Virtue versus venture: the costs of seeming to do the right thing - Rational Standard

31 October 2018 - The case that I want to make is that the race fixation creates a blindspot big enough, even in extremely educated and intelligent people, for idiocy to penetrate.

Gabriel Crouse

The tales of the recent collapse of Solms-Delta, a wine conglomerate partnership between two white philanthropists and former non-white employees, are sickening however they’re told. Two pieces on the business’s liquidation appeared on Daily Maverick, one scalding its brainchild, Dr Mark Solms, the other a kind of defence that shifts the blame to the state. There remains something to be said about the role of race and how to do better.

Dr Mark Solms is one of this country’s great intellectuals. He has broken ground in understanding the disconnect between REM-sleep and dreaming. He has exceeded in reconciling psychoanalysis, a study of the subjective mind after Freud’s method, and hard neuroscience. He has been a frequent and proud ambassador of South African scholarship among the world’s leading experts in his field. Now he is brought low, author of a dismal business and social development failure with the collapse of the Solms-Delta wine estate.

How did such a smart guy screw up so bad? The case that I want to make is that the race fixation creates a blindspot big enough, even in extremely educated and intelligent people, for idiocy to penetrate. My understanding of how this happens is largely owed to Solms himself, and the “psychoanalysis” I saw him perform with William Kentridge at Wits a few years ago. Solms diagnosed the artist, the generic artist and not Kentridge in particular, with paranoid-schizoid syndrome. The basic idea is that in order to feel good, the healthy person does something good. But the artist fakes it, makes a mere appearance of goodness.

This is not fair on artists. But it is clearly true of the con artist, and there’s the clue to how this syndrome sustains itself. Since it is based on appearances, this syndrome is social. Merely seeming good in one’s own eyes will, except for rare cases, not sustain the satisfaction achieved by also seeming good in the eyes of others. When someone gets in this position, detached from reality, encouraged by allies to believe one’s own fake accomplishments, they are stuck in the paranoid-schizoid position. Paranoid, because any evidence against one’s own virtue is interpreted as malicious and false, the world out to get one. Schizoid, because of deeper disassociations, like splitting oneself and alienating one’s own bad behaviour into some “other” bucket.

The generic theory is that we all have our paranoid-schizoid moments, moments when we do not accept that we are partly bad, but jerk into a we-are-perfect-the-rest-is-evil frame of mind. One thing psychoanalysis is supposed to help with is breaking through that, looking oneself in the face directly, warts and all, when it counts. We all fail at this sometimes. That’s why real friends are critics, too, external supports of integrity rather than blind buttresses of delusion.

So the question is, did Dr Solms fall into the paranoid-schizoid trap he knows so well? The answer, I think, must be yes. He returned from a life in academia in the UK to take over his family wine farm and did not like it. He had to play the role of baas, in his own eyes not a good look. He saw himself as a slave “owner” of people who had “no free choice”. His employees were “lethargic”, his business plans were not coming through and it had been losing money at least since 2008. Now Solms freely admits that he knows nothing about business and “we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing” when it comes to farming. But at the time his solution was not to bone up on agribusiness or appoint a competent manager. Instead, he called in archeologists to dig in his garden where they unsurprisingly found stone tools from thousands of years ago which, equally unsurprisingly, prompted one of his employees at the time to say “you see, our people were here before you”.

This was the breakthrough moment for Solms. A breakthrough not in business, nor in farming. Rather it was a breakthrough performance. Solms finally got to play one of this country’s most fixating characters, the guilty white man, in its highest possible state of moral triumph – racked with shame and humbly begging forgiveness. Solms thought of this as the moment of reckoning, staring himself in the face and seeing the devil, too. But what he really did was look at his ancestors and see their bad actions, mistaking them for his own. Perversely this allowed him to exaggerate his own greatness and miss the folly. There is greatness in the slave-owner who renounces his ways and sets his people free. Solms pretended this greatness was his own, lavishing “his” people with satellite dishes and homes so fancy the local department thought he was secretly smuggling in a new hotel. He was clearly proud of this mistaken appearance. If he were really looking at himself he would not have seen a glorious manumissionist, Abraham Lincoln or Andrew Johnson or even a struggling Huckleberry Finn. Rather he would have seen a smaller man with less epic problems; an academic frustrated at being boxed into a business he neither understood nor liked in a rôle of power over uneducated people that he did not care to play seriously.

Solms’ delusions of grandeur plagued him from then on and were reinforced by unthinking applause. He called Solms-Delta the “first” partnership of its kind. Not true, but his international audience was scintillated by the appearance before their very eyes of the “first” seemingly contrite white South African farmer. (The rest were too busy farming to talk on TEDX). To emphasize his own humility, he said that he was “giving nothing away”. All he gave was credit surety which is now being collected at a value in eight figures. When asked, after the Solms-Delta collapse, if he regrets any of this he said, “No”. Then he mused and said something about how the business could have been run better.

For him the actual business is still an afterthought. “There was no financial gain to us [Solms and his partner Richard Astor] to do this. It is madness to think for one minute that we did this for our own benefit, in any way.” What business person says, hey my business collapsed, my equity partners are imperilled, but I don’t regret this because it was never about making money? Someone who has temporarily lost his mind, or more precisely, has entered the paranoid-schizoid position where everything is a performance of humility and race-virtue while the reckoning of accountants, banks, suppliers, dividends, and money earned is something “other”. This “other” that we call reality is to Solms either the mendacious upshot of a malicious world or just silly and unimportant relative to his own persona’s grand oomph.

