Don’t be fooled

2010-09-29 00:00

THERE is no gentleness spared when waging war against “counter-revolutionaries” on the question of nationalisation.

It is the tough business of ruffling feathers. Those who demur get roughed up in verbal scuffles and worse. There are catcalls and labelling. This is the time of high economic stakes for a few.

The national general council (NGC) of the ANC slipped through a quagmire on the issue of nationalisation, and by the skin of its teeth.

The nationalisation debate is couched in interesting revolutionary language, as well as objectives that belie the underlying motives.

In principle, it seems that the idea is backed by the ANC and alliance partners, but what it means and how it should be executed varies between bickering parties. They view each other with suspicion while holding on to the idea of nationalisation dearly.

Let’s not be fooled by the rhetoric. Behind it lurks something sinister.

In some quarters, the whole issue of nationalisation of the mines is less about the topic itself than a battering assault aimed at the ANC castle in order to make way for right-wing revolutionaries and “premier lounge” cadres intent on turning the ANC, its past and its principles, on its head.

So desperate and vicious was the campaign at the recent NGC that the economic commission was stormed by ANC Youth League paratroopers. They demanded that the topic be placed firmly on the table. But their arguments in favour of nationalisation were unfinished and infantile, and what should have been a great debate got lost in a mire of verbal violence.

The ANC Youth League would not let go. Reports have emerged that they howled and booed. It was a sort of siege by raging voices. They created the mood of an angry storm that could not be quelled.

One ANC elder — someone of high regard and great intellectual erudition — lifted his finger to inject some sobriety into the debate only to be booed and shouted down.

The Youth League’s ethics and behaviour have reached a new low, while the old guard cut lonely figures these days.

Overall, there was little sense of decorum at the NGC. An atmosphere of vulgarity prevailed. Debates are not really debates when they become bully pulpits.

The ANC, on the whole, looks like it needs rapid repair.

The party’s moral code, its culture of mutual respect and civil conduct no longer characterise the manner of engagement. You are trivial if you are not part of the right camp.

This marks the emergence of a new mind-set and individuals who represent to outsiders, at least, the rapid decay and rot within the party. One has to ask, “How did the ANC allow itself to get on this path?”

It is one thing for the secretary-general to be frank about the ANC’s problems (and this is welcome). It is quite another to paint a confident picture that the party has not sunk too deep into an abyss from which it may not be able to rescue itself.

The invasion of careerism and the use of the party as a way to create private fiefdoms only encourage an organic movement that displaces those who would give life, limb and soul to the party. Given this new climate in the ANC, the willingness of people with integrity to join the party is going to be tested. For all intents and purposes, people of integrity still exist within the party, but as a silent minority.

The culture that permeates the debate on nationalisation is perhaps more to be feared than the issue of whether the country needs strategic nationalisation or not. The new breed brings with it the disease of greed.

The focus on the mines represents only a part of the attempt to nationalise the economy. Nationalisation already exists in state entities such as key public enterprises, but their track record is mixed. While they play an important and vital role in the economy, their governance and accountability must improve significantly. There is little point repeating the litany of problems that afflict these institutions. These are all well known, from leadership crises, to conflicts of interest around tenders, to managerial indiscretion when it comes to pay hikes, to inefficiencies and waste of resources.

This is not limited to national entities. There are a slew of public entities mired in the same hazardous state of corruption and abuse at provincial level. They get scant attention, but their role is not to be dismissed.

Thus, we already have fledgling and failing experiments in various locales and they should give us pause.

It is not as if the state does not have national control over the mines. The new Minerals and Petroleum Resources Development Act, as the South African Communist Party notes, already cedes control to the state through the issue of “new order mineral rights”, setting limitations of access to 30 years and encumbering the closure of mines with some duty-filled demands on social and environmental responsibilities.

Even Venezuela, and many other countries which have nationalised their oil, have drawn in private capital and expertise, or entered into exploitative arrangements, in order to meet the state’s broader social and economic objectives. But this is not the point is it? It is to whom we are handing the keys and how accountable they really are to the South African public that is of issue here.

This is topmost in people’s minds when they think of nationalisation. There is little confidence in the party’s ability to control the avarice within different organs of the state.

The ANC’s moral image and the quality of its leadership cast a doubtful pall over the merits of nationalisation. Will it ensure clean hands take charge and win back the public’s confidence in party and state? Only when this happens can we believe that the nationalisation of strategic assets will be for the general good and not just for “premier lounge” cadres.

 

• Saliem Fakir is an independent writer in Cape Town. This article first appeared on the website of the South African Civil Society Information Service (www.sacsis.org.za)

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