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Analysis: Time to rein in ANC Youth League

Is Nicky Oppenheimer a criminal, as the ANC Youth League claims? Did De Beers “sponsor” the “murderous, destructive and racist actions of the colonial/apartheid repressive regime”? And is everyone who disagrees with Julius Malema an enemy of humanity?

The ANC Youth League’s claims about De Beers and its chairman Nicky Oppenheimer constitute perhaps the most despicable and overblown outburst against a leading South African ever heard (except perhaps the way the previous regime depicted Nelson Mandela in its time). The claims are so bombastic and absurd, the league risks depicting itself as a pedantic toddler, frantically throwing its toys out of the cot if it does not get its way.

And this week, it did not get its way, after being aggressively slapped down by Mining Minister Susan Shabangu, who said nationalisation would not take place in her lifetime.

Most press reports on the subject have only quoted selectively from the Youth League’s statement response. Here it is, on the subject of De Beers and Oppenheimer at least, in full.

“It is totally dishonest and criminal for Nicky Oppenheimer to say he agrees with the misleading statements of Susan Shabangu that Mines will not be nationalised in her lifetime. By saying Mines will not be nationalised in her lifetime, Susan Shabangu is referring to her lifetime as a Minister of Minerals, because we doubt if she will be a Minister for that a very long time.

“De Beers is a Mining partnership with the governments of Botswana, Namibia and Canada, yet seems to be refusing that the people of South Africa benefit from mining of diamond. De Beers is an inconsistent and immoral, inhuman corporation, whose development and growth was at the expense of many Africans’ innocent lives.

“De Beers super-exploited African labourers through forced cheap labour and for many years sponsored the conquest of the African majority by the white minorities. De Beers operated in South Africa during apartheid and basically sponsored the murderous, destructive and racist actions of the colonial/apartheid repressive regime. If there is ever any corporation that has to be remorseful and understand that the people of South Africa should share in the country’s wealth, it is De Beers.”

Where do you start trying to develop a perspective on an outburst as hysterical as this?

Of course, there is an argument to be made that De Beers does have a history that it needs to live down. De Beers, although it never admitted it, was for a long time the world’s largest and most successful cartel.

No less a source that Wikipedia makes the claim that De Beers was “well known” for its monopolistic practices. “Firstly, it convinced independent producers to join its single channel monopoly, it flooded the market with diamonds similar to those of producers who refused to join the cartel, and lastly, it purchased and stockpiled diamonds produced by other manufacturers in order to control prices through supply.”

Go back further in history, De Beers’ original Deed of Trust, what would now be known as Articles of Association, provided the company with what even one of the company’s most sympathetic biographers, Hedley Chilvers, calls “powers such as no business concern had possessed since the days of the East India Company”.

The company could acquire any assets, move its headquarters to any part of the world, operate tramways, electric works, waterworks and railways. It could also authorise the acquisition of “tracts of country” in Africa or elsewhere “with any rights the rulers might grant” and spend whatever money was required for its “development and maintenance of order and good government” (i.e. fight wars, which it did).

But then it was the East India Company of its day, the richest and most valuable company on the planet. The company was the personal, imperialist vehicle of its first chairman Cecil John Rhodes, whose attitude toward the indigenous populations could hardly be described as progressive.

Yet, as much as it seems facile to assert it, times have changed. To judge a company by values of a century ago is just ridiculous.

It’s faintly absurd to have to assert something so widely known, but De Beers no longer has imperialist ambitions and it didn’t “support” apartheid other than by obeying the law and paying its taxes like everybody else. (Although it surely benefited from the low wages imposed on its African workers by virtue of apartheid labour laws – Ed.) It doesn’t even try to force other diamond producers to use its channel.

Nicky Oppenheimer’s critics may make many claims of him, but even they would probably not disagree with the assertion that he is perhaps the most socially conscious chairman the company has ever had. Likewise, the company has many critics, but it is, in many ways, a model corporate citizen, and definitely more so than many in its industry.

Oppenheimer remains stubbornly and sentimentally loyal to South Africa despite provocations like this one – which would send most investors packing for Canada.

His crime was to state the bleedingly obvious: business worries when people talk about nationalisation. What could possibly be more obvious and innocuous than that?

And for saying just that, he is subjected to a barrage of hate and despicable tripe, and is accused of supporting murder. Oppenheimer said he hoped Shabangu’s comment was the last word on the matter. Good luck with that.

It’s time for the president to step in here, whatever his personal problems are at the moment. If President Jacob Zuma cannot decisively stand up to this ridiculous garbage that diminishes all of us, then he is not running the country.

By Tim Cohen

Read more: BusinessWeek, Mail and Guardian

Photo: Reuters


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