Tomatoes and tough choices

2012-11-19 00:00

BEN Turok, the ANC’s irrepressible head of political education in Parliament, arrived clutching the labels of two tomato cans. With him was Professor Bonke Dumisa, former CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who walked in ponderously. The Pietermaritzburg City Hall, the setting for the KZN ANC’s open forum on economic transformation, was packed on Wednesday night and hands flew up in every direction when it came to question time. This was exhilarating stuff and perhaps a foretaste of the kind of engagement that is going to take place in the economic transformation forum at the party’s national conference in Mangaung in December. If Wednesday night’s discussion was anything to go by, the ANC’s leadership battle could be a sideshow to the more contested terrain of economic transformation.

The party would like its centenary conference to be a watershed event, with new ideas emerging, although this is unlikely to include a radical overhaul of the economy. I say this because at Wednesday’s meeting it was evident that the ANC really does harbour as many opinions as it has members, and there is active and open engagement. The theme for the discussion was the question: “Is South Africa’s economic structure able to respond to the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality?”

Turok got the audience fired up on tomato prices. He held up the labels showing that the imported Italian tomatoes were half the price of the South African option and said that both tins were manufactured in South Africa. He said the imported tomatoes were cheaper because their production is subsidised in Italy. “We ask our people in government: why do they allow these cheaper inports to come in, and the answer we get is that it is to make the South African manufacturers more efficient.” Turok said that on the one hand competition is good, but there is the downside of factories closing down, exacerbating the unemployment problem.

“Should we allow cheap imports or create jobs?” he asked. He advocated some form of protectionism, agreeing with Dumisa that extensive protectionism, like that under apartheid, is harmful. However, he said there are creative ways in which this can be done, for example, allowing young businesses to incubate for a while before setting them free.

Turok did not like the current cautious approach to the economy and the preaching of prudence, stabilisation and caution. He was not advocating recklessness, but pointed out that prudence leads to stagnation in the economy.

Dumisa, on the other hand, preferred prudence.

Turok said the problem today is that the government is trying to solve too many problems at once, without solving any of them properly. He felt that to solve the unemployment, poverty and inequality problems, the country needs to concentrate on job creation alone. Everything else, including the private sector, would follow suit.

Dumisa advocated a combined approach to the range of problems facing the country. However, he felt that the dysfunctional education system should be the focus.

Dumisa wants change as well, but believes a lot of the fundamentals are in place. He wants systems in place to pre-empt another Marikana.

He felt the government needs to be more decisive and that it is not best for the country if it just wants to be populist.

Turok wants a different kind of economics in the country, and a new way of doing things. “If we don’t change the structure of the South African economy, nothing will happen to solve the unemployment, poverty, inequality trap,” he said. He urged the ANC members in the audience to read the resolutions from the policy conference in June again. “Not all that was said was fully reflected (in the resolutions). We are going to have a fight,” he said.

Turok warned members to attend the Mangaung conference prepared and to reflect deeply because tough decisions will have to be taken at the meeting. “If we are going to change the face of South Africa, you and I will have to change.”

A surprising number of young people spoke up. One called for a more committed cadre than those who receive a badge and ANC membership card to enable them to do business.

Turok agreed. “We have developed a group of parasites, but there is a positive thing, a new African middle-class. Statistics tell us of an African middle strata. I think the KZN ANC should do an analysis of this group — who they are and how they fit into the economy.”

MPL Sboniso Duma said there is a need to look at ANC deployees becoming inactive shareholders. “How do we ensure that we create industrialists?” he asked. Another man, of Mpofana, is tired of short-term job creation and wants more sustainable jobs. There were questions about the exorbitant cost of electricity and both speakers were challenged for not addressing the land issue.

Dumisa had a fair number of backers for his prudence argument and Turok had his for new moves and tough decisions.

Waving his tomato labels, the man who helped craft the Freedom Charter and who was a 1956 treason trialist, warned those who are going to Mangaung that they have their work cut out for them. They are not going there just to toyi toyi.

It is a time to engage for change — on the economic front.

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