Issue: September-November 2011


An inspiration still

Much has changed over the past 61 years, but not the commitment to openness and debate in the interests of all. RAYMOND SUTTNER analyses the critical ANC document now claimed to lay the basis for nationalisation.

Calls for nationalisation of mines and other resources, without compensation, have tapped into a widespread longing for relief from poverty. Simultaneously, the calls evoke a sense of anxiety and discomfort in sections of SA society, the international financial sector and observers of SA’s policy processes.

Nationalisation is said to be to be based on the Freedom Charter. This document, adopted by the Congress of the People in June 1955, was the culmination of a long process of consultation. It incorporated issues raised by a range of people from all over SA.

The Charter responded to the conditions which prevailed at the time. Do these political and economic conditions remain the same today as they were in 1955? Does the Freedom Charter speak to the SA of our times as it did then?

It articulated the aspiration for, and vision of, a SA where there would be swift movement to end inequality and poverty. It spoke of the pain, anxiety and indignity suffered by the majority of South Africans whose citizenship was denied.

Despite the progress which has been made, there remain high levels of inequality, poverty and alienation of people from the formal economic processes. The majority of South Africans live in abject poverty.

Reading the Freedom Charter, there is no doubt that it is capable of interpretation which includes extensive nationalisation. One key clause refers to “mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry” being “transferred to the people”.

Undoubtedly, nationalisation was then in the minds of many. It was favoured by a range of governments, apart from the Soviet Union of that time. But relatively recent interpretations of the Charter by the ANC and its allies run against current advocates of nationalisation.

In the early 1990s the ANC, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party engaged in substantial rethinking on nationalisation. This had been foreshadowed by the ANC constitutional proposals of 1988 which advocated a mixed economy. Various important experiences from western Europe, the Soviet Union and allied states were drawn upon.

After careful and intense debate, and weighing of policy options, it was felt that SA and its people would not be best served by extensive nationalisation. The country deserved a leadership that was able to look into policy proposals beyond their own interests and long-held ideological positions.


Suttner . . . modern-day relevance

There is no magic bullet that resolves everything. The tool of nationalisation or expropriation may serve a developmental purpose in certain sectors at particular times. But such a policy, it was felt, may well exacerbate problems not only of business and the existing economic system which requires a measure of certainty, but may also fail the poor.

It may be that calls for nationalisation evoke a sympathetic response from those who experience marginalisation and continued inequality. But is it the only solution? If the ANC and its allies decided in the 1990s that this was not desirable for our situation, what makes it so now? What makes us believe that it will work now?

It is public knowledge that certain sections of capital strongly support the call for nationalisation. What drives this? We have seen in other countries how sections of business attach themselves to the ruling political party so that, whatever the costs of policy options and choices, they want to advance their own economic interests.

If one seeks redress in a responsible manner, it cannot be through populism i.e. trying to fire the imagination of people with popular-sounding words as opposed to seriously considering the highly complex route that may need to be negotiated in order to bring us closer to the society aspired in 1955.

A stable political and economic order is needed to attract investment, strengthen the economy and provide a sustainable basis for any emancipatory programme. If SA “belongs to all who live in it”, as the Charter declared, there is a need carefully to balance the wide-ranging interests of all South Africans.

This responsibility must be shared by all South Africans. Real or perceived indifference to poverty, on the part of sections of big capital, fuels the call for nationalisation. Panic or dogmatism on any side is unconstructive.

Experience has taught us that not everything in the name of the poor is actually about the poor. Patronage, which subverts democracy and economic development, is not new. But it may now operate on a much wider scale and converge with high levels of corruption. This is not merely undermining. It attacks the poor and the hard-won democratic gains of 1994.

Fidelity to the Freedom Charter requires an atmosphere of debate, openness, integrity and willingness to avoid short cuts. All “who love their people and their country”, in the words of the Charter, must struggle to achieve this.

  • Suttner is the author of books including 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (with Jeremy Cronin, UNISA Press, 2006). He is a former political prisoner and leader in the ANC and SACP. Currently he is a part-time professor at Rhodes University and emeritus professor at UNISA. He is a research consultant including African country studies.