Political freedom and private enterprise – the centre cannot hold?

Ernest Cole
House of Bondage, 1967

Act One/Transition One

The struggle for the liberation of the South African people achieved political freedom. It has done so in very concrete terms – one person, one vote; the elimination of odious apartheid legislation such as the Group Areas Act and the Immorality Act. There has been no ambivalence on this march towards political freedom.

But the parameters of economic freedom are somewhat fuzzier, especially with regards to the role of private enterprise in the economic lives of black South Africans. The continuing struggle for economic freedom for the masses is increasingly being captured by the economic left. Those who occupy the centre are missing in action.

How does a political movement that has insisted on the rights and claims of black people to determine their own future in this land reject the notion that they should strive to create their own wealth?

Africa’s gift to the world

I’d like to take a few steps back to reflect on how discourse on economic policy is framed. White sympathy for black causes has often arisen in white society from those who are opposed to the mainstream economic system, usually conceived as a capitalist system that exploits people of colour. Their opposition to this state of affairs makes them natural allies of the exploited. The black struggle for liberation, be it in the United States of America, Africa or the Caribbean thus becomes conflated with left-wing, Western politics. Political and economic liberation come as a particular kind of package – political liberation from oppression and economic freedom from capitalism.

The black politically free never seem to embrace, at least in the initial stages of liberation, an economic system that does not bear the hallmarks of collectivism, socialism, communism or similar. The black politically free never choose an economic path that offends their Western political allies.

Another source of the leftward bias seems related to an idea that can be traced to Steve Biko, the idea of Africa’s gift to the world as “a more human face”. This could be read to mean a communitarian face, an economic system that values the collective over the private, social harmony over accumulation and private power. But what of economic self-determination?

Then there are advocates of the African way. Africa is neither doomed nor hopeless (as The Economist would once have us believe), but it is different. It is a colourful, vibrant place of happy chaos. The African city is informal, fluid and hot with life. It is not a place of cool calculation. It is not a place that can be contained by the strictures of profit and loss. Africans are taken to have a different sense of time and valuation. And so private enterprise and capitalism won’t do for a black-led South Africa.

I do believe that empowered black people, conscious of their agency and responsibility to themselves and to the world, spiritually bold, perhaps compassionate; might have something quite new to offer to the world in terms of economic thought. I am simply quarrelling with the notion that such empowered, conscious black people have a “natural” home in the traditional left.

There is the genuine fear that if true black liberation were to embrace a non-leftist idea of economic freedom, it might succumb to the temptations of exploitation. Having emerged from centuries of subjugation, black South Africans cannot be seen to be want to build their own empires, using the masters’ tools nogal.

How does contemporary South Africa make the aspirations of the Freedom Charter relevant to a new age? I think of the Freedom Charter as a sacred text – to be respected, but not always taken literally. An inclusive economy does not have to be state-led. Markets can co-exist with social protection against the risks of life and to safeguard the interests of the most vulnerable within society.

Nationalise it!

It’s time to imagine a radically different South Africa. In another generation, a revolutionary vision of this country might have meant a call for nationalisation. In recent times, this subject has re-emerged on the political scene. The initial, knee-jerk reaction might be to quarrel – who talks about nationalisation in a global, post-statist millennium?

But there are very good reasons why we find ourselves at a point where we need to have a genuine conversation about nationalisation, or fundamentally, about ownership and participation in the South Africa economy. In 2012, we remain one of the most unequal societies in the world; an inequality that was brutally engineered and enforced by a colonial, and then, an apartheid state. This is the result, not of competition in a well-functioning society, but of legislation and policy, available in the historical records to be scrutinised, that dispossessed black people of their land; that shut down mission schools and community-funded schools so that black men and women could be turned into a source of cheap, disempowered labour and forbade black people to own most assets and run businesses except for a short list of petty activities.

The mining industry, the main target of the nationalisation movement, benefited quite visibly from this devastation and this cloaks calls for its nationalisation with some legitimacy. Some of the most important struggles over the rights of black people as economic agents were fought in this industry. Protests by white miners in the 1920s, including the Rand Rebellion, were waged to eliminate labour market competition from black workers, entrenching a virulent colour bar that cheapened black labour and eliminated black aspiration.

In the documentary Mining for Change, we see men stripped of their clothes and dignity. The photography of Ernest Cole also documents this brutality. In these works, we revisit scenes of men living in dehumanising conditions, poor and crushed, vulnerable to disease and desperation.

Faced with this grotesque history of depravity, exploitation and riches, compassionate human beings may be moved to dream of a worker’s utopia. Such a history taints all capitalist activity with the stain of exploitation and indifference to human suffering.

