The oppresive character of the South African state meant that political freedom came to dominate ANC policy over the years. But economic concerns were always present, even if they were formulated in terms of immediate needs rather than developed programmes.
At the founding of the ANC in 1912 the deprivation of land was a major issue, especially as the Land Act of 1913 was looming which was to lead to the erosion of the basic means of production for millions of Africans.
In the ensuing years the ANC was concerned with the loss of political and civil rights as was set out in African Claims of 1943. But there too there were a series of economic demands under the headings of land, industry and labour, and Commerce. It called for “the right to an equal share in all the material resources of the country”, as well as rights to own and acquire land in rural and urban areas.
The Freedom Charter adopted in 1955 at the Congress of the People (COP) was a further opportunity to set out economic policy. By this time the Communist Party and elements in the labour movement were beginning to advance socialist measures for economic change, but there were forces in the ANC which resisted these tendencies and the economic clause adopted at the COP was highly contested.
In the end it was agreed to even though it contained radical formulations such as that the mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole. Remarkably it has never been challenged in any ANC conference.
We move to the Morogoro Conference in 1969 when important issues of policy were laid down. It stated that national emancipation was linked to economic emancipation, and the basic wealth and resources should not be manipulated by sections or individuals, be they white or black. Nationalism must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed to gain ascendancy to replace the oppressor.
The succeeding years were preoccupied with the concrete Struggle for the liberation of South Africa and such issues were laid aside.
As the prospect of change became apparent and the regime sent emissaries to engage with Thabo Mbeki and others in exile, the nature of a possible political transition became central. Even in the provisional discussions about a Bill of Rights, economic concerns were downplayed in favour of civil and political rights.
As the transition became evermore real, as at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, issues of the constitutional order were central.
As the ANC came to power in 1994, the uppermost questions were on the survival of the government and how a liberation movement that was constituted as a Struggle mechanism could adapt to running a country.
In addition to well-established domestic business interests fearful of their future, there were also powerful external forces like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank exerting enormous pressure on the ANC government to pursue moderate economic programmes.
While I was in exile I was involved in work with the UN Convention on Socio-economic Rights. When I joined Parliament’s committee working on the Bill of Rights for the constitution I noticed that it was weak in this area.I lobbied Fink Haysom, Mandela’s top legal adviser in Parliament, and to my delight he eventually agreed and introduced the necessary socio-economic clauses in the constitution, albeit with a limitation clause.
The controversies of those years, such as the adoption of Gear (growth, employment and Redistribution), are still with us. Apart from the exigencies of a fragile government operating in a hostile environment, there was also a more fundamental issue of what kind of social and economic vision was guiding the government.
The broad Left was alarmed by the conservative and cautious character of government policy while business and the Right were alarmed by the potential militancy of the masses.
The government took the easy way out by adopting a welfarist posture, which could be defended as relieving the most acute poverty. This policy continues today.
Mbeki claimed that he was building a developmental state, but the reality indicated differently. The state was focused on running the existing apparatus albeit with different personnel. There were no changes to the structure of the economy; business became ever more profitable and the rich richer.
At the same time unemployment continued to plague the poor and the welfare provisions were just enough to keep hunger from the door. Inequality increased. Incredibly inequality in the African population is greater than in the population as a whole, an indication of where “radical economic transformation” might be heading.
Yet this was far from the intention of BEE. Parliament adopted the broad-based version of BEE which recognised the importance of co-operatives and economic initiatives on the ground, but this has not happened.
Instead a small group of individuals have become super rich. Even then, many of the BEE schemes which gave shares to African businessmen (to be repaid from dividends which failed) merely led to indebtedness rather than wealth.
Inequality also resulted from inflated salaries in the government and the public service where the former white officials had ensured that those who ran the apartheid machine had living standards way above the bulk of the population.
The unequal structure of colonial and apartheid South Africa remains in place and the exploited poor have to be satisfied with welfare concessions. The statistics reveal the lopsided character of our system. Last year, 15.5 million people had jobs, while 17 million were on social grants.
To make matters worse, the administration's performance at local level - where ordinary people exist in townships and informal settlements - is abysmal in many areas. The auditor-general found huge amounts of irregular expenditure with only 49 out of 263 municipalities having clean audits. An amount of R49 billion was misspent by the national government.
None of these deficiencies will be remedied by the radical economic transformation model proposed by President Jacob Zuma and inserted in the new mining charter. The deep corruption fostered by certain private interests and avidly taken up by those who should know better, make matters worse.
The economy is in the worst shape it has been for some time. Much depends on a clear vision on how to fix it. I wish I were more confident that those in charge had some solutions.
* Professor Ben Turok was the author of the economic clause of the Freedom Charter and is the director of the Institute For African Alternatives
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.