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“Trump is very clear: America 1st. Brexit is very clear: UK 1st. S Africa MUST be clear about SA 1st. NOT Rating Agencies 1st.” Beautiful in its brevity, Manyi’s message reveals the tensions and contradictions inherent in the world situation and the state of our nation.

Mzwanele Manyi, President of the Progressive Professionals Forum, tweeted the following messageOn February 1, 2017

The tweet is interesting in at least two ways.

First, it aligns the project of Black Economic Transformation – Manyi styles himself as an agent of transformation – with far-right nationalism in the US, in the UK and across Europe.

Second, “South Africa First” was the slogan of the Nationalist Party under Hertzog and Malan. The allusion may be unintentional, but Manyi’s kind of “radical economic transformation” has much in common with the nationalist politics of Hertzog and Malan in the 1920s and 1930s.

Afrikaner nationalists grounded their politics in an appeal to the nation, which they regarded as a community of white races – English and Afrikaner. They were deeply hostile to what they called “foreign monopoly capitalism”. Putting South Africa first meant breaking the hold of foreign monopoly capitalists (particularly Jews and the British). However, Afrikaner nationalists’ critique of capitalism or even cartels was only skin deep. What they really objected to was that the mines and other large economic enterprises were owned and controlled by “foreigners”.

The current critique of white monopoly capitalism has much in common with this concern. The expression “white monopoly capitalism” has a long history in South Africa, but from the 1970s it increasingly came to refer to the highly concentrated pattern of corporate ownership in South Africa. In the 1980s, Anglo American accounted for more than 60% of the share value on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.

Such enterprises were “white” not simply because they were owned and controlled by whites, but because they relied on a) the exploitation of blacks and b) a racist legal and political superstructure to keep black labour cheap. This was the centrepiece of the “left” or progressive critique of the apartheid political economy. The argument has rightly been criticised for reducing racial domination to a side-effect of economic exploitation, rather than recognising it as a result of white racism.

The first thing to note is that the reference to “monopoly capitalism” is a hangover from an earlier period. In other words, it no longer has analytical purchase, though it retains much political force. Anglo American is a shadow of itself, with many of its assets sold off to a variety of companies and its main listing today being in London. Economic ownership in South Africa today is much more fragmented and diverse. It has, moreover, been significantly “denationalised” insofar as the portion of foreign ownership has increased and without clear reference to race. Today, the state has considerable ownership of key sectors of the South African economy. This is reflected in the change in composition of Cosatu’s membership. In 1991, public sector workers accounted for merely 7% of its members. By 2012 this membership had grown to 39%.

With the dismantling of political apartheid, there are no companies in South Africa today whose economic viability is formally tied to racial domination. Given these structural changes, the critique of white monopoly capitalism is not so much that it is “white” or “monopoly” but that it is not in African hands. At stake is a rephrasing of the “national question” as primarily a question of race.

While this form of politics has a long history within the African National Congress, it was not until the period of Thabo Mbeki that it became dominant. Indeed, since the 1950s it sat awkwardly with a nationalism that defined blackness in relation to exploitation, racial domination and, later, patriarchy and even discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Hence, in the political space claimed by the United Democratic Front, “blacks” included Africans, Coloureds, Indians, workers, women (including white women), lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender/intersex people. This, incidentally, is a meaning of “blackness” that some groups within the #FeesMustFall movement have tried to keep alive.

When the new nationalists say that South Africans must be first, do they not mean that Africans must be first? In addition to harking back to Afrikaner nationalism, this race-based definition of the nation is aligned with the politics of the far-right in the US and across Europe.

If one listens to Trump’s inauguration speech, not to mention his numerous campaign speeches, many of the same themes emerge. Describing the “carnage” of life for ordinary Americans, he promised to “Make America Great” by transferring power away from the elite (Washington politicians and crony capitalists) to the “people”. What makes the new nationalism so potent is that it has changed its spots. In Europe, for example, far-right groups occupy positions traditionally held by the left. In France, for example, the Front National defends workers’ rights, women’s rights, the welfare state, freedom of speech and other civil liberties in the name of defending Western civilisation against foreign elements (Islam) and crony elites. It claims, in other words, that the French nation is threatened by foreigners and monopoly capitalists. So, too, does the Dutch Freedom Party and the Alternative for Germany.

The reason the far right has been able to capture this terrain is that the left has largely abandoned it. Many left parties and movements have become as preoccupied with representivity in social and economic life as with substantive equality. This is certainly what has happened to the ANC, which as a government has allowed administrations dealing with poor and working people to deteriorate and the inequality gap in South Africa to widen. DM

Ivor Chipkin is the Director and Founder of the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI) in Johannesburg. PARI is South Africa’s leading research institute on the study of government and the State.