Saul: Opening or Closing Debate?: Opening or Closing Debate?

Raymond Suttner (rsuttner [at] is Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies in Johannesburg. He is author of Inside Apartheid’s Prison (Natal University and Ocean Press, 2001) and currently editing the autobiography of Ray Alexander Simons, a well-known early Communist trade unionist in South Africa.

No doubt, Monthly Review will not want debate on John Saul’s contributions to continue indefinitely. At the same time, his recent response to Jeremy Cronin (Monthly Review, December 2002) contains certain allegations about my conduct, which deserve space for a response.

When he presented his original paper (Monthly Review, January 2001) in a seminar in Johannesburg, I acted as discussant. Saul claims:

Unfortunately Suttner seemed uninterested in engaging with the substance of my argument, choosing instead to caricature it and, with three or four other rather senior [African National Congress (ANC)] and [South African Communist Party (SACP)] personnel who had come to the seminar, to lend his voice to an attempt to carry out some kind of ritual humiliation of me. Fortunately, other South Africans at the well-attended seminar joined in helping me turn back this verbal assault. But, by the end of the meeting, nothing like enlightenment had occurred nor had any real airing of alternative views been encouraged to transpire. As one veteran of South African debate, long used to being on the receiving end of such tactics, said to me afterwards, now I knew what it was like to be “panga-packed” by the ANC/SACP (p. 50).

In a footnote Saul explains that “panga” is an African word for “machete.” This claim is possibly intending to evoke the imagery of Trotsky’s assassination by Stalinist agents with an ice pick. I have never heard this expression before. It bears no relation to what happened. Readers should also know that far from Saul being a victim he was the main actor, having ample time to present his piece and respond. I had seven minutes and very limited time to respond to many critics. I never imported any ANC/SACP figures. I knew of only one such person attending, and I did not agree with all of the contributions from ANC/SACP people. In one case I was afforded the opportunity to indicate this.

I hesitated to write this response because of the tone with which Saul has dealt with my criticism. We all prefer praise, but it is important that our answer to our critics does not deter others from entering debate. No matter how famous a person may be, that is an accolade that has to be continually re-earned through the quality of his or her work, but also I believe by conduct in engagements with other scholars. The tone and methods Saul has adopted are not conducive to the type of atmosphere we need. Instead of opening up debate, it encourages silence.

My fundamental problem with the original piece as a whole is the disempowering impact it has, the failure to engage with the contested nature of politics in South Africa, the potential areas of engagement, that have to be identified and worked on. It is also based on very flimsy data. In his presentation in Johannesburg, dubbed as a “revisiting” of the original article, Saul’s only addition was liberal readings from others praising his work.

The problematic data and interpretation, without qualification and conditionality, was all drawn on in the service of a message of unfolding tragedy, unqualified adoption of neoliberalism, and “shifts to the right.” All of these terms curiously used when John Saul himself says that labels are deployed by the ANC to silence debate.

Because all developments within the ANC and the country are treated as unconditional and unqualified, they are consequently not subject to nuances and internal differentiations and contestations. This confirms the defeatist and disempowering message, for it is only when things are conditional and qualified and where data is presented in a nuanced manner, that opportunities for influencing the course of events open up.

The whole notion of the ANC is treated at the level of leadership and the membership makes no appearance. It is treated as inert. Yet there are important developments at the level of the membership of the ANC, with some regional differences as well as contestations. There are also things happening in the ANC/SACP/Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) alliance as a whole. Saul has little recourse to official documents on the websites to see what these are. He has conducted no interviews.

Primarily he relies on evaluations attributed to others on why the ANC has “shifted to the right,” and long-range psychoanalysis of the personality of Thabo Mbeki. I would stand by these statements of “conditionality” and the need for qualification, even after the recent ANC conference’s endorsement of many of the policies that Saul criticizes. This is because developments within the ANC cannot be gleaned simply by looking at what surfaces in the media.

The notion of “unqualified” adoption of neoliberalism is contestable on a number of fronts and is not helpful to anyone who wants to engage or influence a process. The label neoliberalism cannot be applied without qualification to the ANC, and a government, which simultaneously pursues conservative macroeconomic policies and extensive state intervention that has modified the quality of life for very many people. This, despite some limitations, is especially true regarding provision of electricity, water, and healthcare in the rural areas.

This has not only improved lives but also had an impact on gender relations, with women being freed from fetching water and given more opportunity to participate in public life. Contrary to the dictates of neoliberalism there are extensive state interventions in a number of other areas, many of which may have important transformative effects.

Saul notes the emergence of a black bourgeoisie. But he does not provide analysis of its possible trajectory and the significance of internal differentiation. It is all at an impressionistic level, quoting others on how individuals have bought into capitalist life styles. Is this the end of the matter? Is it not the job of analysis to uncover commonalities, as well as differences, resulting from differentiations within the emerging bourgeoisie? Interestingly the Black Economic Empowerment commission of a few years back indicated some differences with the government over macroeconomic policy, convergences with COSATU on these issues. Is this not important? Is it not necessary to highlight the possibility of limited alliances here?

The truth is that, at the meeting Saul refers to, I did raise issues of substance. For those who are interested, I can send a copy of the brief intervention. In summary I argued that the gloomy and tragic tone of the article weighed over the analysis and data that was marshaled and that the data was drawn from a very limited and often questionable range of sources, sometimes inaccurate, usually indirect, that is, other peoples’ analysis of what someone had said or meant and that this was often without nuance. Unfortunately, Saul’s response, which Monthly Review has printed, is a barrier to taking this further in a spirit of constructive debate.