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Back to the future as history is rewritten at ANC policy shindig

“What the country now needs is growth with social justice. And this will require the state to play a major role in creating the conditions and dictating the policy direction of economic growth.”

If this statement emerges as an official communique when the ANC policy conference in Midrand ends today, there will be little surprise.

However, it is a statement that has long been on record: it was published in this column in March 1996 at a time when the debate about how to deal with job creation, poverty and the transition to a more equitable future was also raging.

It was made by the late Vella Pillay – referred to up to that time as “the ANC banker” – and supported by a Cosatu federation fearful that the hopes raised by the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme were about to be dashed.

An economist, Pillay was also primarily responsible for the macroeconomic policy adopted by the combined labour movement in April 1996. Social Equity and Job Creation amounted to the same sort of interventionist programme now being debated as a “second transition”.

It was clear, when the “Social Equity” ideas were put forward in 1996, that they could have been adopted as policy and introduced. This was especially so because the National Party had, by then, departed from the government of national unity and the ANC was in sole charge.

But the concept of the redistribution of wealth – by means that might include nationalisation – was ignored. Instead, a “business friendly” official programme, Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) was adopted. It was a choice made by the ANC in government.

As Gary Maude, the head of Gencor’s international gold interests – by then established in the tax haven of Jersey – told Inside Labour: “The honeymoon is over. The new government is starting to understand economic reality.”

It was an understanding that was not shared by many in the labour movement, and especially not among members of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa). The union’s members were outraged at the idea of promoting a liberal, privatising and share-owning economy.

Others were more accommodating.

By September 1996, for example, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union had investment companies in place, steered by former office bearers of the unions. A Cosatu investment vehicle was also about to be launched.

Only Numsa, at its congress in October, raised severe doubts and called for Cosatu to consider leaving the ANC-led alliance. In what turned out to be the last gasp of such opposition, a resolution was put that noted: “(The ANC in government) would become a major employer… it would be contradictory for a trade union, representing worker interests, also to be aligned with an employer organisation.”

However, the majority view was summed up by a Cosatu official: “The bottom line is that the alliance must remain intact. And the government has made it perfectly clear that it intends going ahead with its policy.

“We cannot stop it, so we might as well try to have some influence on it.”

This was widely seen as an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. But confusion reigned.

It was explained to some degree by the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin when he told me that there were “three basic strands” – Left, Right and Centre – in the ANC and the SACP. “Our membership ranges from people who played a role in drawing up the government’s macroeconomic strategy to those who are wholly opposed to it,” he explained.

In other words, the “transition” at that time could have gone in any direction. There were no constraints, either in the form of “sunset clauses” or the then newly minted constitution. Placing himself in “the Centre”, Cronin said he supported the strategy of “winning the new black middle class” to goals that would advance the cause of the poor and dispossessed.

Given this history it is small wonder that many trade unionists have this week displayed a marked cynicism about any second transition. “It’s confusing, ne?” remarked one delegate in a cellphone call.

A memory of all those earlier debates may also have caused Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to express wariness about the second transition concept. He is, after all, a former leader of the NUM.

Combing through the hundreds of Inside Labour columns written since February 1996 for a forthcoming book, I discovered innumerable references and statements that could be transposed directly to the current policy indaba; they highlight the fact that the government blocked the “pro-poor, pro-worker” policies demanded by the unions.

In fact, since 1996, the government has consistently supported the liberal orientation of the economy, first promoted by Nelson Mandela and codified in Gear by a cabinet headed by former president Thabo Mbeki and his then deputy, Jacob Zuma.

To lay the blame elsewhere for policies that the likes of Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi have described as “a disaster” is to rewrite history.

But it was not only recent history that suffered distortion in Midrand this week. The emotive issue of land and land redistribution was also raised and the facts mangled – and not only by the ANC Youth League’s Ronald Lamola.

In the first place, there exists no accurate audit of land ownership and no “willing buyer, willing seller” requirement in the constitution. And while it is probably true that a disproportionate amount of arable farmland and salubrious suburbia remains in the hands of the historically advantaged sector of the population, there has been considerable, largely unrecorded, change since 1994, both through individual and corporate purchases.

South Africa is a largely arid country, with only a relatively small amount of our 1.2 million kilometre square metres of land area suitable for farming. So to talk only in terms of percentages of claimed land holdings is nonsense.

However, it is emotive nonsense and, like historical distortions, is something many politicians tend to use – and abuse.

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