Swans Commentary » swans.com May 31, 2010  



George Soros And South Africa's Elite Transition


by Michael Barker





"There is the chronic problem of not having enough financial resources. It does seem that this is where most non-white organisations fail."
—Steve Biko. (1)
"Certainly, struggles for popular democracy are profound threats to established elites. In many democratic transitions, these threats have been dissipated by the promotion of polyarchy as the new dispensation. What has occurred in such contentious transitions (such as South Africa) has been an attempt to construct hegemony via a reformulation of the mode of political rule: from the overtly coercive (such as apartheid) to a more consensual-based order. The result has been to pre-empt fundamental economic changes that may arise through any popular alternatives and instead, preserve the extant economic structures, albeit with necessary changes that incorporate fractions of the new emerging elite. Co-option of the democratisation movement into the structures of polyarchical democracy performs this task. Such an arrangement is the political counterpart to neo-liberalism, with the 'visible hand of the voter' working alongside the mythical meta-physical 'market'."
—Ian Taylor, 2002. (2)


(Swans - May 31, 2010)   Efforts to promote forms of democracy where the majority act as participants, not spectators, are opposed by privileged elites of all political persuasions. Yet as history has shown, opposition to equality is not enough to guarantee the sustainable exploitation of the mass of humanity, thus the promotion of polyarchy has proved a successful means of disarming struggles for popular democracy: polyarchy being "a political system in which an elite actually governs, with popular involvement in democracy being restricted to periodic elections." By neatly severing the economic from the political, polyarchy "obscure[s] power relations inherent in any economic dispensation" and "dissipates the energies of those marginalised by the ongoing order into parliamentary procedures that in themselves are acted out by political factions whose power and prestige are dependant on the polyarchical model." (3) In sum, the promotion of polyarchy can be seen as the means by which democracy-manipulating elites co-opt popular resistance into channels that support capitalist domination. However, as Ian Taylor rightly continues:

[W]e must avoid the reductionist tendency to see this process simply as a manufactured conspiracy. The process is more accurately depicted as a complex convergence of interests between the established political elites, domestic and transnational capital, and crucially, aspiring elites espousing, initially perhaps, an alternative vision for the country. ... [T]here can be no externally imposed solution, but rather a working out among elites of the best way forward. This seeking out of a convergence of interests [in South Africa] was in part crafted by technical interventions from within civil society, and ultimately served to thwart the demands and aspirations of the masses. (p.36)

South Africa's elite transition from apartheid to polyarchy provides a devastating example of the power of capitalism to penetrate and dismantle a vibrant movement demanding massive social change and effectively harmonise them into a neoliberal social order. As Ian Taylor reports, "[o]ne of the most active groups within the change industry" in South Africa was the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa -- a group that later became known as the Institute for Democracy in South Africa. The cofounders of this Institute, van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine, represented what might be considered the "compassionate face of liberalism," and prior to setting up their Institute (in 1986), both been part of the "corporate-funded Progressive Federal Party, an organisation that 'bore the Oppenheimer imprint from the start'." (4)

Despite their elite backgrounds, Slabbert and Boraine had initially failed to garner foreign support from the US leading liberal foundations, and it was only when they were introduced to George Soros, who immediately decided to support their venture, that the equally well-endowed American foundations reconsidered working with them. Slabbert recalled:

We wanted $150,000 and he signed a cheque of $75,000. In the lift, Boraine and I passed the cheques to and fro in disbelief. Soros did not ask for any guarantee and said, in passing, that we could send him a report if we wished. We obtained the rest of the money from the ever-reliable Scandinavians and the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.(5)

From that day on, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (ISASA) became a favored recipient of foreign aid, obtaining lucrative grants from bodies like the US Agency for International Development, and smaller albeit important funding from organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Little surprise then that this mediating organization, IDASA, played a key role in smoothing the transition from apartheid, and indeed...

...the dissemination of ideology in favour of the neo-liberal project has continued unabated in the post-apartheid era. In this period, IDASA has advanced ideas that seem to propagate the notion that keeping the people away from the real levers of power i.e. the economy, is a "good thing." (6)

Illustrative of the tight connections maintained by IDASA and liberal elites, in 1996 the then head of the Institute, Wilmot James, became a trustee of the Ford Foundation (a position he retained until 2008); likewise IDASA's current chair, Njabulo Ndebele, is a former resident scholar at the Ford Foundation. Ndebele is also a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation where he serves alongside current Open Society Foundation of South Africa board member (and former Rockefeller Foundation trustee) Mamphela Ramphele. (7) Former board member of the Open Society Foundation of South Africa, Khehla Shubane, helped establish the Nelson Mandela Foundation, while also serving as the CEO of Business Map Foundation -- a "research institution focusing on black economic empowerment and monitoring foreign investment patterns." (8)

