We need to talk

2011-08-09 00:00

THE debate on the nationalisation of mines and banks is gathering momentum, but I am not sure if the direction it is taking is useful for building consensus on the transformation of South Africa’s socioeconomy almost two decades after the attainment of political freedom. Unlike many privileged people, I do not think that the debate should be muzzled. Rather, the debate must be conducted in a logical and disciplined manner, and should include all sections of society, with the aim of coming up with ideas on how we might attain what the ANC Youth League terms “economic freedom in our lifetime”.

Dr Myles Monroe, an acclaimed leadership teacher who is also a product of the struggle for full liberation in the former colony of the Bahamas, suggests in his book The Burden of Freedom that many former colonies require a whole generation after independence to graduate from political liberation to full freedom that includes economic prosperity. Often, he argues, the generation that leads these new countries to liberation, as happened in his own country, can only lay the foundation for the attainment of freedom. They are themselves prisoners of the past and carry with them the limitations of the past, including limited access to the education and skills required to create a successful country. To succeed, these leaders need to be liberated mentally, what Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls the decolonising of minds. The duty of this pioneer group, the one that runs the new country after independence, is to firm up the political foundations for a process that leads to full freedom in economic, social and cultural terms. They need to produce a new and liberated younger leadership armed with education and the special acumen to lead their countries to this full freedom.

In our case, the likes of Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma form part of the leadership that sacrificed the comfort of professions and relatively superior careers to join the largely poor majority in a long and difficult walk to political liberation. The latter three, in particular, helped firm up the foundations of the new democracy, helping to give further meaning to this idea that the people govern through mechanisms that the Constitution has put in place. They helped manage the many contradictions that are inherent in the political compromise that produced our democracy. But in order for us as a country to realise full freedom, we will need much more effort to free us from the mental shackles of our past and to boost the capacity of most of our population to become agents of freedom. That should include a much bolder focus on turning education around, partly in order to produce the kind of citizenry that would nurture a new leadership that is politically mature, ideologically rigorous and technically literate, to lead a country of our size and capacities to new heights.

For this reason, the debate about nationalisation, especially when linked to the ANC Youth League’s goal of achieving economic freedom within a generation, ought to be salvaged from the us-against-them syndrome. On the one hand, we have financial analysts embedded in big business giving knee-jerk reactions to the Youth League proposal instead of entering the debate rationally, constructively and humbly. On the other hand the Youth League responds angrily to opposing ideas, creating an impression that it wants to impose its ideas on society instead of winning support through cool-headed reasoning and persuasion.

The debate ought to be opened up a bit more and be allowed to lead society towards answering fundamental questions about the kind of economic future we all desire, the economic model that should be put in place, the kind of skills and policy instruments that will be needed, and how we should build real momentum for economic freedom. Such a debate will help build national consensus and mend the bridges towards a concerted search for hard choices to be made for this freedom. It will isolate both those who are supporting nationalisation for their own selfish interests and those opposed to it because they detest change. It will create the possibility of a middle ground between the extremes currently promoted by various sides in the debate.

How we are conducting this public discussion on economic freedom suggests that while there is an opportunity to help generate a pragmatic agenda for the new breed of leaders, we may actually lose this opportunity. The situation requires that all find space to help in a collective process of thought-leading in order to find answers to the question: how do we realise the dream of economic freedom in our lifetime?

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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