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The history of “white monopoly capital”

The history of “white monopoly capital”

Over a year in the making, my most recent academic paper has finally been published. The full article, which was co-authored with Alex Beresford, Nicole Beardsworth and Simon Alger, was published in the journal, Political Geography, and can be accessed for free here.

I’m particularly proud of this paper for multiple reasons; one of which is that it represents the most definitive history of the term, “white monopoly capital” (WMC) that I am aware of. We scoured the archives for historical mentions of the term and analysed millions of tweets for the paper.

It uses the case study of the Zuma-era Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party to draw a distinction between two kinds of populist movements:

  • Vanguardist populist movements which wield populist ideas to gain and retain power, and to benefit from their privileged position in society
  • Devolutionary populist movements which advocate for a complete reimagining of society, and which work to actively ‘devolve’ power to the people (instead of holding onto it)

The paper uses the RET movement as an example of a failed vanguardist populist movement. What follows are verbatim extracts from the paper:

The genealogy of a populist discourse

The African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa on the back of six successive election victories since the nation’s first democratic elections in 1994. However, despite making progress in some areas of government, the party’s support is gradually eroding because of widespread frustrations with the slow pace of socioeconomic change, growing inequalities, and corruption (Booysen, 2015Everatt, 2016Gumede, 2017Marais, 2011). This has fuelled sustained high levels of protest (Runciman, 2016) and industrial action (Sinwell & Mbatha, 2016), while in some cases anger has found expression in violence towards foreign migrants (Matsinhe, 2011). Against this backdrop, some commentators have argued that South Africa is ripe for a populist rupture (Hurt & Kuisma, 2016, p. 17Mathekga, 2008, p. 131Mbete, 2015Vincent, 2011).

Indeed, in 2016 when the discourse of white business elites (aka White Monopoly Capital) being the enemy of the people erupted into popular conversations, many commentators feared that it had thrown “a match at the tinderbox of inequality and frustration that has persisted since 1994” (Malala, 2017). But where did this potentially incendiary signifier come from?

Concerns with racialized and economic monopolies can be found in the earliest documents formulated by the broad struggle against apartheid inequality, exemplified by the inclusion of the words “monopoly industry” in the 1955 Freedom Charter (Aboobaker, 2019, p. 517). The full phrase “white monopoly capital” first features in the influential 1962 policy document of the South African Communist Party (SACP), a part of the liberation movement (South African Communist Party, 1962). The twin themes of “monopoly capital” and “white monopolies of power” appear repeatedly in SACP documents from the 1960s, but the concept of “white monopoly capital” is most fully articulated in a document called “The Path to Power” during the transition period in which the party articulated concerns about a post-apartheid dispensation that transferred political rights to the majority, but left them marginalised by a continued monopoly of economic power by the white minority (South African Communist Party (SACP), 1989).

As frustrations grew with the slow pace of economic transformation after the ANC took power in 1994, the party’s internal politics and its alliance with the SACP and the unions became more fractious and “white monopoly capital” began to slowly and sporadically re-enter the political lexicon. In some instances, WMC was identified as slowing or blocking the pace of black economic empowerment (BEE) programmes designed to create and nurture the growth of a black capitalist class (Benjamin, 2006). On the left, the powerful trade union movement evoked discourse of WMC as an enemy of the people to bemoan how government – at the behest of WMC – had pursued neoliberal policies at the expense of the black working class (Pretoria News, 2007). The SACP (Shoba & Brown, 2008) complained that there were some in the liberation movement trying to make the ANC government an “instrument” of WMC by “stealing” the party from workers and giving control over the country to a “dependent and compradorial” elite. In 2011, as leader of the ANC’s Youth League, the radical Julius Malema led a march against “White Monopoly Capital” to the seat of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), which was supported by some of the country’s labour formations (Ngobese, 2011).

Following a public falling out with the ANC leadership, Malema was expelled from the party and he and other ANCYL members formed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party in 2013, which put the fight against WMC at the centre of their agenda and their new party manifesto (EFF Founding Manifesto, 2013). References to WMC as the enemy of radical transformation would become a staple in the EFF’s rhetorical arsenal, appearing in speeches, party documents and the parliamentary Hansard5 as the party sought both to portray the ANC as morally bankrupt, and the EFF as the only political party capable of advancing the interests of South Africa’s poor black majority (Mbete, 2015Robinson, 2015).

