There's a new buoyancy in certain circles following Jacob Zuma's announcement of an impressive programme of infrastructural development. In a country that has seemed to be drifting rather aimlessly in the icy waters of the global economy, it's no surprise that a more decisive posture from the President, backed up with lots of concrete plans, is animating renewed optimism.
And in a moment in which the wheel of history is steadily bringing down the influence of the old imperial powers as it elevates India, China and Brazil there is a scent of real possibility for some in the African air. Luanda is becoming a city of Angolan millionaires and Portuguese professionals looking for work. Fortunes, incredible fortunes, are being made in the apparently endless disaster of the Congo. In South Africa, the World Cup has marked the landscape of our cities with futuristic and monumental promises of the modern Africa that can be conjured out of the devastation of the past. Increasingly voices amidst both our political and corporate elites are suggesting that we look to India and China to find our own way forward.
Ever since the revolution of the Haitian slaves in 1804 every collective political attempt at African assertion of an equal place in the modern world has been encircled and contained, and undone from without and from within. But now, in a striking reversal of Kwame Nkrumah's dictum to 'Seek ye first the political kingdom and all else shall be added onto you', it seems inevitable that the economic undoing of Western dominance from the great economies across the global South must eventually lead to its political undoing. It would be no small thing if African elites could, on the back of growing economic power rooted in natural resources and expanding domestic markets, take a decent seat at the table of the new world order that, while its form is unclear, is certainly on the way.
Wealth is a form of power and it is a form of power that has, as a result of a history of violence and domination, been held in particular hands. Just as the accumulation of black wealth, even if only on the part of a minority, inevitably takes on an anti-racist dimension in South Africa where whiteness and wealth became intertwined during colonialism and apartheid, the rush to accumulate in Bombay and Beijing inevitably takes on a dimension that sets Indian and Chinese power against that of the old world order with its roots in colonial domination. The growing excitement that travels the same circuits as the new fortunes in the global South is not just fuelled by the pursuit of money as an end in-itself. It's also about the end of some forms of collective subordination, insult and contempt.
But in India and China the means towards the economic defeat of neo-colonial arrangements, a process that has lifted millions into the middle class, is a kind of internal colonialism. People are being forced off their land, thrown out of the cities, subject to the most gross exploitation in mines and factories and politically repressed at a scale and intensity that rivals some of the horrors of colonialism itself. They are doing to their own people what the English elites first did to their own people and then to the colonised at the dawn of capitalism. This has not been uncontested. Large swathes of India are under the control of armed rebels and the state is waging a war against a considerable proportion of the people it claims to represent. In China, ferocious repression has not stopped riots and strikes and the sometimes-insurrectionary mobilisation of whole villages against an economic model that smashes everything in its path as it impoverishes some and enriches others.
Those who would argue that in the hard world of realpolitik it is only money and military strength that really talk can show that elsewhere in the world more democratic and inclusive attempts to undo the domination of the World Bank, the US military, rapacious global corporations, their local political partners and the other powers of the old system of domination have not always fared well.
The tenacious popular struggle in Haiti has been ruthlessly suppressed by the same contemptuous disregard for the Haitian people to decide their own future that has long marked the orientation of North America and Western Europe towards the old colonies. The extraordinary political vision and courage gathered into Tahrir Square and honed into a movement that could depose a grotesque American backed dictator has rapidly, although of course neither entirely nor decisively, been absorbed into a system of global domination that is, as we in South Africa know very well, able to accommodate limited democratisation in the client states on its periphery.
But across Latin America there have been, for some time now, a set of innovative political experiments in and outside of states. The gains of these Latin American experiments have often been quite modest and in some cases have functioned to, as happened to some degree after apartheid, entrench rather than to oppose exploitative and exclusionary economic practices by offering them a new sense of legitimacy. New elites have sometimes actively sought to stake their claim within these practices. But a break with the IMF, a refusal to accept a new base for the US military and a reversal of water privatisation along with declining inequality, some land reform, important steps towards more participatory budgeting and policy making, the development of transport systems organised with more concern for people's needs than private profit and direct action by movements of peasants and shack dwellers have enabled some real shifts in power relations within some countries and between these countries and the West.
And whatever the limits of the governments that have come to power on the strength of popular mobilisation in Latin America in recent years, they are vastly less political and economically brutal than the regimes in India and China. In many Latin America countries there are routes, often constructed from below as much as opened up from above, towards political participation by the organised poor that are simply unthinkable in India or China.
In a 1972 interview with Gail Gerhart that has become quite famous in recent years, Steve Biko warned that it would be possible to create a “capitalist black society, [a] black middle class,” and to “succeed in putting across to the world a pretty convincing, integrated picture, with still 70 percent of the population being underdogs”. If we can successfully follow aspects of the Chinese or Indian model we will be able to produce elites that can be integrated into the global elite. But this would hardly be the society with 'a more human face' that Biko had not just called for in South Africa but also suggested as the basis for our post-apartheid engagement with the rest of the world - a basis that was, in his view, of more value than industrial and military strength.
The range of political experiments that have been undertaken in Latin America in recent years, some of which are facing a degree of crisis as internal contradictions become evident and popular movements and governments part ways, offer us no firm blue prints for a better future. What they do show though is that it's not only money and military power that count in this world. Popular mobilisation can transform societies from below and it can strengthen states against private and imperial interests. But for as long as the ANC continues to believe that it alone represents the people, that popular organisation outside of its control is politically illegitimate, if not treasonous or criminal, and that it must always lead from above, the ruthless nexus between corporate and political power in Beijing and New Delhi will offer far more attractive alliances than the political innovation in the government offices in La Plaz or Quito, the barrios of Caracas or the land occupations in rural Brazil.
In a recent essay, Achille Mbembe argues that “the human has consistently taken on the form of waste within the peculiar trajectory race and capitalism espoused in South Africa” and that “for the democratic project to have any future at all, it should necessarily take the form of a conscious attempt to retrieve life and 'the human' from a history of waste.” This takes us to the heart of the choices that confront us as we chart a course into the new world.
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* Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.
* This article was first published by the South African Civil Society Information Service.
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