Beneath Mashaba’s ‘centrism’ lurks the reactionary

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In the launch manifesto of his new political party, ActionSA, Herman Mashaba says he will use “the values of success he learnt in business… to change the face of South African politics”.  

The former mayor of Johannesburg’s entire political brand is built on his financial accomplishments as the founder of Black Like Me hair care products. Born in 1959, his family experienced the material deprivation and relentless indignities imposed on Black people by apartheid.  

Despite these personal adversities, he used his entrepreneurial bent to establish his company in the mid-1980s. With the key support of people, like his spouse Connie, he had by 2015 accumulated a R100 million fortune.

Mashaba ideologically defines himself as a libertarian, and attributes much of his political education to the Free Market Foundation, a Gauteng-based right-wing think tank.

The author of a book called Capitalist Crusader, Mashaba believes that business and corporations should be subjected to minimal political and legal regulation, and that extensive privatisation and deregulation is the best route to socio-economic prosperity.

As with libertarian thinkers like Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, Mashaba views the free market in highly romanticised terms. To his mind, government is the ultimate cause of all corruption and oppression in the world. By contrast, captains of industry like himself are heroic figures who selflessly make huge profits which trickle down to benefit society as a whole.

In his book, Mashaba argues that his personal “rags to riches” tale validates capitalism – if he can make it, anyone can! 

And, to him, anti-capitalist sentiment is motivated by leftist resentment of the successful and entrepreneurially minded, rather than a desire for justice and social liberation.

Xenophobic mayor

In 2016, Mashaba won the mayoral election for Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub. Running as a member of the DA, he spoke of reversing political maladministration and broken basic services, while also explicitly positioning himself as a friend to the city’s impoverished majority.

In office, he adopted the demagogic style of Donald Trump, whom he publicly admires. He railed against migrants and routinely blamed undocumented migrants for crimes, disease and dysfunctional services.  

Alongside his vicious and unrepentant xenophobia, Mashaba also escalated existing policies such as violent military-style police raids and evictions across the city.  

Despite his professed respect for civil liberties and personal freedom, he was quick to embrace authoritarian tactics that steamrolled over people’s constitutional rights. And in contrast to his anti-corruption crusader public image, he was also accused of conflicts of interest and making irregular appointments. 

Mashaba dramatically left office in 2019, amid a highly publicised internal DA fight over racial representation. Despite his bluster about running Johannesburg like a well-managed business, his mayoral legacy left little to be admired. Having failed to improve on areas such as provision of basic services and street crime, his main public legacy seems to have been in amplifying and normalising public xenophobia. It is a legacy that will likely contribute to further street violence against African and Asian migrants in the future.

ActionSA 

With the launch of ActionSA, Mashaba is now promoting himself as a national political figure. The party is explicitly built around him as its leading personality, with its webpage even opening with a fawning video about his life and wonderful achievements. 

The party’s online manifesto is sensitive to the valid accusations of xenophobia, and tries to present Mashaba as a man of goodwill to all, claiming to support legal immigration and “humane repatriation” of undocumented migrants. And yet, simultaneously, it claims that up to “10% of all people living in South Africa are undocumented foreign nationals”. This is a wildly inaccurate claim.

The manifesto adopts a right-wing populist stance, which starkly contrasts “decent” and “hardworking” South Africans against illegal and thieving immigrants, crooked civil servants and welfare scroungers who are pinned as the cause of social ills.

But, it also employs progressive terms like “social justice” to argue for conservative goals, consistently arguing that rapidly liberalising the economy and privatising state services is the magic bullet to deal with the problems of racialised inequality and mass unemployment.

Mashaba, of course, frames himself as a figure of national renewal trying to awaken South Africa’s latent greatness. In an echo of Trump’s 2017 inaugural speech, which grimly detailed “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”, he regularly talks about the decline of South Africa’s own manufacturing capacity.  

Pointing to the many undeniable failures of the ruling ANC and the public sector in general, ActionSA claims it will create a professional and effective civil service to facilitate a “competitive, market-based economy, with minimal government interference”.  

Mashaba believes that South Africa should be open for business to foreign capital and wealthy immigrants, promising major incentives for investment. However, the free movement of capital and highly skilled labour would be combined with rigid surveillance and control over the impoverished and undocumented. 