Populist network formation (2018-2020)

While this framing of WMC as the enemies of transformation – and black people in particular – by a growing left-wing opposition was sporadically attracting publicity, it was catapulted into the centre of political debate (and controversy) when it was deployed by a network connected to the centre of power in the ANC itself in 2016. This was driven by an unlikely alliance of international capitalists, a faction of the ruling party, a notoriously right-wing London-based PR company, and a collective of left-wing activists calling for radical land reform. The Gupta family immigrated from India to South Africa in 1993 and formed close relationships with members of South Africa’s soon-to-be black ruling class (Onishi & Gebrekidan, 2018), particularly the then-aspiring politician (and future president) Jacob Zuma. In the mid-2000s the Guptas began procuring state contracts and building a domestic media empire – particularly after Zuma’s ascent to the presidency in 2009 – which pushed a pro-government and pro-Zuma line (Marrian, 2019). From 2013, as corruption scandals began to plague the Zuma presidency and the ANC became increasingly divided into those who continued to stand by Zuma and those who called for his accountability, the Gupta brothers’ infamy increased. News appeared in the country’s press about the contracts that the family had been linked to in diverse areas such as media and broadcasting, mining, telecommunications, power generation and transport, as did consternation surrounding the political influence of the Guptas over the Zuma administration.6

In December 2015, in response to the mounting media and public scrutiny of their South African operations, the Gupta family reached out to London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger to request their assistance (Neille & Poplak, 2020). Lord Tim Bell – who had previously worked for Margaret Thatcher, Augusto Pinochet and Asma al-Assad – flew out to Johannesburg and met with the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma’s son, Duduzane Zuma, in January 2016 to work out a £100,000-a-month contract signed with the Gupta-owned Oakbay Investments (Cave, 2017).

In emails exchanged between Victoria Geoghegan (the main partner who was to oversee the account) and Duduzane Zuma, they discussed the plan for a campaign with a “narrative that grabs the attention of the grassroots population who must identify with it, connect with it and feel united by it” (Leaked emails, 2016aLeaked emails, 2016b). They didn’t settle on their key campaign phrase until at least February 2016 when Geoghegan emailed the media team with an article in the Financial Times quoting EFF leader Julius Malema saying: “It is not white people who are the enemies…the enemy is white monopoly capital that wants to produce cheap labour.” (Leaked emails, 2016aLeaked emails, 2016b). This appears to be the moment when the campaign started to consider using WMC as a signifier. The following day, the leader of the ANC Youth League– in a speech partly drafted by Bell Pottinger staff (Scorpio & amaBhungane, 2017) – made a statement which was summarised by a staffer as noting that “White monopoly capital continues its stranglehold on [the] economy. White monopoly capital decides what is printed in [the] media”.

To broaden and legitimate the campaign, leaked emails reveal that the campaign reached out to aligned sections of the ruling party and activist groups and, in particular, Black First Land First (BLF). The BLF was founded in 2015 and became known for calling for radical land reform and rallying against continued white domination of the economy and politics. According to leaked emails, the links to this activist group were first devised in January 2016 between Bell Pottinger staff and Duduzane Zuma (“Campaign to Name and Shame Bell Pottinger Executives Grows,” 2017) and emails from the Gupta’s holding company, Oakbay, implied BLF leader Mngxitama had requested money in exchange for his support for the campaign (Cowan & Macanda, 2017Reddy, 2017). The emails suggest that Mngxitama was subsequently “commissioned” to write opinion pieces for the campaign (K. Anderson, 2017) and his movement, the BLF, became high profile supporters of the Guptas, mobilising pro-Gupta (Nyoka, 2017) and pro-Zuma protests as well as targeting rival protests (ENCA, 2017), disrupting meetings, and intimidating and harassing journalists critical of the Zuma-Gupta networks (The Citizen, 2017a2017b).

Working through Bell Pottinger, the campaign successfully cobbled together a network of prominent activists in the BLF as well as those within the liberation movement itself, including the ANC, ANC Youth League, and the Umkhonto We Sizwe Military Veterans Association (MKMVA). In some cases, it is alleged that these individuals and the organisations that they represented were drawn into the network through the patronage of Zuma and the Gupta family through donations, loans and debt relief (AmaBhungane, 2016amaBhungane and Scorpio, 2017News24, 2017; “Veterans with Influence,” 2011). They would be the key public drivers of the campaign, using their status and access to media platforms to create and amplify the discourse of WMC as the great enemy of the people and the Zuma-Gupta axis as the victims of hostility from white business elites and allied politicians.

