How long will the South African economic centre hold?

THE situation is evolving faster than expected in South Africa. When we all expected the well-choreographed departure of former President Jacob Zuma and arrival of Cyril Ramaphosa to inspire confidence and stability in the country, the land reform debate has just occupied space.

By Tapiwa Gomo

There is no doubt that the faceless “markets” in South African still dictate the political dynamics in that country but the land reform too touches its raw nerves. What the “markets” want, the “market” should get. That is the order of things in South Africa. With the debate on the land reform emerging high and strong, is the South African oligarchy’s hold on the economy gradually facing its gradual demise? It may be too early to answer that question but surely not too early to ask.

On February 27, the South African parliament took a step further to expedite the land reform programme which means transferring land from white to black owners without compensation. Nothing causes trepidation in the spine of former settlers, especially those of western origins than the mention of land reform in Africa. African land is pregnant with everything including minerals.

The history of transfer of wherewithal of production in Africa is yet to acquire a bloodless, cut and dry solution. The various policies in different countries have been characterised by brute force on the settler which resulted in unmitigated destitution on the Africans. But South Africa has benefit of hindsight. The South African ruling party — the African National Congress (ANC), older as it may be, has drawn a lot of lessons from its neighbours mainly across the Limpopo. One such lesson is not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.

In 1980 when Zimbabwe got its independence, Samora Machel, the late President of Mozambique cautioned former President Mugabe, then Prime Minister, not to repeat the mistake he and Agostinho Neto had made. Machel was referring to how Mozambique and Angola had destroyed their economies after chasing away the former settlers who had a large hold on their economies. He, like Nyerere told Zimbabwe’s Mugabe to protect the “Jewel of Africa” — unjust as it was — but it was the goose the laid the golden eggs.
For the past 24 years, the ANC governments — partly by their own choice and largely succumbing to pressure from the oligarchy guised as “markets” — have successfully managed to ward off political pressure to pursue redistributive reforms — the reason people went to war. I say by choice because, there is no doubt that the ANC has learnt lessons from how Zanu PF destroyed its economy to retain political power.

We are also aware that the mining, engineering and chemical industries — the mainstay of the South Africa’s economy — are still in the hands of a closed group of oligarchy. Prior to independence, they successfully ring-fenced themselves by sponsoring a Constitution that cemented the racial economic marginalisation by protecting property rights — in a context where one race dominates ownership of the means of production. To inspire investor confidence was the headline and negotiation narrative. The same Constitution guarantees civil and political rights to everyone, the outcome of which is limiting the impact of protests by black people for equality and redistributive reforms.

To ensure their safety and security, they parcelled out shares to ANC leadership from subsidiary companies established to compromise them. Contrary to what most people think, the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is the brainchild of the same oligarchy whose objectives was not necessarily to empower black people but to compromise the ANC leadership. In addition, unlike the Guptas, the oligarchy grabbed and now controls largest stake in the South African media industry. One American philosopher Chomsky once stated that, “he who controls the media controls the minds of the public.” The pertinence of the media to today’s society is undeniable. The oligarchy also controls and fund the civil society industry and altogether this scenario makes them politically and epistemically more powerful than the ruling party.

With all those cushioning walls in place, the oligarchy was certain that any political manoeuvre to nationalise and redistribute the means of production would not affect them in the foreseeable future because the first line of defence is safeguarding and upholding the Constitution. If that fails, their second line of defence was that the first casualty of any such move would be the ANC leadership. This simply means the ANC leadership cannot protect their economic interests without protecting those of the oligarchy.

But then before nationalisation and redistribution happen, they have the media and the civil society organisations on their side to destabilise the ANC government and whip them into oligarchy’s line. If that fails, they can tinker the market dashboards to steer public emotions and drive people into the streets against their government. They are the economy, the markets, the employment and the goose that lay the golden eggs.

The African conundrum, especially in southern Africa, has always emerged from the ambivalence on whether to protect the devil that feeds the family or to pursue the angel that pervades peace, ownership and nationalisation in the midst of starvation and destitution. Perhaps, the Zimbabwe situation has taught South Africa that unless there is an alternative effective replacement policy, don’t touch a system that feeds the family. But again with the new wave of calls for land reform, how far will the centre hold?

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa

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  1. Land reform only works if the land is given to experienced farmers, not people on welfare.

  2. white monopoly capital is just as manipulative and corrupt as the Guptas!!

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