The Open Society Foundation of South Africa happens to be another of George Soros's polyarchal ventures, and Soros recruited Slabbert to become the founding chair of this organization when it was founded in 1993. In addition to Ramphele, two other notable members of the Foundation's board of directors are the editor of Financial Mail, Barney Mthombothi (who is board member of the democracy-manipulating International Press Institute), and Jody Kollapen, the former chairperson of South Africa's principal human rights body the SA Human Rights Commission. Incidentally, Kollapen is a board member of IDASA and is the chair of the Legal Resources Centre. Judge Fikile Bam, a former board member of the Open Society Foundation of South Africa, served as a director of the Legal Resources Centre in Port Elizabeth in 1985, and is presently a board member of the Centre for Development and Enterprise, a think tank that focuses on "development issues and their relationship to economic growth and democratic consolidation," which received a grant from the NED in 2006.

Since it was formed in 1995 "with core funding from South African businesses," the Centre for Development and Enterprise has been headed by Ann Bernstein, who had previously served as the executive director of the Urban Foundation from 1989 until its demise in 1995. More recently, from 2005 until 2006, Berstein served as a Reagan Fascell Democracy Fellow at the NED. Given the openly pro-corporate polyarchal agenda of Berstein's Centre it is intriguing to note that their board of directors includes Ishmael Mkhabela. On top of being a board member of the conservative South African Institute of Race Relations, Mkhabela serves as the chairperson of the Steve Biko Foundation, which was ostensibly set up to commemorate the murder of a revolutionary activist and thinker, Steve Biko. Surely Biko himself would be most distraught with the manner by which his name is used to deflect criticism from polyarchal elites. Writing in 1970, before his murder at the hand of the state (in 1977), Biko said:

Nowhere is the arrogance of the liberal ideology demonstrated so well as in their insistence that the problems of the country can only be solved by a bilateral approach involving both black and white. This has, by and large, come to be taken in all seriousness as the modus operandi in South Africa by all those who claim they would like a change in the status quo. Hence the multiracial political organisations and parties and the "nonracial" student organisations, all of which insist on integration not only as an end goal but also as a means. (9)

Certainly elite support of the Steve Biko Foundation is not new, and neither is it a recent phenomenon, (10) and the Foundation's former director Xolela Mangcu is presently a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. Moreover, prior to accepting his appointment at Brookings, Mangcu had been the executive director of the Social Cohesion and Integration Research Programme at the Human Sciences Research Council -- a position he took over from Ford Foundation trustee Wilmot James (in 2004).

In 1997, George Soros, intent on expanding his polyarchal ambitions in Africa, formed the Open Society Foundation for Southern Africa to work in ten Southern Africa countries, and again Slabbert helped him set up his latest philanthropic behemoth. The current deputy chair of this foundation is the wife of Max Sisulu, Elinor Sisulu, who is the media and advocacy manager of the Johannesburg office of the NED-funded Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe, "which she was instrumental in establishing in 2004." In addition, Reginald Matchaba-Hove, the former chair of the Open Society Foundation for Southern Africa, sits on the steering committee of the NED's World Movement for Democracy (sitting alongside IDASA executive director, Paul Graham), and he is the chair of the NED-backed Zimbabwe Election Support Network. Two other NED-connected board members of Soros's democracy-manipulating foundation include Godfrey Kanyenze, who "served for a long time" as the director of the NED-funded Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, and Immaculée Birhaheka, "one of the Congo's leading human rights activists," who was the winner of the NED's 2006 democracy award and is the co-founder and president of the NED-funded Promotion and Support for Women's Initiatives. (11)

Finally returning to Slabbert and Boraine's initial (conflict "resolving") play-pen, the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, it is fitting that in their first year of operations they recruited African National Congress activist Janet Cherry to their ranks. This is because since then Cherry has gone on to become an influential theorist of nonviolence for polyarchal elites, acting as a trainer for the controversial Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, and serving on the academic advisory committee of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Here one should observe that the chief financier and founding chair of the latter Center, Peter Ackerman, happens to be an important funder of a conservative democracy-manipulating group known as the Free Africa Foundation (see "Buying Freedom for Africa"). A particularly significant member of the Free Africa Foundation's advisory board is leading "democracy promotion" theorist Larry Diamond, who is member of IDASA's US board of friends, and is a co-director of the NED's International Forum for Democratic Studies. (12) Such connections are no mere accidents, and they provide an elegant demonstration of the extent to which polyarchal ideology has been fruitfully propagated. As William Robinson, the leading critical theorist of the democracy-manipulating establishment, observes:

US "democracy promotion," as it actually functions, sets about not just to secure and stabilize elite-based polyarchic systems but to have the United States and local elites thoroughly penetrate civil society, and from therein assure control over popular mobilization and mass movements (that is, correct the "flukes," or "dysfunctions," of democracy). This is in distinction to earlier strategies to constrain social and political mobilization though a focus on control of the state and governmental apparatus. (13)

Leftist activists must collectively recognize this manipulative reorientation of the elite foreign policy-making community. If they continue to overlook the full extent of this change -- as many doctrinal human rights groups and progressive media outlets continue to do -- there will be little to prevent their activism from acting in the service of imperialism and polyarchy, not justice and grassroots democracy. This situation is intolerable: how many people must be crushed before activists recognize that the revolution will not be funded? (By capitalists anyway.)


