Dreams postponed

Desmond Tutu says South Africa has lost its moral direction, and the bitter contest for the ANC lead

The African National Congress, the continent's oldest liberation movement, faces its moment of truth. South Africa's millions of poor blacks have gained little from the economic boom that has produced 5 per cent annual growth rates for the past two years. Apart from voting every five years, the country's celebrated turn to democracy in 1994 has not brought them much.

On 16 December 4,000 ANC members will assemble for the party's five-yearly national conference in the small northern town of Polokwane. The election for party leader is likely to be a face-off between two old liberation warhorses: the state and ANC president, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma, the ANC deputy president. Zuma was cleared last year of charges of rape, although he admitted having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman who told the court she had looked up to him as a surrogate father. He still faces allegations of fraud and corruption over an arms sales scandal. Yet, in spite of this, Zuma is the clear favourite to become head of the ANC. His victory would pile pressure on Mbeki to stand down as state president, leaving South African politics in some disarray.

The most dispiriting aspect of the election is that younger and more innovative candidates have been discouraged from standing. The gathering takes place as the majority black population demands change in the party. After years of drift, South African society is in desperate need of renewal, fresh leadership and new ideas. Trust in government and democratic institutions has collapsed. Opinion polls show many people believe parliament has become a rubber stamp; voters cannot hold representatives responsible because of the party list system, in which MPs are accountable to party leaders rather than constituencies. Under public pressure, Mbeki appointed a commission in 2002 to investigate whether South Africa needed a new electoral system, but its report has been gathering dust in the president's office since it was delivered in 2004.

The ANC's moral authority is brittle. Senior figures who behave badly - and who are close to the party leadership - are either not sanctioned, or get away with a slap on the wrist. A deputy minister, Malusi Gigaba, used a government credit card to pay for flowers to his wife and trips for associates. His boss, the home affairs minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, merely said that the parliamentary rulebook did not lay out the "dos and don'ts" clearly enough.

But the law appears to move very quickly against those who have fallen foul of the ANC elite, such as Vusi Pikoli, director of the National Prosecuting Authority, who was suspended this September after seeking a warrant to arrest Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi over alleged links to criminal syndicates. Mbeki said that he and the minister of justice and constitutional affairs should have been consulted first.

Diminished debate

The Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu describes South Africa as having lost its moral direction. He points to the high incidence of violence against women and children, breakdown of family structures, desecration of the environment, rising ethnic and racial division, increased inequality and a declining sense of social justice. "We imagined that because we had this noble cause, the vast majority of people were idealistic. We thought we were going to transfer it automatically to the time when we were free. It's not happened," Tutu said last year.

Few ideas have come from the heart of power about how to reverse the slide. Often the focus has been more on wrangling over statistics: how many are really poor or have died of HIV/Aids. Some in the ANC leadership still express doubt about whether the pandemic exists. The small coterie running the party has close ties dating from the years in exile under apartheid. Such is the fear of antagonising Mbeki, and such is the atmosphere of fawning, that policies are often poorly drafted and not properly scrutinised.

Under Mbeki's watch, the rights to dissent and debate have diminished considerably. Loyal friends of the president are protected, such as the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, even though she has overseen the near-collapse of the public health system and has been in a state of denial over HIV/Aids. Those speaking out can expect to be quickly silenced. A few months ago, Tshabalala-Msimang's former deputy Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was fired for saying that the number of preventable infant deaths in public hospitals was a disgrace.

If white, internal critics are often labelled as racists; if black, they are derided as "sell-outs" or "native assistants" of whites and foreign powers. Astonishingly, the ANC leadership is now proposing to debate whether to introduce a tribunal to regulate the media at the forthcoming conference. "We are concerned about legislation that will have a massive impact on media freedom," says Jovial Rantao, chairman of the South African editors' forum, citing the Film and Publications Bill, the National Key Points Act and other legislation restricting the use of terms relating to the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The ANC is also considering a proposal to put control of individual courts in executive hands, contrary to the constitution's clear stipulation on separation of powers. The veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos said the proposed constitutional amendments were "a threat to the independence of the courts and could be the first step towards an epic battle between the legislature and the judiciary". Although not perfect, the judiciary - especially at the highest level, the Constitutional Court - has done more than any other institution to set ethical standards for public life.

