICS provides access to better trade relations as well as better global security arrangements.” Zuma has also articulated this pride, in part through his avatar, the politician-businessman Gayton McKenzie who authored a Fire and Fury-type tell-all: Kill Zuma by Any Means Necessary.
But both conventional wisdom and Zuma apologists need a reality check: in spite of repeated rhetorical gestures from Pretoria to the contrary, the BRICS have amplified unfair and inequitable world order processes. While three of the BRICS played host to the corruption-riddled FIFA World Cup from 2010-18 – which is the most glaringly obvious, albeit superficial case of sub-imperial assimilation into (Sepp Blatter’s football) imperialism – just as revealing is the BRICS ‘ pursuit of global governance ‘reforms’:
BRICS leaders were vital allies of the West in each of these recent sites of global malgovernance. However, short-term deals that benefit their neoliberal, pollution-intensive corporations and parastatal agencies do come at a difficult time. The allegedly ‘better trade arrangements’ that van Heerden identifies in the BRICS era, in reality, accompanied a major relative decline in trade measured in relation to GDP.
Although 2017 provided higher trade volumes, from 2008-16 global trade/GDP declined slightly, from 61% to 58%. It was the BRICS which led the slide: China’s trade/GDP rate fell from 53% to 36%; India’s from 53% to 40%; South Africa’s from 73% to 60%; Russia’s from 53% to 45%; and Brazil’s from 28% to 25%. In the first two BRICS, the crash was a function of rebalancing through higher domestic consumption rather than export-led growth. But declining trade shares for South Africa, Russia and Brazil reflect peaking commodity prices just before the global financial meltdown that year, followed by subsequent recessions. Since early 2016, a rise in commodity prices boosted extractive-dependent countries, even pulling Brazil, Russia and South Africa out of recessions, But the renewed world economic volatility of 2018 – e.g. trillions of dollars evaporating from stock markets practically overnight earlier this month – threatens a return to extreme vulnerability for primary commodities, as witnessed in the wild price swings of 2007-15.
Ironically, regarding the supposedly ‘better global security arrangements,’ the world is much more dangerous since the BRICS took their present form in 2010: in Syria and the Gulf States, Ukraine and Poland, the Korean Peninsula, the Sahel and Horn of Africa, and the South China Sea. Even the Chinese-Indian border is rife with confrontations, as fighting between the two giants nearly derailed the mid-2017 BRICS annual summit. Narendra Modi’s boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative summit last May was due to Beijing’s mega-project trespassing on what New Delhi considers its own Kashmir land, now held by Pakistan. For Xi it is the crucial turf linking western China to the Arabian Sea’s Gwadar port.
As a geopolitical bloc, the BRICS’ public security interventions have occurred strictly within the context of the G20. First, in September 2013, the BRICS prevented Barack Obama from bombing Syria using pressure at the larger group’s St Petersburg summit. Second, six months later in Amsterdam, the BRICS supported the Russian invasion (or ‘liberation’) of Crimea once the West made threats to expel Moscow from the G20 – just as the U.S. and Europe had thrown Vladimir Putin out of the G8, now G7. However, when Donald Trump came to last July’s G20 summit in Hamburg, the BRICS leaders were extremely polite notwithstanding widespread calls to introduce anti-U.S. sanctions due to Trump’s withdrawal from global climate commitments just a month earlier.
Fortunately, military and political security in the Southern African region has improved from prior eras. More than two million people were killed by white regimes and their proxies in the frontline anti-colonial and anti-apartheid struggles during the 1970s-80s, especially in Mozambique and Angola. More millions died in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) during the early 2000s’ period of extreme resource extraction. The two recent armed interventions by Pretoria in the region were to join United Nations peacekeeping troops in the DRC (2013-present) and aid the beleaguered authoritarian regime in the Central African Republic (2006-13). These are considered sub-imperialist political-military failures insofar as violence continues in both sites. In the latter’s capital city Bangui, more than a dozen of Pretoria’s troops were killed in March 2013 defending Johannesburg firms pursuing lucrative contracts, just days before the BRICS’ “Gateway to Africa” summit in Durban, South Africa.
