Oligarchic dialectics: Power elites in contemporary South Africa

Community based environmental groups sued the South African government over coal pollution in 2021/CREDIT: Julia Evans/GroundUp
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How is it that, despite a long history of anticolonial struggle, South Africa has been so hospitable to oligarchic rule? The loosening of formal colonial control in the early twentieth century tightened white minority rule, while the advent popular democracy in 1994 enriched a select number of well-connected ANC politicians and consigned the black majority to griding poverty. In my recent article, “Entangled oligarchies: structure, agency and rent seeking in South Africa”, I explore this question and look at what the answers mean for the country as it enters an important election year.     

The formation and evolution of oligarchic elites has, in fact, paralleled mass movements for majority rule. By oligarchic elites, I mean small groups of people who stand atop and dominate the politico-economic systems of their respective countries due to the vast material wealth they possess. In effect, oligarchs deploy wealth to defend wealth by utilizing capital to architect public policies that advance their private interests. To understand South African politics, we must understand the pathways to oligarchy taken by distinct sociocultural groupings and how distinct oligarchic factions relate to each other over time.

The role of power elites

Historicized discussions of Euro-American power elites typically parse processes of elite consolidation at a national level. Sectional elites shaped by regional interests gradually melded together into more cohesive ruling classes as members passed through schools, institutions, and social circles committed to homogenizing bureaucratic procedures, administrative hierarchies, and economic interests.

Protracted geopolitical struggles against foreign rivals also precipitated elite fusion by projecting internal tensions outward. While elements of established elite theory apply to certain oligarchic groupings in South Africa, particularly during the late apartheid era, further theorizations are necessary to gain a better understanding of its oligarchic interactions.

At base, all South African power elites achieved oligarchic status through varieties of rent seeking. Rent seeking is defined as the use of political power to generate profits. Political economies are deliberately manipulated in ways that divert wealth to select entrepreneurs, corporations, and administrative managers. Rent seeking generally entails substantial extra-economic coercion and politically motivated favoritism.

Police power is mobilized to guarantee regular supplies of cheap and compliant labor. Administrative officials distribute government tenders in exchange for bribes and access to high value commodities that are siphoned off into illicit commercial networks. In addition, politicians legislate tax breaks and deregulation in exchange for campaign contributions and votes.

Yet, once an individual or group achieves oligarchic status, they interact with their peers in a dialectic manner. Marxian dialectic theory is usually applied to class conflicts, but it can be deployed to describe tensions and contradictions between different oligarchic factions as well. Each faction possesses independent access to scarce resources, be it capital or legislative powers, that are deployed to defend and advance private accumulation.

Elite tensions

It is my contention that dialectical tensions within South Africa’s power elite largely drive and determine national politics. Current discourses on ‘state capture’, whereby unscrupulous entrepreneurs purchase services from political elites, are nothing new. State capture is only the latest manifestation of a phenomenon deeply rooted in South Africa’s historical development.

Moreover, the consolidation of each respective oligarchic grouping has resulted in widespread socioeconomic exclusion, triggering chronic social unrest. Racial oligarchies fostered under colonialism and apartheid bred extensive resistance, just as 2012’s Marikana massacre and the 2021 riots in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng were products of ANC oligarchy formation. Corporate profits premised on artificially repressed wages made such an outcome difficult to avoid.

Oligarchs have met these challenges either by calling on the coercive power of the state to suppress resistance or by coopting the leadership of popular movements. Incumbent oligarchs capture ostensibly anti-oligarchic leaders by allowing the latter to become oligarchs themselves.

After 1994, this resulted in open-ended commitments by established white economic elites. Upon achieving oligarchic status, black newcomers with independent access to political resources have been continuously placated by white incumbents because those incumbents wish to maintain their economic privileges. Capture is a structure, not an event.            

The past of the present

This structure has a deep history. In the late nineteenth century, white mining magnates injected their wealth into political processes to facilitate exclusive accumulation of material assets. When not assuming elected office themselves, they mobilized political clients to pursue their concerns. After union in 1910, Anglophone economic elites purchased the protection of discontented Afrikaner political elites through selective asset transfers and reliance on parastatal provision of energy and transport services. Afrikaner elites, in turn, relied on state favor to amass private wealth and slowly melded into the incumbent Anglophone economic elite.

This amalgamated oligarchy turned against the apartheid system in the 1980s, when it became clear the National Party could no longer protect their assets and investments from revolutionary movements. Oligarchs shifted their wealth defense strategy away from bolstering white minority rule and toward coopting black nationalist elites. To stave off revolution, revolutionary leaders had to be endowed with private wealth via rapid asset transfers and entry into corporate boardrooms.

This strategy has thus far prevented mass expropriation of private wealth, but there are few signs of multiracial oligarchic amalgamation. Rather, South Africa’s black ruling elites use politics to accumulate wealth, while white economic elites selectively distribute wealth to preclude revolutionary change. The result is a disjointed oligarchy entangled by mutual dependence. ANC politicians rely on capitalists for enrichment and capitalists bankroll ANC leaders to defend private wealth.

A contradictory state

This highly contradictory politico-economic formation makes for an incoherent power elite that has failed to deliver either rapid or inclusive economic growth. Corporations remain wary of making large-scale investments within South Africa for fear that their capital might yet be expropriated by ANC factions committed to radical economic transformation. Consequently, corporate executives prefer to divert profits into more secure first world stock markets.

In contrast, senior ANC officials prefer consumption to investment and finances inflated public sector salaries and government procurements by taxing productive industries. Without a fundamental restructuring of its political economy, South Africa will remain mired in cycles of low growth and exclusive accumulation. Inclusive development requires political parties committed to progressive, rather than oligarchic, constituencies.

South Africa’s forthcoming general elections do not bode well for a turn toward progressivism. Should the ANC lose its majority, politics will focus on a recalibration, rather than a rejection, of oligarchic interests.

Mesrob Vartavarian obtained a PhD in History from the University of Cambridge and has taught history and international relations at Harvard and Tufts. His publications have appeared in Africa and the Journal of Southern African Studies. He is currently writing a book on wealth concentration in South Africa for Ohio University Press.    

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