Political mess leaves SA elites feeling hopeless, betrayed and confused

The black elite is now embarrassed and shamed by the National Assembly which has a become the scene of the country's degeneration into a political mess. /ESA ALEXANDER
The black elite is now embarrassed and shamed by the National Assembly which has a become the scene of the country's degeneration into a political mess. /ESA ALEXANDER

Like all societies across the world, South Africa is ruled by the elite. Even the EFF leaders, who wear overalls, or Jacob Zuma, who profits from feigned ordinariness, are members of the elite.

Members of the black elite prefer to downplay their elite status. And given their age-old heritage of aristocracy in Europe, white South Africans are proud of their elitism. Their power is rooted in their social status.

Recently the minds of both the black and the white elites have been disturbed by the political mess caused by the ANC government. But these racial elites interpret what is happening differently.

Indeed, some among us will protest against an approach that clusters people around universal notions such as the black or white elite. Were we to heed such protests, we would never be able to see the big picture.

When Thorstein Veblen published The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, sporadic howls of exceptionalism were heard, but the essential stupidity of a leisure class that extolled expensiveness for its own sake, could not be denied.

How, then, has the psychology of the new black elite been affected by our country's political mess?

Before the mess, the black elite were very proud of the leadership provided by the ANC and its "exemplary" leaders. Thabo Mbeki's intellectualism made them feel emboldened to tell white people to go jump.

The mood was that of exceptionalism - meaning that black South Africans viewed themselves as being different from their brothers and sisters who had been messing up their countries across the Limpopo River.

All this native exuberance evaporated hardly five years into Jacob Zuma's primitive administration. The pride of the black elite, other than those who were part of Zuma's kleptocracy, was suddenly deflated.

The mood now is that of betrayal, anger, hopelessness and downright confusion.

Because the black elite are educated, they can read the writing on the wall - that the ANC is dead. The problem is that they don't know how to deal with their new reality.

Some of them sing atavistic songs about the virtues of OR Tambo, while others simply don't know what to do.

The fundamental defect of the black elite is that they are an economically dependent lot. Almost all generate no wealth and depend either on state salaries or dividends from white-owned companies. There is a tiny stratum of those whose made money from government tenders. In short, the black elite are a parasitic group creating no employment for their own people.

On the other side stand the white elite. Before the current political mess, they had been bottling up anger from a sense of political illegitimacy. Given the colour of their skin, they walked around with the shame of their connectedness with colonialism and apartheid.

This was before Helen Zille openly declared her nostalgia for colonialism.

Nelson Mandela and Mbeki complicated the life of the white elite. While they remained thankful that Mandela preached reconciliation, they did not like the fact that Mandela proved white stereotypes about blacks wrong.

That Mbeki could cite Shakespeare and Adam Smith with ease caused further problems for the white elite. The idea that a black man can think is still new not only in South Africa.

When Zuma's primitiveness began to manifest in government, the white elite began to feel better. Finally, here was evidence in the Union Buildings of the "essential" defectiveness of black people. This was not said publicly; it was pronounced silently.

In a strange sense, Zuma has created conditions for both the black and the white elites to explore the possibility of a genuine conversation.

The bubble of the black elite's political arrogance has now been popped. At the same time, the white elite know that it is impossible for whites to govern South Africa alone.

There is a real sense of vulnerability felt by both. As Zuma threatens to hand over the baton of national destruction to his ex-wife, the black elite are as fearful of the future as their white counterparts.

What is missing in current relations between the black and white elites is trust.

The truth, though, is that neither the black nor the white elite can govern South Africa alone. This is the secret of our country's future.