When the Steinhoff saga broke into the foreground of our political economy over the past couple of weeks, it was followed by a nasty stream of vitriol about white monopoly capital, and white corruption.
These responses were predictable, but no less valid.
The concept of white monopoly capital has more than a touch of truth to it.
The problem is, of course, that post-apartheid corruption and maladministration have provided successive propaganda windfalls to the white community, who would imagine that, now in government, black people were simply “acting according to type”.
To the extent that they are an homologous group, the white community tend to have a self-image of innocence and purity.
This may hark back to the idea that they, notably the Afrikaners, are Africa’s puritans, as the late W A de Klerk suggested, but also on the basis that apartheid and white domination was sufficiently far back in history that we should “stop blaming apartheid” and “move on”.
This assumption runs deep within what may be described as white consciousness.
Only the most egregious defenders of white privilege would deny that white consciousness actually exists – if only as some sort of counterweight to black consciousness.
I seem to recall the New York Times writing in 1994 that white people were emboldened by being white and that they began to wonder aloud about “the state of white consciousness after decades of racist hegemony”.
This white consciousness shapes responses to any new faces, black faces and the very presence of black people, who are automatically assumed to be inherently disreputable and ignorant of “how things work”.
And so, a black person in power is allowed only a single misstep – at least in the eyes of whites – to affirm every prejudice against black people.
It’s like the female driver who turns a corner without indicating and thereby providing absolute proof that all women are bad drivers.
The subtext of so much criticism of democratic South Africa is that “things were better during apartheid”.
This comes with attendant references to corruption and maladministration, all of which are, indeed, hallmarks of the post-apartheid era.
This seems to ignore the fact that apartheid was an inherently unjust system held together by greed, illicit activities and violence.
These were among Hennie van Vuuren’s research findings published earlier this year in his book, Apartheid Guns and Money: A Tale of Profit.
You see, when a black person (or a woman) does something wrong it is because, well, they are black or female.
When a white person does something wrong it is an “error” or, as Hansie Cronje reminded us some time in 2000, the devil has a nasty habit of interfering with the good nature and eternal decency of white people.
And so, Jacob Zuma is believed to be inherently corrupt (I am not saying he is not), but while Markus Jooste, the chief executive of Steinhoff, made “mistakes” that led to almost complete meltdown of his company, he remains a “boykie”, a “nice guy” who steered away from controversy and who is “down-to-earth and well-liked”.
In some ways the Steinhoff saga has been a long time coming. How do we understand it?
Well, one trope may refer to the inherent instability of capitalist markets, with glib responses about “bad decisions” that “markets will punish”.
This seems to preclude human foibles, like greed or that deeply embedded privilege that emboldens reckless behaviour.
Another would be that Jooste had simply been a “bad boy” who needed a time-out, or be sent to his room without his smartphone or tablet.
But there are two other perspectives, to which I alluded above.
A more critical historical reading of the Steinhoff saga may reflect on the political settlement of the early 1990s and what the Italians refer to as transformismo. This is a system of “gentlemen’s agreements” and mutual favours that secured business and landownership of a previous order and remained intact in a new era.
Transformismo, in the South African sense, made sure that “like-minded” people neutralised, co-opted or sidelined more radical groups to ensure continuity and stability.
If stability can be considered positive (I certainly do, but at what cost?), we may remind ourselves that the apartheid state left what has been described as “a very usable blueprint” for state capture.
At a discussion on state capture hosted by the Centre for Constitutional Rights and the School of Public Leadership, investigative journalist and author Pieter-Louis Myburgh said the antecedents of state capture were “certainly present” before 1994.
With reference to Van Vuuren’s findings, Myburgh said: “We shouldn’t kid ourselves that the advent of corruption is one that only occurred with the rise to power of the ANC-led government.”
The type of power and privilege that Jooste has enjoyed is evident across institutions in South Africa, and will remain in place partly because of transformismo, but also because of a lack of courage to actually do something proactive about its pervasiveness.
V S Naipaul’s mimic women and men, now in post-colonial positions of power, are more concerned about their personal image and pecuniary gain than they are with justice.
If any good can come of the Steinhoff saga, it would have to be that white people accept that they can be as corrupt as everyone else – and are, therefore, all too human.
We can only hope the Steinhoff saga does not feed the hounds of populism as we enter an epoch-defining few days in South Africa.