The sad fact is that the path to liquidation was, in this case, laid with fake, self-abnegating, white guilt. This has terrible effects not only on Solms’ 250 former employees but also on Solms himself. Will he recover his sensibility? I don’t know. His vindication ends basically with the thought that he is still a good guy because he cares about people not money. Conspicuous caring without real consequence, that’s stock-in-trade for the con artist.

Solms would not be the first to double down on the race fixation in troubled times. When Zuma came to power he was demonstrably corrupt but vainglorious white elites protected him by playing the race card. Peter Bruce was foremost among these. Now we have a new president, finally, and some reason for hope. But when Ramaphosa says something unhelpful and blatantly untrue like “there are no farm killings”, Bruce steps in to effectively play the race card again, claiming that we should not criticize Ramaphosa because English is his “second language”. Never mind that Ramaphosa has an excellent command of English, the point is to seemvirtuous and feel good about it. This kind of thinking kept Zuma in power for too long, from credulous impimpiallegations to the “rogue unit” to what Jacques Pauw called the “first row” of The President’s Keepers who scapegoated “white monopoly capital”, and advertised their supposed care for black people through talk of “radical economic transformation”. The paranoid-schizoid position of white-is-wrong and might-is-right did damage. Economically, but socially too. Slurring people tethered to reality as “agents”, “clever blacks”, “uncle Toms”, “house n**gg**s” and “coconuts” has become hip again. And here we are lucky, it could have been worse.

Heidi Holland’s Breakfast With Mugabe made the forceful case that Mugabe got stuck in the paranoid-schizoidposition with an actual army and legion of apparatchiks buttressing his delusions about caring for “the people” while hurting them and scapegoating whites. Nor did his powerful neighbours help much. Focused as they were on black solidarity Mugabe faced scant public criticism from those who might have made a difference. The acid test is that when Mugabe said in 2007 that “our economy is a hundred times better than the average African economy”, or flattered himself in comparison to Jesus, we can easily believe that he believed himself.

Zuma and Mugabe were con artists whose bubble burst under immense pressure (but they both surely still believe they are saints). Solms is a far smaller player and the pressure to face reality is far less, too. He is exemplary, though, of him whose judgement is stunted, quashed by “the white man’s burden”. The exemplar matters because, while they get less press, white men still occupy a significant number of positions of media and corporate power and are potentially exposed by the same blind spot Solms was. There is another, quieter, way.

This winter I visited a sugarcane, avocado and citrus farm, Donavale, near Pietermaritzburg that has been in the Edmonds family for generations. It has always been run by farmers, not feeling-experts or self-advertisers. The Edmonds sold their farm to its workers, with the state footing the bill through its land reform programme. But from there on the new partners wanted nothing to do with the government, who aimed to manage the business paternalistically. So they raised a private loan to buy half (49%) of the going concern (excluding the land) placed in the workers’ trust. The Edmonds gave nothing away. The workers’ dividends went to paying back the debt, almost complete now, and throughout they have been equally represented on the company’s board. Ant Edmonds liked the deal and still does, his new partners benefited tremendously and he made serious money off it, too. If it had failed he knew he would lose everything, “and I wasn’t going to let that happen”. Edmonds hardly spoke about his feelings to me and never spoke of feelings with racial predicates, like white guilt, or black pain. His focus was on running a business, motivating people to see long positive horizons, and he was proud of contributing to a “win-win”.

I spoke to several workers and asked them if they would not prefer “the white man to go” since he was still getting half the profit (and that farm makes real profit). “NO!” came one reply, “not until we have sucked every last drrrop of knowledge from their brains. Only after that. Then we will buy them out like good business people if that makes good business sense”. How long will that take? “Who knows? We are busy learning, but some things are always changing. The skills in this business are…evolving. He [Ant Edmonds] took decades to know what he knows, we need that to fly.” That was Margaret Mamle, one of the trustees, and assistant manager to the horticulture side of the business.

Another worker-owner explained that “the youth” almost never complain about working with white people but, on those rare occasions, he would tell them, “Go to the top of that hill and look at our neighbour’s farm [Zweli Mkhize]. Look at the difference. It makes less. Less work. Less money. We can do better as partners than alone.” A third added: “I’ve been farming all my life, I know that side. But getting to market, bargaining on new machines, strategy, financing, and timing, this I’m still learning. The timing of push-and-pull” – he oscillated his hands like reining two horses – “in business is the most important skill. Malandela [Ant Edmonds] is a very good manager, he knows timing.”

And then the most important question; how do you feel about your profits going into paying back your share of the business rather than buying new luxury goods? “Timing, boy. It’s about timing!”

On Saturday morning, Ant Edmonds left at 4:30am to go paddling past the Umhlanga rocks. The thought of this recreation made me restless, so, at 5:30am, I went for a walk around the farm, looking for peace and quiet. The sun was not yet up, but the stockyard hummed with scores of people signing in, fuelling up, running safety and equipment checks, and driving off on a fleet of rattling machines. Not a white face in sight, no traditional baas cracking the whip or flagellating himself. Half the workers there were owners, baas in their own right of a business that had a plan that worked through them. The other half were new contractors, brought in partly because the business is growing, all eager to put their shoulder to the wheel of this collegial but highly efficient soil-factory. I rubbed my eyes and tried a couple of interviews. Few were prepared to talk. “We’re busy now,” one said. “Come back at 10:30 when we take a quick break.”

Gabriel Crouse is an Associate at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).