Paradoxically, it was only when the most unlikely and least credible of critics spoke out that attention started to be paid to the failings of the ANC. Zuma was fired as South Africa's deputy president in 2005 following allegations of sleaze. With his back to the wall, he attacked Mbeki and the ANC's record in government - although he has been careful not to mention the president by name. After Zuma's comments, to dismiss criticism as coming from bitter whites or the left-wing fringe no longer sounded so convincing.

Now it has gone a stage further. Mbeki's penchant for suspending internal democracy within the ANC to push through unpopular policies, marginalise critics and shout down alternative views has led to an unprecedented rebellion by grass-roots members. There has been a wave of spontaneous community protests, against corrupt local representatives, poor services and rude public servants. Zuma has skilfully exploited discontent with Mbeki to portray himself as a humble, pro-poor alternative, inclusive and caring and less sensitive to criticism.

Mbeki, meanwhile, is clinging on. He tells public rallies - and anyone else who wishes to hear - that he has brought macroeconomic stability and made South Africa a diplomatic force in the world. Yet at home he has failed to address a rising tide of poverty and unemployment.

New leaders for a new era

Even if Mbeki does cling on to the party leadership, he would, with elections due for the South African presidency in 2009, become a lame duck, as under the constitution he is not allowed to stand for a third time. A good leader knows when to go: ask Nelson Mandela, who left at the zenith of his power after one term. Sadly, this is often the moment when new democracies stall. Leaders overstay their welcome; new blood, new thinking are not introduced.

Although several figures have tried to persuade Mbeki and Zuma to step aside for younger talent, powerful vested interests on both sides want to confine the race to these two. Efforts to suggest a compromise candidate are hamstrung because nobody can agree on who it should be. Cyril Ramaphosa, possibly the leading compromise candidate (and who was Mandela's choice to succeed him), says he might step up, but only if the other two stand down first. Another potential candidate, the former premier of Gauteng Province and business tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, has also been discouraged from campaigning.

Mbeki could yet decide to stand down while pushing one of his preferred candidates to challenge Zuma. His chosen successor would be either the deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or the party's strategist Joel Netshitenzhe. As for Zuma: one of his motives for standing is his attempt to give himself immunity from prosecution. Any hopes that Mbeki could have persuaded the courts to lay off him disappeared as the two exchanged insults.

What South Africa now needs is leaders for a new era. The left of the ANC, including the trade union organisation Cosatu and the Communist Party (SACP), have backed Zuma. Their support helped him win 2,236 branch votes against Mbeki's 1,394 in the first round of the ANC election on 26 November. This support is puzzling, because Zuma has never been a man of the left. In fact, his appalling views on HIV/Aids (he says showering after unprotected sex can prevent infection) and on women (he said he could see by the way a woman crossed her legs that she was looking for sex) go against what both the SACP and Cosatu are supposed to stand for.

Although Zuma tells business leaders that he will continue with Mbeki's centrist economic policies, he has pro mised the left that he will steer South Africa on to a bold new redistributive path, without giving further details. For most of the post-apartheid era the left provided moral leadership within the ANC, from protesting against HIV/Aids denial and Mbeki's delusional diplomacy with Zimbabwe, to calling for a basic income for the poorest. By backing Zuma, Cosatu puts the movement that helped protect civil liberties and fight for the shrinking space for debate within the ANC at risk. Both the SACP and Cosatu have pledged to ballot their members about a formal break with the ANC if Zuma fails to be elected.

