An undercurrent of political manipulation pulses beneath the surface of popular South African demonstrations organized around legitimate grievances. But who’s pulling the strings? And why?
This article is part of a series on Western meddling to foment unrest and destabilize BRICS nations in an effort to ensure the continuation of Western economic and political control over the Global South. The first part, focusing on Brazil, can be found here. Still to come: BRICS under attack in Russia, India, and China.
NEW YORK — (Analysis) Major protests have gripped South Africa in recent months as political forces have emerged to give voice to a growing discontent with the government and ruling party. Beneath the surface of these demonstrations organized around legitimate grievances, however, there’s an undercurrent of political manipulation.
South Africa and its ruling African National Congress (ANC) party have been targeted for destabilization due to the country’s burgeoning relationship with China and other non-Western nations, most obviously typified by South Africa’s inclusion in BRICS, the association of the five major emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.
Last year, for example, China surpassed the United States and European Union as South Africa’s largest trade partner, and the ANC has been hard at work promoting further trade cooperation. Answering questions in the National Assembly, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa explained: “We trade more effectively with China because the relationship is based on win-win; mutual benefit that they can get out of the relationship and that we can get out the relationship.”
But recent protests against the ANC government have threatened the ruling tripartite coalition of the ANC, along with the South African Communist Party and Congress of South African Trade Unions.
A number of groups on the left such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema, and the National Union of Metalworkers, have taken part in the protests touched off by student demonstrations against university fees.
At the same time, however, Western-backed opposition forces led by the Democratic Alliance have positioned themselves as leaders and beneficiaries of the anti-government movement.
The DA, a center-right liberal political party now fronted by “South Africa’s Obama,” Mmusi Maimane, is lauded by Western financial interests. The American Chamber of Commerce, for example, has consistently heaped praise on DA as the way forward for South Africa.
When Maimane delivered a widely publicized speech at a May 2015 business breakfast hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce, he stated:
While China may have overtaken the US as South Africa’s largest trade partner in volume, the US remains an incredibly important partner for our future growth and development.
I refer to ‘future growth and development’ for under the lacklustre and confused leadership of the ANC, our economy has failed to reach its true potential.”
A careful reading of the subtext offers a clearer understanding of what Maimane is implying. By noting that China has overtaken the U.S. as South Africa’s largest trade partner, he is directly tying the ANC and its “lackluster and confused leadership” to the close relationship with China.
In other words, the DA represents “the future” — that is, a future in which the U.S. is able to reclaim its status as South Africa’s dominant trade partner. This certainly would not have been lost on the attendees at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast. (It should be recalled that the Chamber of Commerce is traditionally seen as the main arm of U.S. economic power projection in the Global South — just ask any leader in South and Central America.)
The Wall Street-London connection runs deep
But the ties to the political and financial establishment of neoliberal capital and the U.S. empire do not stop at the American Chamber of Commerce. In 2014 it came to light that one of the principal financiers behind the DA and its short-lived attempt at unity with the centrist Agang SA party, led by anti-Apartheid figure Mamphela Ramphele, was billionaire Nathan Kirsh.
As the Business Times noted in March 2014:
Mr Kirsh said he provided a ‘marginal amount’ of funding to both the DA and Agang SA … but denied bringing the parties together.
‘I believe there’s got to be an opposition to the government, but I wasn’t involved in the marriage. … When Mamphela [Ramphele] came to me, she represented what could be good, credible opposition and I gave her some money. When [leader of the DA] Helen Zille came to me, she had already shown her ability to put things together and the [Western] Cape runs perhaps better than any of the other provinces,’ said Kirsh.
Zille and Ramphele announced early in February that the short-lived plan to join forces, and for Ramphele to stand as the DA’s presidential candidate, was over.
At the time, Ms Ramphele was quoted as saying ‘a donor pushed the DA and Agang SA together.’”
Kirsh, the business tycoon who heads a multinational business empire controlled through his Kirsh Holdings Group, is one of the richest men in the world, having made his fortune during the Apartheid regime in South Africa and in a variety of other ventures since then.
Aside from his dodgy past, Kirsh is well known to have untold billions in assets and companies domiciled in tax havens from the British Virgin Islands to Liberia. Perhaps most notorious among his recent money-making projects has been the massive contracts awarded to his company Magal Security Systems by the Israeli government to provide electronic fences and security systems for the apartheid wall Israel constructed, and which has been almost universally condemned as illegal.
In fact, Kirsh is well known as being very close to some of the leading institutions of Western finance capital, as evidenced by his choice of Bradley Fried to oversee Kirsh Group. As noted by Bloomberg, Fried will oversee “the management company that holds Kirsh’s disparate assets, which include two U.S. wholesale grocery businesses, commercial and residential real estate, and private equity investments on four continents.” Fried is a member of the Bank of England’s Court of Directors and a well-connected executive in circles of high finance.
