Big Business & Ideology Swapping


by Dinah Rajak

For a discipline so interested in kinship, anthropologists have shown relatively little interest in ideological lineages among elites. Although anthropology is, quite rightly, concerned with the everyday realities of ordinary lives, sometimes the biography of elites (whether of the reactionary or revolutionary sort) can be equally revealing for tracing the trajectories of social transformation and the futures that oppressive legacies foreclose or make possible.

Emailing back and forth between Sussex and Johannesburg with my friend Anne-Maria Makhulu at Duke University, I was struck by something Anne-Maria wrote. Bobby Godsell, one of South Africa’s most well-known businessmen and former CEO of Anglo Gold Ashanti (8th largest gold producer in the world) was trained at the University of Natal in sociology and politics by Rick Turner, the radical philosopher who himself studied under Sartre in the 60s and taught in Durban until his assassination in 1978 by the Apartheid state.  Anne-Maria remembered hearing Godsell speak on a panel in Johannesburg, lambasting the kind of short-termist hedge-fund thinking that was reshaping manufacturing, mining, infrastructure development today; his line was far more radical than the trade unionists he was debating.

I remember a similar reversal at London’s Chatham House a few years ago, where Blade Nzimande (at the time head of the South African Communist Party) shared a stage with Jonathan Oppenheimer (heir to the great De Beers empire) and Tokyo Sexwale (former anti-Apartheid activist, business mogul and frontman to the South African version of The Apprentice).  The atmosphere was surprisingly chummy. While Blade Nzimande sounded the battle cry for growth, Sexwale called for redistributing ownership of resources, and Oppenheimer for a concrete expectation that ‘tomorrow will be better than today’ for everyone, not just the rich. Such role reversals—Anglo managers sounding like revolutionaries, trade unionists like venture capitalists—seem possible in South Africa as nowhere else.

It’s not hard to imagine say Bobby Godsell and Ronnie Kasrils (founding member of the ANC’s armed resistance, Umkhonto we Sizwe, turned Minister of Intelligence Services in the post-Apartheid government, who himself started out in advertising) each taking a slightly different path and ending up in each other’s place, like a sort of post-Apartheid version of the 80’s farcical comedy Big Business starring Lily Tomlin and Bette Midler.

In the past two decades South Africa has had more than its fair share of struggle leaders turned Trumpesque tycoons—Cyril Ramaphosa being the most infamous of all. Former founder and general secretary of the NUM, leader of the momentous and unprecedented strike of 1987 during which 70% of the mining workforce across the country downed tools for 21 days facing lock-outs, mass dismissals, and the violent arm of state repression. In the post-Apartheid period, after losing out to Thabo Mbeki in the ANC leadership election, Ramaphosa emerged as one of the country’s biggest business moguls. Ramaphosa personifies the blurring of boundaries between big business and elite politics in South Africa. His wide portfolio of positions and ventures included both a non-executive directorship of Lonmin (the company involved in the Marikana Massacre) and 9% share in the company, and the executive chairmanship of the Shanduka Group (which he founded), a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) venture to which Lonmin outsourced welfare services at its mines and paid an annual $360,000 fee to consult on black economic empowerment.

Much has been written of the profound political, social and economic implications of elite-pacting. But the ideological shape-shifting that underwrites these reversals also has significant psycho-social effects, rewriting the script of acceptable aspiration and ambition for the new South African Dream in which, as I was told from corporate boardrooms to informal settlements, ‘everyone can be a business person’.

Dinah Rajak is a senior lecturer in Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex. She is the author of In Good Company: An Anatomy of Corporate Social Responsibility (Stanford University Press 2011), co-editor of The Anthropology of Corporate Social Responsibility (Berghan 2016) and co-founder of the Centre of New Economies of Development.

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