This is turning out to be the most bitter leadership campaign since the ANC's founding in 1912. The use of smear campaigns, dirty tricks and state agencies to undermine rivals has become routine. When the party was in exile, leadership elections were often fixed in secret because the ANC feared competitive contests would cause divisions during the fight against the apartheid government. That might have suited a close-knit liberation movement, but it has no place in a constitutional democracy.

Whatever the outcome - business-as-usual Mbeki or the more controversial Zuma - South Africa is hardly going to collapse. An opportunity to rejuvenate the country's democracy and breathe new life into its faltering nation-building project will have been missed, however. To paraphrase one of Mbeki's favourite poems by W B Yeats, the new leader will have to "tread softly" on the dreams of the poor. They have invested so much in the ANC, but their dreams seem about to be postponed once again.

The updated edition of William Gumede's "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" (Zed Books, £16.99) is out now


47m Total population

322,000 Number of blacks deemed to be “core” middle class

47 years Life expectancy for men

11 Number of official languages

$13,300 GDP per head

24% Population which is unemployed

11% Population living below

$1 a day

12% Population which is HIV-positive

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

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Why the elites always rule

Since an Italian sociologist coined the word “elite” in 1902, it has become a term of abuse. But history is the story of one elite replacing another – as the votes for Trump and Brexit have shown.

Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign was based on the rejection of the “establishment”. Theresa May condemned the rootless “international elites” in her leader’s speech at last October’s Conservative party conference. On the European continent, increasingly popular right-wing parties such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National and the German Alternative für Deutschland, as well as Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, delight in denouncing the “Eurocratic” elites. But where does the term “elite” come from, and what does it mean?

It was Vilfredo Pareto who, in 1902, gave the term the meaning that it has today. We mostly think of Pareto as the economist who came up with ideas such as “Pareto efficiency” and the “Pareto principle”. The latter – sometimes known as the “power law”, or the “80/20 rule” – stipulates that 80 per cent of the land always ends up belonging to 20 per cent of the population. Pareto deduced this by studying land distribution in Italy at the turn of the 20th century. He also found that 20 per cent of the pea pods in his garden produced 80 per cent of the peas. Pareto, however, was not only an economist. In later life, he turned his hand to sociology, and it was in this field that he developed his theory of the “circulation of elites”.

The term élite, used in its current socio­logical sense, first appeared in his 1902 book Les systèmes socialistes (“socialist systems”). Its aim was to analyse Marxism as a new form of “secular” religion. And it was the French word élite that he used: naturally, one might say, for a book written in French. Pareto, who was bilingual, wrote in French and Italian. He was born in Paris in 1848 to a French mother and an Italian father; his father was a Genoese marquis who had accompanied the political activist Giuseppe Mazzini into exile. In honour of the revolution that was taking place in Germany at the time, Pareto was at first named Fritz Wilfried. This was latinised into Vilfredo Federico on the family’s return to Italy in 1858.

When Pareto wrote his masterpiece – the 3,000-page Trattato di sociologia ­generale (“treatise on general sociology”) – in 1916, he retained the French word élite even though the work was in Italian. Previously, he had used “aristocracy”, but that didn’t seem to fit the democratic regime that had come into existence after Italian unification. Nor did he want to use his rival Gaetano Mosca’s term “ruling class”; the two had bitter arguments about who first came up with the idea of a ruling minority.

Pareto wanted to capture the idea that a minority will always rule without recourse to outdated notions of heredity or Marxist concepts of class. So he settled on élite, an old French word that has its origins in the Latin eligere, meaning “to select” (the best).

In the Trattato, he offered his definition of an elite. His idea was to rank everyone on a scale of one to ten and that those with the highest marks in their field would be considered the elite. Pareto was willing to judge lawyers, politicians, swindlers, courtesans or chess players. This ranking was to be morally neutral: beyond “good and evil”, to use the language of the time. So one could identify the best thief, whether that was considered a worthy profession or not.