As for local security, major upsurges of protest against injustice in each BRICS country have been met with crackdowns and extreme surveillance. The worst moment in South Africa was August 16, 2012, when three dozen mineworkers were massacred by police. They were “acting pointedly” at the explicit request (by email the day before) of the main local shareholder of the Lonmin platinum mining company, who demanded “concomitant action” against the “dastardly criminals” – i.e., 4000 mineworkers on a wildcat strike over miserable pay and living conditions. That shareholder was Cyril Ramaphosa.
Ramaphosa’s 2017 apology for the email phrasing was dismissed by victims’ families as posturing, not genuine. His legally-binding commitment – as board head of Lonmin’s Transformation Committee in 2010-13 – to build 5500 houses for mineworkers was never met; during his reign only three were built, leaving the shack settlements of Wonderkop and Nkaneng without basic sanitation and electricity notwithstanding vast pylons overhead providing power to the platinum smelter a few hundred meters away.
His excuse was alleged financial shortfalls after the 2008 world economic meltdown, yet the World Bank game him a $100 million loan for that purpose. Ramaphosa instead chose to use company funds to purchase $100 million worth of marketing services in Bermuda, via his Shanduka firm’s control of Lonmin’s main Black Empowerment partner, a firm that, in the words of Lonmin’s lawyer, “for very many years refused to agree to the new structure” to halt the Bermuda tax dodge – just as he utilised tax havens for his other firms.
Most conventional wisdom about the BRICS’ anti-Western agenda remains dubious. And even at the level of personal security, several leading South African politicians are worried. Zuma himself regularly claimed his near death from the toxic compound ricin in 2014, before rapidly acquiring treatment over two weeks in Russia, was BRICS related. Last August, he told his rural home constituency ANC members in KwaZulu-Natal (the site of scores of political assassinations), “I was poisoned and almost died just because South Africa joined BRICS under my leadership.” Zuma repeated the allegation three months later in a national television interview, implying a Western plot. In the days before he was fired, his family regurgitated the notion that ‘the West’ was responsible for his fall.
Is Ramaphosa the antidote to Zuma’s gaming of his BRICS accomplishments? Yes, according to the BRICS Post, whose South African correspondent called for an immediate leadership replacement. The South Africa chapter of the BRICS Business Council, led by local newspaper magnate Iqbal Survé, offered surprising cynical headlines after Zuma’s speech to the ANC congress in December: “Vintage Zuma delivers a vengeful swansong, devoid of any responsibility” and “Ramaphosa prepares to confront South Africa’s bleak future.” Such headlines joined the cacophony of business and civil society complaints about Zuma which, along with a rapid power shift within the ANC, led to his ouster.
The BRICS also became a factor in domestic politics, for just hours before he left office on February 14, Zuma told the national broadcaster, “When the summit comes, the BRICS, I should be in a position to introduce to you (Ramaphosa) to other leaders to say this is the comrade who is taking over from me. So also to remove the perception out there that Zuma is being elbowed out.” And according to Zuma, his successor “agreed. He said this is a good proposal. We all agreed.” The double-cross on that agreement came a few days later.
The collective sigh of relief that came from most quarters of South African society – mostly from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie – is tempered on the left by a terrible knowledge: of Ramaphosa’s commitment to extreme mining. It’s quite possible that – even though he has looked to Western corporate power and wealthy South African whites for his funding flows and franchising opportunities to date – Ramaphosa will also turn to new BRICS allies, especially if he winds up with more dirty responsibilities such as imposing fiscal austerity.
More likely, though, is that after reluctantly hosting the BRICS summit in Sandton, he will simply give it a half-hearted, tokenistic nod. And this is the way Ramaphosa will very likely govern within South Africa too: going with the flow so as to not upset the capitalist cart. In a country with the world’s worst inequality, it’s a different but not unrelated kind of persistent poisoning.