By the time Bell Pottinger cancelled its Gupta account in April 2017 following a substantial public backlash (Ismail, 2017), the infrastructure was in place for the Gupta’s media machine to run their in-house version of the campaign. It appears that at this stage WMC became the focal point of an increasingly aggressive populist discourse that sought to simplify South Africa’s political space through the construction of an antagonistic political frontier between “the people” and WMC. As BLF leader Andile Mngxitama put it “the primary contradiction in South Africa is WMC, if you want to change and you are a black person necessarily you must destroy white monopoly capital” (Mngxitama, 2018). The elite network behind the campaign sought to cast WMC as a nefarious and subversive influence that had entrenched inequality in the economic system through the exercise of class power and “captured” the ANC as a political way to sustain it. Carl Niehaus, then Spokesperson for MKMVA, for example, argues emphatically that:

One simply cannot address the effect of black poverty without getting rid of the main systemic cause of it, which is the continuing exploitative control of our economy by white monopoly capital. Once this is understood our situation is no longer murky and unclear: white monopoly capital is the enemy and it has to go (Niehaus, 2017)

Critically, the framing of “the people” here adheres to an “exclusionary” populist logic (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2013), in which “the people” were defined in racially exclusive terms as the black majority against the “foreign” white business community (Mngxitama, 2018); a discourse that appeared regularly in our Twitter dataset.

Fig. 04. “Daily volumes of tweets containing white monopoly capital-related terms. Colours highlight the communities that these tweets emanated from. Also shown are key political events.”

This sparked concerns within and outside of South Africa about the dangerous potential of the campaign aimed at “deliberately prodding powder keg racial tensions” (Armitage, 2017). These fears galvanised an international backlash against Bell Pottinger in particular, which escalated to such a degree that the ensuing international scandal forced the firm into liquidation.

But did the campaign provoke the division of political space between “the people” and WMC as its protagonists had hoped for (and its detractors feared)? Fig. 4 illustrates the broad timeline of the campaign, in terms of the presence of WMC references in the South African Twitter space. Below, we track the formation of this campaign and its dissemination on Twitter, scrutinising how and why it peaked at critical moments in the public scrutiny of the Gupta-Zuma relationship (see Fig. 4). Ultimately we argue that this reflects its vanguardist character, focused on elite power struggles and devoid of genuine commitment to devolve power to ordinary South Africans.7

Searching for affect in a digital space (the impact of WMC in a post-Zuma era, 2018-2020)

The campaign can be traced through three stages illustrated in Fig. 5, which are 1) creation, 2) amplification and injection, and finally 3) legitimation and affect.8

Fig. 05. Diagram: How to orchestrate a populist campaign.

Stage 1: Creation

The first stage can be thought of as “Creation”. The network of allied political interests was patched together, with Bell Pottinger employed in the initial stages to help hone their strategy and positioning. The White Monopoly Capital term was injected into the South African discourse as part of a bouquet of topics and talking points meant to distract from the criticisms of the Gupta brothers and Jacob Zuma’s faction of the ANC. Alongside the introduction of WMC as a strawman figure to redirect public anger towards, journalists, civil society and official institutions focused on corruption were also targeted (see below figure).

Fig. 06. Examples of memes shared by the network.

This media content was created and disseminated through a range of media platforms (see Fig. 7), including the Gupta-owned ANN7 news channel and The New Age newspaper – which it later was confirmed that Jacob Zuma had a hand in creating and setting the agenda (Marrian, 2019). In addition to these news media platforms, alternative news websites appear to have been created in 2016 for allied interests such as journalist Pinky Khoabane’s Uncensored Opinion (Uncensored Opinion, n.d.), and BLF leader Andile Mngxitama’s Black Opinion which would lead the initial WMC-as-the people’s enemy narrative (Black Opinion, n.d.). Two further classes of website were also created: “PR websites” which espoused the virtues of the Gupta brothers and “attack websites”, which anonymously attacked the critics of the Gupta brothers and their political allies (Manufacturing Divides, 2017).

Fig. 07. The key media platforms used to spread misleading and false information, as reported by ANCIR.

The information provided by these websites thus provided a mix of “news”, analysis and reputation management information alongside clearly false and misleading information. This created a pro-Zuma/Gupta information eco-system which could then be distributed and amplified by the Twitter campaign.

