Long live economic nationalism, long live! This is the new slogan coming out of the ANC’s Mangaung conference. Nationalisation has fallen out of fashion, at least for now. And there’s a difference between the two, though subtle. Both perspectives prioritise the local economy and national development, but differ on agency.
Nationalisation, for instance, is overly biased towards state ownership, to a point of being hostile towards private ownership.
This is a function of its socialist influence, which sees private capital’s pursuit of profit as a source of inequality and poverty.
Conversely, economic nationalism, though similarly punting state intervention, is nonetheless supportive of private capital.
The support is not unconditional, though. It is contingent on business prioritising national development, which requires cultivating a national consciousness. The national bourgeoisie can thus expect government support, but on condition that they’re patriotic. The mission to create a patriotic bourgeoisie has just been revived.
In other words, economic nationalism does not frown upon business making profit. Rather, it despises private companies doing business in a manner that benefits only them, to the neglect, if not detriment, of the rest of the local economy. This is especially true of companies involved in products that can stimulate economic activity in other areas of the local economy.
Instead of simply exporting raw materials, for instance, the idea is that private companies prioritise local sales so that they could be processed into manufactured products.
Beneficiation stimulates industrialisation, which, in turn, provides more employment and expands the country’s revenue pool.
Economic nationalism is not an original idea. In this country, it was pioneered by Afrikaner nationalists, the brethren of African nationalists. State-owned enterprises such as the steel producing as Iscor and the electricity-generating Eskom were born out of economic nationalism. Steel is a key ingredient in any industrialisation process, nor can productivity happen without electricity. And both parastatals prioritised the local economy, supplying them at a relatively cheap price. The idea was not really to make profit, but to ensure availability and supply of these strategic products so that the overall economy grows.
Though a driving force, state ownership did not flourish at the expense of private business. The latter grew in tandem with the former. State intervention promoted and built Afrikaner private capital. Afrikaner business moguls and businesses, especially in the financial sector, were effectively nurtured by the Afrikaner-controlled state.
This happened through the now infamous affirmative action policy, which the whites-only state not only invented, but also perfected. The ANC government is a johnny-come-lately on affirmative action.
Afrikaners then faced similar problems as the Africans now: poverty, inequality and imperialism. Afrikaners then were just as poor – the so-called white problem – and illiterate as Africans are today. Afrikaner business faced stiff competition from the English, who controlled the state, which prioritised the extractive mining industry that cared less about growing the rest of the South African economy.
The best roads led to the sea, and the ports, named after British personage, functioned optimally. Theirs was to simply extract raw material to feed Western industrialisation to the benefit of an imperialist elite, which possibly never even set foot in the Rand.
Economic nationalism, which gained momentum in the aftermath of 1948, thus benefited both the Afrikaner working class and capital, both of which had long been disadvantaged by English imperialism even before the formation of the union in 1910. Theirs, to borrow from the accomplished historian Dan O’Meara, was a volkskapitalisme. This was state capitalism, Afrikaner-style, not too different from what the Chinese are doing now. Capitalism was for the benefit of the entire volk.
Volkskapitalisme is the equivalent of the ANC’s national democratic society. The rhetoric and objective are the same. The major difference of course is on beneficiaries. Beneficiaries within the volk excluded the dark-skinned brethren, while the national democratic society embraces non-racialism and the order of beneficiaries is determined by the extent of (previous) disadvantage.
White women, for instance, who are similarly disadvantaged by patriarchy, have been the major beneficiaries of affirmative action mainly due to their higher level of education compared with their Afro-spotting sisters.
Volkskapitalisme and the national democratic revolution have ultimately converged. The two nationalisms have discovered their common essence, despite their varying complexions. Perhaps the ANC’s newly elected national Executive committee should consider visiting Stellenbosch, not Beijing, for lessons on state capitalism.
In fact, the 1980s ANC, as Professor Willie Esterhuyse, a Stellenbosch University philosopher, narrates in his recent book on (secret) negotiations, Endgame: “The ANC participants wanted to talk to Afrikaners from the business sector. Not to English-speaking businesspeople. This preference was something I only understood later. What interested them in this regard was not just Afrikaners’ close proximity to the centre of political power, but also their past.
“As Aziz Pahad put it to me, they had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps after the Depression. And, before that, they had to deal with the aftermath of the Anglo-Boer War. Blacks could learn a lot from Afrikaners. How were Sanlam and Volkskas started, for example? Where did Anton Rupert come from? And the Sasols?”
But history also tells us that Rupert’s ilk broke ranks with their working-class mense.
The discord centred on profits. Protection of white workers, which entailed keeping black people out of certain jobs, threatened productivity in the late 1960s to the early 1970s. The growth of the manufacturing sector demanded more skills than could be supplied by the white workforce.
Black people did not only supply the much-needed extra skills, but also came on the cheap. This meant more productivity and profits for white business, but stiff competition for white workers, who had grown accustomed to being pampered. Consequently, the multiclass alliance, which had been the power-base of Afrikaner nationalism since coming to power in 1948, floundered.
Perhaps it is no longer necessary for the working class ally of the party in government to look into history books for the fate that awaits them. Mangaung has shrugged off whatever pretences there might have remained of a leftist ANC. It has reoriented the party back to the centre of the ideological spectrum.
The rhetoric of “decent work” might still be heard, but labour brokers are not going anywhere. The promise to outlaw labour brokers was supposedly one of the biggest victories coming out of Polokwane. Mangaung rescinded the promise.
The retraction was inevitable. There’s no way that a conference that elects a millionaire as deputy president of the organisation would have approved anti-business policies. Cyril Ramaphosa is there partly because of his success in business. In fact, the NEC has been reconstituted to strengthen the party’s business acumen.
Tito Mboweni, former governor of the Reserve Bank, is not only back to the NEC, but was elected ninth – one position better than Nathi Mthethwa, the architect of Jacob Zuma’s victory. Pravin Gordhan, minister of finance, the supposed nemesis of the working class, did even better, coming out at the eighth position.
Similarly, other centrist members of the previous economic transformation committee – Max Sisulu, Enoch Godongwana and Joel Netshitenzhe – got substantively more votes on to the NEC than they did in Polokwane.
Could it be that, rather than returning to its birthplace to identify a burial site, the ANC reclaimed parts of its original self at Mangaung? Time will tell.
- Ndletyana is head of the political economy faculty at the Mapungubwe Institute For Strategic Reflection