Napoleon was his prime example: whether he was a good or a bad man was irrelevant, as were the policies he might have pursued. Napoleon had undeniable political qualities that, according to Pareto, marked him out as one of the elite. Napoleon is important
because Pareto made a distinction within the elite – everyone with the highest indices within their branch of activity was a member of an elite – separating out the governing from the non-governing elite. The former was what interested him most.

This is not to suggest that the non-governing elite and the non-elite were of no interest to him, but they had a specific and limited role to play, which was the replenishment of the governing elite. For Pareto, this group was the key to understanding society as a whole – for whatever values this elite incarnated would be reflected in society. But he believed that there was an inevitable “physiological” law that stipulated the continuous decline of the elite, thereby making way for a new elite. As he put it in one of his most memorable phrases, “History is the graveyard of elites.”


Pareto’s thesis was that elites always rule. There is always the domination of the minority over the majority. And history is just the story of one elite replacing another. This is what he called the “circulation of elites”. When the current elite starts to decline, it is challenged and makes way for another. Pareto thought that this came about in two ways: either through assimilation, the new elite merging with elements of the old, or through revolution, the new elite wiping out the old. He used the metaphor of a river to make his point. Most of the time, the river flows continuously, smoothly incorporating its tributaries, but sometimes, after a storm, it floods and breaks its banks.

Drawing on his Italian predecessor Machiavelli, Pareto identified two types of elite rulers. The first, whom he called the “foxes”, are those who dominate mainly through combinazioni (“combination”): deceit, cunning, manipulation and co-optation. Their rule is characterised by decentralisation, plurality and scepticism, and they are uneasy with the use of force. “Lions”, on the other hand, are more conservative. They emphasise unity, homogeneity, established ways, the established faith, and rule through small, centralised and hierarchical bureaucracies, and they are far more at ease with the use of force than the devious foxes. History is the slow swing of the pendulum from one type of elite to the other, from foxes to lions and back again.

The relevance of Pareto’s theories to the world today is clear. After a period of foxes in power, the lions are back with renewed vigour. Donald Trump, as his behaviour during the US presidential campaign confirmed, is perfectly at ease with the use of intimidation and violence. He claimed that he wants to have a wall built between the United States and Mexico. His mooted economic policies are largely based on protectionism and tariffs. Regardless of his dubious personal ethics – a classic separation between the elite and the people – he stands for the traditional (white) American way of life and religion.

This is in stark contrast to the Obama administration and the Cameron government, both of which, compared to what has come since the votes for Trump and Brexit, were relatively open and liberal. Pareto’s schema goes beyond the left/right divide; the whole point of his Systèmes socialistes was to demonstrate that Marxism, as a secular religion, signalled a return to faith, and thus the return of the lions in politics.

In today’s context, the foxes are the forces of globalisation and liberalism – in the positive sense of developing an open, inter­connected and tolerant world; and in the negative sense of neoliberalism and the dehumanising extension of an economic calculus to all aspects of human life. The lions represent the reaction, centring themselves in the community, to which they may be more attentive, but bringing increased xenophobia, intolerance and conservatism. For Pareto, the lions and foxes are two different types of rule, both with strengths and weaknesses. Yet the elite is always composed of the two elements. The question is: which one dominates at any given time?

What we know of Theresa May’s government suggests that she runs a tight ship. She has a close – and closed – group of confidants, and she keeps a firm grip on the people under her. She is willing to dispense with parliament in her negotiation of Brexit, deeming it within the royal prerogative. Nobody yet knows her plan.

The European Union is a quintessentially foxlike project, based on negotiation, compromise and combination. Its rejection is a victory of the lions over the foxes. The lions are gaining prominence across the Western world, not just in Trumpland and Brexit Britain. Far-right movements have risen by rejecting the EU. It should come as no surprise that many of these movements (including Trump in the US) admire Vladimir Putin, at least for his strongman style.