It becomes tedious and difficult to make the case for a mixed economy model that delivers results. It seems naïve to believe that an environment can be created where the state provides an environment for investment and looks out for the greater good, whilst those with private incentives take on risk and chase financial returns within a moral, regulatory framework and well-functioning institutions.

The recent nationalisation debate, positioned as an antithesis to the Mbeki-era middle class project, germinated in a favourable climate where faith in the market and in business has been shaken by the financial crisis. The neo-liberal prophets have aided and abetted reckless behaviour in the private sector, and now government is back in fashion. Under the circumstances, it would be short-sighted to dismiss the nationalisation debate as just another fad, as pseudo-revolutionary posturing.

In the early 2000s, as a junior employee in the mining industry, I found myself in a division that was meant to be thinking about beneficiation (i.e. adding value to minerals as opposed to exporting them as barely refined commodities). The Mining Charter was in its infancy and, fresh from postgraduate study, I was looking forward to engaging in what appeared to be a meaningful programme of change.

But in the mining industry, I found a climate distrustful of government, distrustful of entrepreneurship and hostile towards black talent. I encountered apparently experienced executives mouthing head office platitudes about core competencies and hurdle rates without an appreciation of how these were linked to the operating environment, to society and to the future. Though there were pockets of innovation and a stated desire to be a good corporate citizen, this environment did not present the South African corporate sector in the best light.

What the nationalisation debates reflects, in micro-cosmic fashion, is a broader tension created by heart-rending underdevelopment against the backdrop of opulence. This leads to fear and mistrust between the privileged and the historically dispossessed and it stifles those voices seeking to craft smart and fair solutions that take society forward.

Power to the people

Today, with old and new elites at the top and a burgeoning welfare class at the bottom, our salvation will be in developing the missing middle.

Ernest Cole
House of Bondage, 1967

To achieve the status of a middle class society, a few elements need to be in place. The most important of these are: conduct from the political, bureaucratic and business elites that displays diligence, dignity and integrity; access to quality education for all; safety and security in all communities and a pragmatic economic policy. None of this is particularly controversial.

Yet the reason why South Africa does not reflect these elements is partly due to the lack of an agenda that we can all sign up for. Of course, a middle class majority threatens certain entrenched interests – those who depend on the unfulfilled hopes and aspirations of the majority to consolidate their power, those who are afraid of accountability, those whose self-esteem has been constructed throughout history on their superiority over the shackled majority, to name but a few.

Current pressing imperatives require some distribution of wealth. But there is a duty to also imagine and implement a long term vision for the future – beyond the short term, beyond the convenient slogans of nationalisation and expropriation. The future is vast. It cannot be built on the limited view that development for the majority can only be delivered by the state and the benevolence of rich.

Power to the people. It begins with a state that invests in human capital – the people’s education, health and infrastructure, so that they develop the capabilities to generate prosperity in a market-based, fair and efficient economy. The political extremes are not going to take us there. The centre must hold.

2 replies on “Political freedom and private enterprise – the centre cannot hold?”

I like your writing. It is intelligent and elegant and has heart – a lot like you!

I am concerned that, as Yeats says in the poem you allude to, we are “turning and turning in the widening gyre”. I fear that the chasm between the “have-helped-ourselves” and the “have-nothings” has widened to such an extent that it is impossible for the centre to hold. It would need to be an incredibly strong and cohesive centre to bridge that chasm.

However, I fear the consequences of letting the gyre widen even more. Those consequences could so easily be things falling apart and anarchy being loosed upon the world in a blood-dimmed tide (to paraphrase the poet). While “the worst are full of passionate intensity’ (such a stunning description of many politicians!), the centre has a huge struggle to convince people that there are alternatives to the extremes.

Very elegantly put!

I love the paragraph “It seems naïve to believe … a moral, regulatory framework and well-functioning institutions.” (Appropriately edited!) Since we are talking in the spirit of utopia, while herding our unicorns, it makes some sense to argue about ideals but in the real world the clincher must surely be the ability of people to make choices.

This is constrained by many things and as you point out two of them would be political and economic constraints. If the first has been dealt with (and to a major extent it has), then the focus is on the latter and I fully concur that education is the cornerstone of lifting economic constraints.

I am generally concerned that globally middle-class (or centrist, if they amount to the same thing) interests are ignored in the political process. Politicians pay lip-service to middle-class interest but will bow to the pressure groups, specifically trade unions or big business. Very rarely is the centre organised enough to keep politicians honest. Would SA be any different?

At least in a free market environment the ability of entrenched interests to impact on individual well-being should be more limited. (Can I get back on my unicorn now?)

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