Stage 2: amplification & injection

The media content and pre-designed hashtags were shared on social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Initially, the media were picked up and shared among a carefully constructed “sockpuppet” and “bot” network of Twitter accounts in order to perform the popularity of content through the amplification of its sharing. Sockpuppet accounts are anonymously managed Twitter profiles – often with incomplete or false profile details – pretending to be authentic accounts, often associated with automated “bot” Twitter accounts (Maity et al., 2017Yamak et al., 2018). Bot accounts use automated programmes which control fake accounts that automatically retweet the main account’s tweets (Daily Maverick Team, 2016Findlay, 2016Roux, 2017). These accounts are identifiable by their automated Tweet activity, which happens immediately following the release of content from the primary profile. Researchers identified at least 800 sockpuppet accounts on Twitter seemingly controlled from India (Manufacturing Divides, 2017). Key sockpuppet accounts which were linked to the campaign were used to disseminate the content from the media platforms while other bot accounts “Liked”, shared and retweeted posts by these key accounts, giving them social legitimacy in the eyes of real social media users. As noted by Bellingcat (Wild & Godart, 2020), “by working together in large numbers, amplifier bots seem more legitimate and therefore help shape the online public opinion landscape.” Data analysts in South Africa identified over 100 bot accounts who had churned out 18,000 tweets in just 7 days in late 2016 as part of a “fake Twitter army” operating on behalf of the Guptas and Zuma (Daily Maverick Team, 2016Henderson & Jordaan, 2016). We isolate these accounts and their networks in the map represented in Fig. 8.

Fig. 08. An interaction network map showing how Guptabot sockpuppet accounts amplified each other’s content. Key ‘seed’ nodes’ (such as @abrahamcpt19) content was amplified by other sockpuppet accounts retweeting them.

These accounts were identified as being part of this inauthentic network following established investigative methods used by the Bellingcat investigative journalism outfit (Manufacturing Divides, 2017Wild & Godart, 2020). Ultimately, these accounts 1) were mostly created in tranches on the same days, 2) that the number of posts from each account was very similar and 3) their Twitter activity was dramatically out of step with the number of Tweets and retweets that authentic accounts generate – thus indicating automated, co-ordinated behaviour.

With this falsely “amplified” social legitimacy, sympathetic content was then injected into real-life activist spaces by genuine activist accounts – such as those of Pinky Khoabane and Andile Mngxitama. Pro-Gupta/Zuma WMC attack content arrived fully formed and their “popularity” was amplified in the feeds of real users. These bot accounts fool both genuine social media users and the platform’s algorithm into thinking that a particular narrative is more popular – and thus has greater social legitimacy – than it actually does. This was the intent of the bot army created to spread the pro-Gupta and anti-WMC narrative.

Fig. 09. Interaction network map based on 6,514 tweets showing how the sockpuppet network (orange community) was embedded within a larger activist network consisting of 2,496 users who used specific hashtags popularized by the fake accounts, #PravinMustGo, #JonasIsALiar and #RealStateCapture, or mentioned influencers Mngxitama and Khoabane over the period of 2–10 November 2016.

To summarise, content from the pro-Gupta online ecosystem was initially seeded using the fake personas of the sockpuppet accounts as part of the “amplification and injection” phase of the campaign. Their amplification patterns, in the form of retweets of the seed nodes’ content, followed a clear orchestrated hub-and-spoke pattern (best seen in Fig. 8) while appearing to give the content an amplified social legitimacy. To add further weight to the visualisation, the Twitter network at this stage of the campaign had a Network Shape Score of 0,0 [read the full paper for more info on the Alger-Findlay Network Shape Score] which represents a perfect hub-and-spoke pattern, with sockpuppet accounts retweeting seed nodes but not interacting with each other at all. This content was then injected into a real network of activist influencers. The resultant network (see Fig. 9) had a Network Shape Score of 0,12 implying that it was still highly centralised around a small group of sockpuppet and real-world influencer accounts of activists.

Fig. 10. The four stages of the campaign.

Stage 3. Legitimation and affect

With the content now created, amplified, injected, partially legitimated and a sense of outrage attached, the goal was to further embed the anti-WMC discourse in South Africa’s on- and offline political space. This was achieved when mainstream news media picked up on the talking points and covered them in good faith, further legitimising them in the process and popularising terms such as WMC across South Africa. Similarly, oppositional activists engaged with the talking points, taking them at face value and further popularising and legitimising them. Fig. 10Fig. 11 visualise this staged process from the creation of content through to its amplification, its injection into the activist networks, and its consumption across other Twitter communities.

Fig. 11. Illustrative examples of the increasing Alger-Findlay Network Shape Score values as conversations become more organic in nature.