Asia hasn’t been spared this movement, either. After years of tentative openness in China, at least with the economy, Xi Jinping has declared himself the “core” leader, in the mould of the previous strongmen Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has also hardened his stance, and he was the first world leader to meet with President-Elect Donald Trump. Narendra Modi in India and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are in the same mould, the latter coming to power on the back of promising to kill criminals and drug dealers. After the failed coup against him in July, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also been cracking down on Turkey.


In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto elaborated on how a new elite replaces the old. A, the old elite, would be challenged by B, the new, in alliance with C, the people. B would win the support of C by making promises that, once in power, it wouldn’t keep. If that sounds like the behaviour of most politicians, that is because it probably is. But what Pareto was pointing out was how, in its struggle for power, the new elite politicised groups that were not political before.

What we know of Trump supporters and Brexiteers is that many feel disenfranchised: the turnout in the EU referendum could not have been greater than in the 2015 general election otherwise, and significant numbers of those who voted for Trump had never voted before. There is no reason to think that they, too, won’t be betrayed by the new leaders they helped to bring to power.

In the last years of his life, Pareto offered a commentary on Italy in the 1920s. He denounced the state’s inability to enforce its decisions and the way that Italians spent their time flaunting their ability to break the law and get away with it. He coined the phrase “demagogic plutocracy” to characterise the period, in which the rich ruled behind a façade of democratic politics. He thought this particularly insidious for two reasons: those in power were more interested in siphoning off wealth for their personal ends than encouraging the production of new wealth, and consequently undermined national prosperity (remember Pareto’s training as an economist); and, as the demagogic elites govern through deceit and cunning, they are able to mask their rule for longer periods.

Much has been made of Trump’s “populism”, but the term “demagogic plutocrat” seems particularly apt for him, too: he is a wealthy man who will advance the interests of his small clique to the detriment of the well-being of the nation, all behind the smokescreen of democratic politics.

There are other ways in which Pareto can help us understand our predicament. After all, he coined the 80/20 rule, of which we hear an intensified echo in the idea of “the One Per Cent”. Trump is a fully paid-up member of the One Per Cent, a group that he claims to be defending the 99 Per Cent from (or, perhaps, he is an unpaid-up member, given that what unites the One Per Cent is its reluctance to pay taxes). When we perceive the natural inequality of the distribution of resources as expressed through Pareto’s “power law”, we are intellectually empowered to try to do something about it.

Those writings on 1920s Italy landed Pareto in trouble, as his theory of the circulation of elites predicted that a “demagogic plutocracy”, dominated by foxes, would necessarily make way for a “military plutocracy”, this time led by lions willing to restore the power of the state. In this, he was often considered a defender of Mussolini, and Il Duce certainly tried to make the best of that possibility by making Pareto a senator. Yet there is a difference between prediction and endorsement, and Pareto, who died in 1923, had already been living as a recluse in Céligny in Switzerland for some time – earning him the nickname “the hermit of Céligny” – with only his cats for company, far removed from day-to-day Italian politics. He remained a liberal to his death, content to stay above the fray.

Like all good liberals, Pareto admired Britain above all. As an economist, he had vehemently defended its system of free trade in the face of outraged opposition in Italy. He also advocated British pluralism and tolerance. Liberalism is important here: in proposing to set up new trade barriers and restrict freedom of movement, exacerbated by their more or less blatant xenophobia, Trump and Brexit challenge the values at the heart of the liberal world.


What was crucial for Pareto was that new elites would rise and challenge the old. It was through the “circulation of elites” that history moved. Yet the fear today is that history has come to a standstill, that elites have ­become fossilised. Electors are fed up with choosing between the same old candidates, who seem to be proposing the same old thing. No wonder people are willing to try something new.

