Biff! Bang! Wack! Pow! The nationalisation debate gets personal

By Branko Brkic 22 November 2009

What a country. Could the real communists please stand up? One of South Africa’s leading communists is against nationalising the mines. And the foremost youth leader, who is in favour of nationalisation, claims the life-long communist is not a “proper” communist.

The South African Communist Party deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin and the ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema have just engaged in a remarkable tit-for-tat on the nationalisation question. The contribution of each is filled with weird lacunae, surprising insights and odd deviations. They also indulge in a few below-the-belt blows.

Cronin’s core position is that nationalising the mines is a bad idea, not because nationalising things is necessarily bad, but because the mines are in too hopeless a state to be worth nationalising. Sasol and ArcelorMittal, on the other hand, should be nationalised, he argues.

Malema’s core position in response to this bizarre logic is that Cronin is (a) not a proper communist, and (b) that obviously, the useless mines will not be nationalised, only the ones making a profit. And obviously, the state will not have to pay for them.

And, obviously, the South African ruling elite would never act contrary to the Constitution even though the Constitution specifically prevents arbitrary nationalisation without fair compensation.

The whole debate does have a feel of something out of a Mad-Hatter’s tea party. Here are some prize excerpts:

“I suspect that comrade Malema and others are missing this bigger systemic picture because when they speak of mineral beneficiation they are thinking of bling… sorry, jewellery.”

“It is the mining corporations that owe the people of SA trillions of rands in compensation, not the other way round.”

“ ….nationalising mining houses in the current global and national recession might have the unintended consequence of simply bailing out indebted private capital, especially BEE mining interests…At the beginning of this year, government estimated that some 80% of BEE deals were ‘under the water’ as a result of the global recession.”

“An analysis of the systemic realities that are reproducing under-development in our country, must surely lead us to call for greater use of renewable energy sources, for the phasing out of aluminium smelters, and for the re-nationalisation of Sasol.”

Malema in response:

“South Africa is home to vital mineral reserves in the world, and this includes platinum group metals (70%), gold (40%), manganese (70%), chromium (70%) and 54 other minerals. What exactly happens to these minerals is not known, yet comrade Jeremy knowingly avoids this question because his main interest is centred on protecting and defending the existent (sic) property relations.”

“The question of expropriation does not arise and squarely falls within the conceptual framework we previously raised, that depending on the merits of each case based on ‘balance of evidence’, nationalisation may involve expropriation with or without compensation.”

“The Constitutional Court will not be involved in all these because our call for nationalisation and its ultimate realisation will never violate the Constitution.”
“South Africa in 2009, more than in (any) other period in its history, is strategically in a space and period to nationalise mines”.

Cronin’s side comment about “bling” is especially revealing, because it’s clear he regards the Youth Leagues’ views on the topic of nationalisation to be ill-formed and ill-informed.

For example, Cronin is sceptical of the beneficiation argument as a justification for nationalisation. He notes trenchantly that “the idea that SA will grow into a major jewellery powerhouse to rival centuries-old artisanal traditions (and markets) in India or Amsterdam, simply because some of the precious minerals happen to be mined here, is, I am sad to say, a pipe-dream”.

But crucially, Cronin’s rejection of nationalisation is not based on the poor history of nationalised industries or on the conflicting lines of authority involved, but on a fear that nationalisation might “bail out” the mining industry. He doesn’t mind nationalisation; he just does not want to be tricked.

The most disappointing part of his response is his failure to specify what the SACP’s notion of its alternative to nationalisation, “socialisation” of the mines, actually means in practice.

But for all Cronin’s lacunae, his response takes place clearly within real-world parameters, whether you agree with him or not. Malema’s response reflects a strange, other-worldly view of what nationalisation entails. For all the many arrows directed at Cronin for being only a “pretend communist”, Malema fails to address Cronin’s best arguments.

For example, he blithely contradicts Cronin’s scepticism about beneficiation, saying much of SA’s mineral resources are not being mined. It does not seem to occur to him that they are most probably not being mined because they cannot be mined profitably. And in place of factual and specific argument is a long exposition of ANC history and what this person said when and what this congress promised to do, all in a strange sort of biblical way.

Yet Cronin’s own postulations bear scrutiny too. Nowhere in his analysis, or that of the Youth League for that matter, is there even the vaguest references to the problems faced by nationalised companies in the past or the history of nationalisation.

Cronin does say that when the Freedom Charter speaks of transferring the commanding heights of the economy to the ownership of the people as a whole, it is not confining itself to what is often just a narrow bureaucratic take-over by the state apparatus and a ruling party’s “deployees”.

Yet, he stops short. Anyone in favour of nationalisation surely has a responsibility to at least argue why previous attempts at nationalisation have been such consummate failures and explain why nationalised industries, like the telecoms industry for example, was such a failure before it was privatised.

Clearly, neither can, so they don’t go there. But expect more juicy emails between Malema and Cronin, providing even more entertainment. Why stop now?

By Tim Cohen

Read more: PoliticsWeb, PoliticsWeb


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