Fried “takes over [Kirsh Group] from Ron Sandler, the former CEO of Lloyd’s of London who Kirsh said will remain working as a trustee and adviser to the family.” It should be noted that Sandler, who served as chairman of the infamous Northern Rock, had close ties with former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, himself a creature of the City of London.
Between Kirsh’s connections to the highest circles of finance capital in the U.S. empire, and his lucrative business dealings with Apartheid South Africa and the current apartheid state of Israel, it should be crystal clear that Kirsh is no progressive. So what’s he doing financing the allegedly “liberal-progressive” opposition in South Africa? To put it simply, Kirsh is making yet another investment that he hopes will pay massive political and financial dividends.
Soft power projects from pro-DA think tanks
Another source of soft power projection from the U.S. empire are the think tanks that uphold the neoliberal DA as the future for South Africa. One example is Legatum Institute, which has published numerous papers criticizing the ANC and calling for “democratization” and “plurality of voices” in the political sphere.
In an innocuously titled 2014 report, “South Africa and the Pursuit of Inclusive Growth,” Legatum noted:
Together opposition voters constituted just over 34 percent of the national vote. The ANC is understandably proud of its achievements in attracting such a large proportion of votes. However, the weakness of the opposition has reduced the pressure on the ANC to win electoral votes on the basis of its performance in government. It also means that at the national level the ANC’s commitment to democracy has not been put to the ultimate test: the transfer of power to a victorious opposition.”
While the report notes the democratic nature of South Africa’s election, the implied argument, couched in the typically duplicitous rhetoric of Western think tanks, is that the ANC should be unseated from power in order for a truly democratic South Africa to emerge. The report, it should be noted, was edited and overseen by the notoriously anti-Russia, anti-China, anti-BRICS, neoliberal Anne Applebaum, who has repeatedly used her pen and face in the service of the empire’s agenda. (Interesting to note also is that Applebaum is married to Radek Sikorski, the vehemently pro-NATO former foreign minister of Poland.)
One example of Applebaum’s anti-Russia outlook is her widely read 2014 essay in the New York Review of Books, “How He [Putin] and His Cronies Stole Russia,” which argued the typical neoliberal finance capital line that Russia was on the right path in the 1990s under the stewardship of the U.S.- and Wall Street-backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his gaggle of thieves, but that Putin and his “kleptocratic KGB apparatchiks” seized control of Russia for their own purposes.
Another important element in this equation is an understanding of exactly what the Legatum Institute really is and who funds it. As Pando’s Mark Ames wrote in 2015:
Legatum turns out to be a project of the most secretive billionaire vulture capital investor you’ve (and I’d) never heard of: Christopher Chandler, a New Zealander who, along with his billionaire brother Richard Chandler, ran one of the world’s most successful vulture capital funds …
Brother Christopher Chandler took his billions to Dubai, where he launched Legatum Capital, and, in 2007, the Legatum Institute … The Legatum Institute’s motto, displayed proudly on its homepage, reads ‘Prosperity Through Revitalising Capitalism and Democracy.’
… [T]he Chandler brothers were the largest foreign portfolio investors in Russia throughout the 1990s into the first half of the 2000s, including the largest foreign investors in natural gas behemoth Gazprom. …
From what I’ve learned, the Chandlers make buckets of fast money by buying into totally depressed and corrupt emerging markets when everyone else is too afraid to, driving up the price of their assets by making a lot of noise about corporate governance and corruption, and then selling out when those investments tick up during what look like to outsiders as principled battles over corporate governance issues. In other words, a form of extreme green-mailing.”
Applebaum’s official title with Legatum is “director of the Transitions Forum,” “a series of projects that examine the challenges and opportunities of radical political and economic change.” No wonder the think tank’s prized propagandist is so gung-ho in her hatred of all things Putin and Russia: Her bosses were directly targeted by Putin and the Russian government as it sought to reverse the “vulturization” of Russia’s economy carried out by Western capitalists like the Chandlers.
It seems then that Legatum is part of the same anti-Russian, anti-BRICS network of Western NGOs and think tanks that includes the International Republican Institute, Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the National Endowment for Democracy. And it should come as no surprise that Russia and many other countries have moved so strongly to curtail their presence and influence in their respective countries (this author has written detailed analyses of the political significance of the NGO laws in Russia and China).
Powerful forces aligning
Make no mistake, though: Institutional issues such as corruption and political and economic disenfranchisement do indeed exist in South Africa, and these must be addressed. The challenge against the ANC from leftist forces who seek wealth and land redistribution, socialization of the economy, and other traditional policies associated with leftist politics is to be welcomed. That challenge could likely push the ANC to make much needed policy changes, including moving further away from neoliberal capitalism, as it broadens its engagement with the non-Western world.
However, one should not miss the forest for the trees. There are powerful forces aligning behind the DA and other Western proxy political forces in order to destabilize a key partner of the BRICS project.