This fear of the immobility of elites has been expressed before. In 1956, the American sociologist C Wright Mills published The Power Elite. The book has not been out of print since. It is thanks to him that the term was anglicised and took on the pejorative sense it has today. For Mills, Cold War America had come to be dominated by a unified political, commercial and military elite. With the 20th century came the growth of nationwide US corporations, replacing the older, more self-sufficient farmers of the 19th century.

This made it increasingly difficult to ­distinguish between the interests of large US companies and those of the nation as a whole. “What’s good for General Motors,” as the phrase went, “is good for America.” As a result, political and commercial interests were becoming ever more intertwined. One had only to add the Cold War to the mix to see how the military would join such a nexus.

Mills theorised what President Dwight D Eisenhower denounced in his January 1961 farewell speech as the “military-industrial complex” (Eisenhower had wanted to add the word “congressional”, but that was thought to be too risky and was struck out of the speech). For Mills, the circulation of elites – a new elite rising to challenge the old – had come to an end. If there was any circulation at all, it was the ease with which this new power elite moved from one part of the elite to the other: the “revolving door”.

The Cold War is over but there is a similar sense of immobility at present concerning the political elite. Must one be the child or wife of a past US president to run for that office? After Hillary Clinton, will Chelsea run, too? Must one have gone to Eton, or at least Oxford or Cambridge, to reach the cabinet? In France is it Sciences Po and Éna?

The vote for Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right are, beyond doubt, reactions to this sentiment. And they bear out Pareto’s theses: the new elites have aligned themselves with the people to challenge the old elites. The lions are challenging the foxes. Needless to say, the lions, too, are prototypically elites. Trump is a plutocrat. Boris Johnson, the co-leader of the Leave campaign, is as “establishment” as they come (he is an Old Etonian and an Oxford graduate). Nigel Farage is a public-school-educated, multimillionaire ex-stockbroker. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen. Putin is ex-KGB.

Pareto placed his hopes for the continuing circulation of elites in technological, economic and social developments. He believed that these transformations would give rise to new elites that would challenge the old political ruling class.

We are now living through one of the biggest ever technological revolutions, brought about by the internet. Some have argued that social media tipped the vote in favour of Brexit. Arron Banks’s Leave.EU website relentlessly targeted disgruntled blue-collar workers through social media, using simple, sometimes grotesque anti-immigration messages (as a recent profile of Banks in the New Statesman made clear) that mimicked the strategies of the US hard right.

Trump’s most vocal supporters include the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has found the internet a valuable tool for propagating his ideas. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, claims that the Russian plane crash in 2010 that killed his twin brother (then the country’s president) was a political assassination, and has accused the Polish prime minister of the time, Donald Tusk, now the president of the European Council, of being “at least morally” responsible. (The official explanation is that the poorly trained pilots crashed the plane in heavy fog.)

It need not be like this. Silicon Valley is a world unto itself, but when some of its members – a new technological elite – start to play a more active role in politics, that might become a catalyst for change. In the UK, it has been the legal, financial and technological sectors that so far have led the pushback against a “hard” Brexit. And we should not forget how the social movements that grew out of Occupy have already been changing the nature of politics in many southern European countries.

The pendulum is swinging back to the lions. In some respects, this might be welcome, because globalisation has left too many behind and they need to be helped. However, Pareto’s lesson was one of moderation. Both lions and foxes have their strengths and weaknesses, and political elites are a combination of the two, with one element dominating temporarily. Pareto, as he did in Italy in the 1920s, would have predicted a return of the lions. But as a liberal, he would have cautioned against xenophobia, protectionism and violence.

If the lions can serve as correctives to the excesses of globalisation, their return is salutary. Yet the circulation of elites is a process more often of amalgamation than replacement. The challenge to liberal politics is to articulate a balance between the values of an open, welcoming society and of one that takes care of its most vulnerable members. Now, as ever, the task is to find the balance between the lions and the foxes. l

Hugo Drochon is the author of “Nietzsche’s Great Politics” (Princeton University Press)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge