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Radical economic transformation not in good hands

Opinion
Concept loses its meaning when its custodians' actions are questionable, writes Mcebisi Ndletyana.

Is radical economic transformation a mirage or a declaration of an honest intent, I wondered in this column days after President Jacob Zuma delivered the State of the Nation address earlier this year.

Whilst appreciating the urgent need to rethink how we’ve sought to improve our economy, one doubted Zuma’s suitability to lead not only that introspection, but also chart a new economic trajectory. His conduct until then had made him an unlikely agent for that pioneering and altruistic endeavour.

What has subsequently happened has not only validated one’s concerns, but also sullied a legitimate idea. Overhauling South Africa’s economy is an old aspiration within the liberation movement. It found initial expression in the Freedom Charter more than 60 years ago, and has been repeated since.

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Even when nationalisation of the mines fell out of fashion in the mid-1990s, it couldn’t be buried permanently, the writer says. File picture: John Woodroof

The mention of nationalisation in the 1950s especially even triggered concerns within the ANC that it could be mistaken for a socialist party. In an article titled “In Our Lifetime”, published in a newspaper, Liberation, in June 1956, Nelson Mandela felt it necessary to allay the concerns, but was unyielding on the necessity to break down the ownership structure of South Africa’s economy.

He wrote: “It is true that in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mine and the land the Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude.

“But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the Charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country is turned over the people.”

Exiled years later and gathered at Tanzania’s Morogoro, the 1969 ANC’s consultative conference reiterated its wish to “smash up” the monopolies that defined South Africa’s economy. In its inaugural Strategy and Tactics document, the liberation movement wrote, for instance, that: “To allow the existing economic forces to retain their interests intact is to feed the root of racial supremacy, and does not represent even the shadow of liberation.

“Our drive towards national emancipation is therefore in a very real way bound up with economic emancipation.”

Even when nationalisation fell out of fashion in the mid-1990s, it couldn’t be buried permanently. South Africa’s underperformance forced nationalisation back on to the table, especially at the ANCs 2012 policy conference. The question was how was it possible that a country that has the largest deposits of some of the most precious minerals hardly processed any of them? Instead, this country continued as if it was still a colony, building “roads leading towards the sea” and improving ports in order to export its mineral resources.

Realising that the status quo was unsustainable, the policy conference, whilst eschewing outright nationalisation, opted for strategic intervention. The idea is simply that you limit the export of some strategic minerals - such as platinum or polymers, among others - for beneficiation locally. These are used to make parts for cars and plastic-based products. Strategic intervention has not happened. Part of the reason is resistance from the privately owned mining industry. Presumably they’re comfortable making profits from exports than undertaking the arduous exercise of expanding our secondary industry, which may entail reduced profits, but yield a much-needed boost to our economy. The state has also been timid. It fears upsetting the apple cart. We had a stalemate of sorts until President Zuma declared himself the agent of radical economic transformation.

Zuma has blemished a legitimate transformative project.

He’s evidently not a genuine advocate of radical economic transformation. We know this from his previous abuse of state resources and, lately, from the State of Capture report. It took years to revive Black Economic Empowerment whilst Zuma’s family and friends were recipients of state largesse. Faith Muthambi and Ben Ngubane, for instance, have been rewarded with other appointments after overseeing the emptying of coffers at the public broadcaster.

Now chairperson of the Eskom board, Ngubane approved a R30-million golden handshake to Brian Molefe upon resigning after a mere 18 months of disgraceful service at the parastatal. Even the highly ineffective Minister of Public Enterprises Lynne Brown was prompted into an unusual action of speaking out against this feeding frenzy. All these shenanigans deny Zuma’s claim towards radical economic transformation of any respectibility.

A legitimate and urgent endavour has now assumed the resemblance of a sham. Even the ANC’s communist ally has taken to ridicule “radical economic transformation”.

They lampoon it as “radical economic looting”. Communists fear that expressing the same phrase as Zuma will lose them respect in society. We’re likely to hear even less demands for (genuine) radical economic transformation for fear of suffering infamy by association with Zuma. We’re entering self-censorship. Opponents of economic transformation have consequently become emboldened.

Malusi Gigaba’s economic adviser Chris Malikane is a victim of this resistance to fundamental change. Because Gigaba is considered a Gupta proxy, arising from his mention in the State of Capture report, Malikane is viewed in a similar fashion. Detractors couldn’t come up with any dirt, except a document that Malikane had written, titled “Concerning the Current Situation”, which they brandished as a disqualification for appointment as a ministerial adviser. Its not surprising that Malikane’s detractors could not find any dirt on him. A fine scholar and Marxist economist, Malikane is principled and ethical. He turned down a high-paying job at a bank for life of intellectual fulfilment and activism. His alleged association with the Gupta family is manifestly false. Money has no hold over the man. Malikane’s “sin” is holding an advisory post in the ministry of finance as an avowed Marxist activist. But, his views are common among leftists.

At some point even the ANC embraced some of Malikane’s ideas. Speaking at an event hosted by Andile Mngxitama’s Black First Land First was a rare moment of foolishness on his part. That organisation is a mouthpiece and a defence unit for the Gupta compound at Saxonwold. Mngxitama has no respect for the truth, at all.

Attacks on Malikane are mischievous. This is not about a corrupt adviser but an attempt to silence contrarian ideas. Some have even approached Wits University’s Adam Habib to fire him. One hopes Habib continues to resist this clampdown on free expression by market fundamentalists. This is McCarthyism that parades as a self-righteous crusade against corruption.

What one finds equally worrisome is Gigaba’s posture as this ideological onslaught unfolds. He appears to be disowning Malikane for public expression of his views. Gigaba must have known Malikane’s views before employing him. He’s held the same views since his student activism, expressed them in numerous academic writings, public engagements and even in the National Planning Commission itself.

Could it be that Malikane was appointed not to aid a genuine radical economic transformation, but to give a veneer of academic respectability to a sham? It’s possible. This Presidency is hollowing the transformation project of its moral authority. We’re witnessing a betrayal of the revolution in action.

* Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

The Sunday Independent

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