As the campaign garnered attention, the media and wider public engaged with the campaign, further establishing its legitimacy. Our visualisations of the campaign (summarised in Fig. 11 above) allow us to show how a centralised, instrumental campaign (with Network Shape Score 0.0) gradually sparked a wider conversation and the growth of a clearly identifiable activist community who bought into the WMC narrative and advocacy of radical economic transformation. This could be thought of as evidence of horizontal affect being generated among activists, evident in both the visualisation of a conversation existing around core influencers but also dispersed in a “hairball” pattern among multiple users, generating a Network Shape Score of 0.31.

Fig. 12. “Where we are now [at the time of writing] – The above network maps were generated by combining dozens of datasets relating to political and social issues on South African Twitter in each year. The RET community (in green) started off on the periphery of these collective conversations but has moved to the centre over time, representing a prominent competing voice in South Africa socio-political discussions.”

In short, this WMC campaign laid the groundwork to create an elite alliance which later cohered as the RET movement. While in the beginning the RET movement’s conversations were stilted and hackneyed, the community has persisted over time to gather a real network around its narrative. The three maps of South Africa’s online discourse in Fig. 12 shows how we isolated and visualised the RET community (highlighted green) within the wider South African Twitter community, showing how it started off quite dispersed on the periphery of these conversations before slowly moving into the centre of political debates within and outside of the ruling party.9 Our data visualisations thus illustrate how a section of South Africa’s radical nationalist-“left” was drawn together and given temporary coherence by the WMC campaign, providing common ground from which to develop new signifiers and enabled dividing lines to be drawn within the ruling party and, more widely, between the WMC campaigners and other factions within South Africa’s political space.

However, while the campaign galvanised a vanguard, it failed to generate a significant vertical affect between the campaign leaders and the wider South African public. Indeed, the network behind the WMC campaign that would eventually galvanise the RET movement was beset with contradictions from the outset. On the one hand, some of the social movement activists attached to the campaign, such as the BLF, proclaim their goal to be one of inspiring black South Africans to resist racial capitalism. On the other hand, prominent activists involved in the campaign – including those from the BLF – were severely compromised by their association with the Gupta family, Zuma, and Bell Pottinger, as well as a myriad of personal scandals engulfing the individual activists themselves (News24, 2017Shapshak, 2017). This alliance’s primary fixation was with maintaining access and control over power within existing political structures, in this case the positions of seats of power within the ruling ANC party: positions that grant “gatekeeper” power in terms of control over resources and opportunities through the ANC-controlled state (Beresford, 2015). The WMC campaign’s activity peaked around inter-elite power struggles (see Fig. 4), notably the ANC’s leadership contest at its NASREC conference in December 2017, as it tried to mobilise support for Jacob Zuma’s re-election as ANC president. Conspicuously, straight after the Zuma-aligned faction was defeated in the ANC’s elective congress in December the bot network and attack websites were taken offline entirely and social media activity went largely dormant. The movement would not generate similar levels of activity until 2021, when support was being mobilised to free Jacob Zuma from jail.

This vanguardist fixation on contesting power within the existing spaces of politics, rather than trying to facilitate popular reimaginings of how politics is enacted was evident not only in the movement’s aims but also its methods of mobilisation. As we have seen above, from the outset, the WMC campaign was steeped in the arcane language of the liberation struggle and the ideological tensions that ran among its elites for decades. Despite attempts by intellectuals to breathe new life into the WMC signifier, the intentions of those immediately behind the campaign to popularise this populist discourse in 2016 were extremely instrumental: to tap into a reservoir of public anger and indignation through orchestrated Twitter campaigns aimed at advancing elite interests in the ruling party. There was no commitment to devolving the intellectual influence of the movement: “the people” were assumed to exist as an entity needing only the right PR formula to draw from the well of their collective grievances and harness their support for elite struggles.


Our study of South Africa highlights the frailties of vanguardist populism but the lessons of this bear significance for how we understand why so many contemporary populist movements fall far short of tackling epistemic injustice and to interrogate whether this was, indeed, their aim in the first place. Whether we think about the vanguardism of WMC in South Africa, or that of MAGA, Brexit or Bolsonaro, we highlight how the manipulation of popular grievances rooted in entrenched inequalities by vanguardist populists may potentially further entrench epistemic injustice by inducing cynicism, division, violence, and/or attacks on what few democratic institutions exist for the most marginalised voices in society.

Where there is no attempt to devolve control over the direction of a campaign to “the people” in whose name it is purporting to speak, empowering the people will remain ancillary to the primary goal of winning elite power struggles. The vanguards behind such movements offer little in the way of a structural challenge to the status quo and epitomise De La Torre’s (2018) characterisation of populist elites who give short shrift to any real commitment to constituent power over constituted power.

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