While the ActionSA manifesto spouts platitudes about respecting human rights, both Mashaba’s own history of personal demagoguery and its choice of images send a far harsher message. Its webpage on immigration notably uses a picture of razor wire set against a relentless scorching sun. What this shows is that he imagines a fortified South Africa that will be no haven for outsiders.

In many ways, however, the ActionSA manifesto does not radically deviate from established post-apartheid political culture. Despite adopting publicly progressive stances, the ruling ANC has continued to adopt policies of austerity and commodification of basic services. And while Mashaba’s xenophobia and law and order rhetoric is especially crass, it is echoed throughout the government and mass media.

The manifesto also uses sophisticated-seeming language to disguise its disconcerting undercurrents. Unlike his former cohorts in the Free Market Foundation and the DA, it acknowledges the reality of racialised inequality in South Africa. In stark contrast to the white identity politics which are increasingly embraced by the DA, Mashaba and his supporters have presented this new formulation as a “centrist and liberal” home for all South African citizens. 

The ideology of ActionSA combines neoliberal orthodoxy and technocratic clichés with a persistent theme of xenophobic paranoia. The implicit, perversely aspirational argument it makes is that if only South Africa can get rid of undocumented immigrants and domestic criminals, then citizens can have a shot at being the next tycoon like Herman Mashaba. It uses a majoritarian language which pitches “the people” against a parasitic political elite, while espousing economic policies which, in practice, would overwhelmingly benefit transnational capital and the super-rich.

Plutocrats and popular xenophobia

Mashaba’s politics have a broader overlap with a growing, international moment of right-wing authoritarianism. In the US and UK, for example, Brexit and the election of Trump showed an alliance between the interests of the billionaire class, popular racism and xeno-nationalist anger, fighting for what Richard Seymour has called “post-liberal globalisation”. 

This accepts the centrality of global trade and capital flows, but seeks to maintain this within a rigid, nationalist framework which is extremely hostile to migration, cosmopolitanism and cultural progressivism.

Right-wing populism combines a laissez-faire domestic economics which calls for hardened borders and social conservatism. It is at once hyper-individualist – when it comes to the movement of capital and consumerism – yet draconian on matters of welfare, crime and policing.

This political and cultural mix is not new. Politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were aggressive class warriors –  for the wealthy class, that is – who used a folksy, people’s champion image to fight for economics that restored power to the rich, while simultaneously attacking working class and democratic organisations.

They combined the economic worldview of neoliberalism, which believes that the state and society should be organised as a business aimed at maximising profit, with both extreme individualism (such as the belief that the wealthy have no moral obligations to society at large) and social conservatism (seen in the tactical alliances with religious fundamentalists, for example).

By any metric, the New Right conservative movement of the 1970s and 1980s, which formed the ideological matrix from which Mashaba draws his ideas, has been a catastrophe. As Pankaj Mishraj observes, the project of building a world of unregulated markets saw “neocon democracy promoters and free-market globalisers blunder through a world grown more complex and intractable, and help unravel large parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America before sowing political chaos in their own societies”.

Mashaba veritably swoons over what he sees as the natural goodness of the free market. But the actual historical record of the economic policies he supports is one of decades of failure. Extreme neoliberal policies were first applied in Chile, at the hands of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship, leading to disastrous World Bank-style economics in Africa, Asia and Latin America. They were rigorously deployed in oligarchic orgies of looting in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and the catastrophic attempt to privatise the post-invasion economy of Iraq in the 2000s.  

Mashaba’s version of economic freedom has overwhelmingly benefited small elites and facilitated the financial corruption which led to the 2008 financial crash and ensuing Great Recession (which Mashaba, true to form, claims were caused by government overregulation). And in the wake of the pandemic-induced economic crash, countries like South Africa are following the classic neoliberal playbook of austerity and cutting essential public services.

That the people of Chile, whose country was patient zero for neoliberalism, have roundly rejected the Pinochet-era constitution is a symbol of how much this economic dogma has failed to deliver for the global majority. 

New borders 

It is this continued crisis of capitalism that has led to the politics of a figure like Mashaba.  As David Renton argues, the aftermath of the financial crisis, where banks were bailed out at the cost of austerity and diminishing living standards, has inspired a new political answer among the Right – “All good things in politics could be achieved: the rich could be protected from taxation, the poor from welfare cuts. All that was needed was the raising of the borders…  and the exclusion of anyone outside them who was hoping to share in their wealth.”

This reactionary solution to economic crises drives what David Harvey describes as a “putative alliance between economics and neo-fascist political forms”. These alliances are evident not only in Trump and Brexit, but also in Brazil with Bolsonaro, Russia with Putin, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Johnson in the UK, Netanyahu in Israel and Orban in Hungary.

Meanwhile, the rich are increasingly brazen in their ongoing efforts to directly control the political process. For several decades, the media has presented oligarchs like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk as Promethean mavericks, who, it is imagined, can run society as skilfully as they are said to run their business empires. 

Such a mythology was central to Trump’s victory, but as his train-wreck political career has shown, experience in self-promotion is a poor substitute for skills in effective governance. Regardless, tycoons with media profiles continue to enter the political arena, such as in Michael Bloomberg’s failed attempt to buy his way into the 2020 US presidential election.

Mashaba’s ideal state

Mashaba is drawing on these political and cultural shifts and applying them to the South African context, and offering a right-wing populist solution. His resounding answer to questions of mass unemployment, racialised inequality and the chronic dysfunction of the South African state is not to question the economic orthodoxies that have helped to create this mess, but to intensify and enable the most predatory and exploitative energies of capitalism.

For example, his belief that corruption and wastage only emanate from the public sector is an ideological fantasy. As South Africans have seen during the Zondo Commission, “state capture” was always a public-private partnership, involving compromised officials working with private business actors to defraud and loot the public purse.

Rather than streamlining and professionalising the state, his suggested policies would create new frontiers for graft while unravelling social safety nets. And instead of encouraging people to become small scale entrepreneurs, as he imagines it, they would only increase the power of monopolies and transnational capital.

By Mashaba’s libertarian metrics, the hallmark of a good state is one which protects private property and big business above all. In his own writings, he cites Singapore as an example of an ideal system, completely omitting the city-state’s reputation for political repression and human rights violations.

Given Mashaba’s mayoral record, and the fact that the ActionSA manifesto promises to increase the power of the police, it seems fair to imagine that his ideal market-state would be one that would be violently hostile to political dissent and free speech, as well as being even more dangerous for migrants.

Death cult

In 1921, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin argued that the relentless search for profits and markets, no matter the human, social or ecological cost, had parallels with the extreme fanaticism of death cults. “A religion may be discerned in capitalism – that is to say, capitalism serves essentially to allay the same anxieties, torments and disturbances to which religion [has] offered answers,” wrote Benjamin in an essay called Capitalism as Religion.

Capitalism has no central dogma or theology, no gods but the profit drive, endless and insatiable. Benjamin went on to write: “Capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme which has ever existed… there is no day that is not a feast day, each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper.”

If we accept this premise, then Herman Mashaba is truly a fanatical devotee. From his perspective, everything in South Africa should be subordinate to market capitalism. And, considering that he is such a successful businessman, he should be the person at the helm. 

And as a fanatic, he cannot accept that his market-worshipping philosophy is being dismantled all around him. He won’t accept the reality that global capitalism is lurching from crisis to catastrophe.

If capitalism is a perfect system, as Mashaba seems to believe, then it’s supposed failings must be caused by human error instead. Mashaba blames various people for this, but the main devils he sees stalking the market’s Garden of Eden are his nightmare image of the monstrous migrant.

Mashaba’s xenophobia derives from existing political and cultural discourses, but he is codifying it into a very specific, very dangerous message. His platform essentially advocates that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with South African society that cannot be solved by building higher walls. It is undocumented migrants who are the cause of social evils and the real impediment to a better life, rather than the bosses and owning class. “The good life is right there for the taking – if only our services and streets were not overrun by hordes of illegals” is the message Mashaba has been crafting since his time as mayor.

Simultaneously, inciting a visceral popular xenophobia is a means to building support for his own extreme economic vision. But unlike Trump, he is increasingly packaging himself as a pragmatic “centrist”. The ActionSA manifesto references real issues, from climate change to gender-based violence, in order to make it seem that they are offering a sensible, realistic programme of social change.

Mashaba has even been vocal in denouncing the right-wing shift in the DA. But given his personal worldview and persistent xenophobia, this seems more like a public relations strategy to create a more credible personal image. 

It is imperative to reject Mashaba’s personal mythology that he is simply a concerned citizen who wants to serve the public. He is angling to become the acceptable face of reactionary populism, who dresses his sinister ideology up with a suit and tie and slick PowerPoint plans for detention centres. 

This article was first published on New Frame





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