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1.  Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (Heinemann, 1987), p.6.  (back)

2.  Ian Taylor, "South Africa's Transition to Democracy and the 'Change Industry': A Case Study of IDASA," Politikon, 29 (1), 2002, p.34.  (back)

3.  Taylor, South Africa's Transition to Democracy and the "Change Industry", p.32, p.33, p.32.  (back)

4.  Taylor, South Africa's Transition to Democracy and the "Change Industry", p.40.  (back)

5.  Moyo Bhekinkosi, Setting the Development Agenda? U.S. Foundations and the NPO Sector in South Africa: A Case Study of Ford, Mott, Kellogg and Open Society Foundations (University of Witwatersrand, 2005), p.186. Frederik van Zyl Slabbert is presently a board member of the Democracy Development Programme, where he serves alongside Herbert Vilakazi. Vilakazi had met George Soros at Columbia University in the 1960s through his roommate, Marco Poggio, who went on to become Soros's philosophy tutor. On his longstanding relation with George Soros, Vilakazi said in 2003 that he...

"...introduced him to Africa and then to South Africa and South Africans. This enriched him morally. He had not been connected to the huge part of humanity -- having gone through Hitlerism. He had been racially oppressed. His assistance to South Africans began before he even came to South Africa in the early 1980s. Through me he got to know and assist many South African exiles who were becoming a big community and needed scholarships and subsistence money. I appealed to George Soros and he always helped -- this was in the 1970s in New York. He paid scholarships for people like Felicia Mabuza and Dr Thondlane Thondlane, former CEO of the National Development Agency."

Moyo adds: "According to Vilakazi, Soros also supported musicians, for example, Philip Tabane and others, who performed on Broadway in New York and thereafter attempted to break into the American music industry. Since it was difficult to break through, Soros helped these musicians financially." (p.181)  (back)

6.  Taylor, South Africa's Transition to Democracy and the "Change Industry", p.44.  (back)

7.  Another notable trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation is Irene Menell, an individual who had helped cofound the Urban Foundation (in 1977) with the aid of Anglo American.  (back)

8.  Former chair of the Open Society Foundation of South Africa Azhar Cachalia (2000-08) was the former national treasurer of the United Democratic Front.  (back)

9.  Steve Biko, I Write What I Like (Heinemann, 1987), p.20. Biko adds: "Let me hasten to say that I am not claiming that segregation is necessarily the natural order; however, given the facts of the situation where a group experiences privilege at the expense of others, then it becomes obvious that a hastily arranged integration cannot be the solution to the problem. It is rather like expecting the slave to work together with the slave-master's son to remove all the conditions leading to the formers enslavement." (pp.20-1)  (back)

10.  For example, Martin Luther King Jr.'s name is now used to promote polyarchy in Africa: thus the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change received five grants from the National Endowment for Democracy for their work in South Africa (between 1990 and 1993).  (back)

11.  Other members of the board of directors of the Open Society Foundation for Southern Africa include Mathasi Aminata Kurubally, who works in Lesotho for the imperial evangelists World Vision, and Fidelis Edge Kanyongolo, a former board member of the Malawi Civil Liberties Committee, a group that has obtained funding form the Westminster Foundation for Democracy -- the British version of the NED -- in 1997 and 1998.  (back)

12.  Other interesting members of IDASA's board of US friends include former Left Forum board member Mahmood Mamdani, Art Kaufman (who is the director of the NED's World Movement for Democracy), and Witney Schneidman (a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and board member of the imperialist United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program).  (back)

13.  William Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.69. "These policies were articulated by the transnationalized fraction of the US elite as the agent that gradually forged consensus. The semi-private institutions which are at the very core of the transnationalized fraction, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission -- through which it debates and elaborates strategies, develops cohesion and outward projection -- sponsored studies in the late 1970s to design a new world order. .... [The Council on Foreign Relations] is the single most powerful and influential elite planning group, and has been largely responsible for the overall direction of US foreign policy since World War II." (p.75) The aforementioned, Peter Ackerman, is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and he serves on the advisory board of their Center for Preventive Action (for detailed criticisms of these two groups, see "The Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Preventive Action").  (back)


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Published May 31, 2010