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The nationalisation of mines debate is far from over

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It won’t be when Julius Malema is turfed out of the ANC. It certainly won’t be because Big Business wills it. No, this will only be over once the ordinary members of the ANC on the ground say it’s over.

Two important events took place within the ANC in the last few weeks. The ANC Youth League president Julius Malema lost his appeal against his suspension from the party, and just two days later, the ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe announced that copies of the study on the nationalisation of mines would be distributed to ANC branches for deliberation.

Though nominally separate, the two events are tightly interlinked. Nationalisation has been Malema’s pet subject for as long as he’s been ANCYL president, and he’s succeeded in making it as much a part of his brand as Aston Martin is part of the James Bond brand. The ANCYL failed to make nationalisation ANC policy, or to even have it included as part of the debate topics at the last policy conference, but they managed to eke out a concession: the ANC sent forth a task team to study the topic and report back to the party. That report was finished late last year, but was then sent back to the team in charge for a rewrite because – irony of ironies – Mantashe found the language too dense.

The final report made its way to Luthuli House just as the national disciplinary committee of appeals was nailing Malema’s coffin shut. The timing is Machiavellian in its sweetness.

It also happened that the Mining Indaba kicked off two days after the pronouncement on Malema.

Three different interpretations of the events have since emerged. They’re somewhat contrary in nature, but the press and public have latched onto one, because it is comforting. Even if it is wrong.

If you opened any newspaper that covered the Mining Indaba, one headline repeated itself: the issue of nationalisation is dead and buried alongside its sponsor, Malema. This particular view was helped along by mining minister Susan Shabangu, who trotted out her dog-eared and worn statement about nationalisation not being government policy.

Then Business Day leaked the report itself, which says that for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that the government simply doesn’t have the cash to buy out the mining industry (makes you pause, doesn’t it), the model being proposed by Malema is unworkable.

An aside: It tickles me enormously that the ANC task team actually gave serious consideration to the Bolivarian-type of nationalisation Malema was advocating. Not because I think it’s a discredited economic policy, but because I’m sure the ANC deliberately spent time mulling it over to piss off ‘white capital’. You need not be Trevor Manuel to figure out that the government doesn’t have the money to fund a take-over.

What the ANC report does put forward as a viable idea is a new tax regime that will target mining “super profits”, and a ministry of the economy to run a state-directed economy. The minister for planning Trevor Manuel was in Cape Town for the Indaba, where he talked up the idea in such a way it almost sounded like he was talking of government policy about to be implemented. It’s not exactly nationalisation, but it is its weak-tea cousin.

Mantashe had a few choice words about attempts to stifle the debate. Don’t try to stifle the debate with threats to disinvest, he said. He pointed out the party was using the Freedom Charter as its ideological base, and when it comes to mining, it isn’t just the mining company shareholders whose views count.

There’s been more, not less, confusion since Malema’s sentencing.

So who is fooling whom?

Very simple. The soundbite about the nationalisation debate being over came out of Cape Town, not Luthuli House. The industry wishes the debate would just go away, and happily interpreted the demise of Malema as signalling the demise of the debate. If the miners at the Indaba could have torn themselves away from their croissants for a moment on the Monday morning of the conference to watch Mantashe hold forth on TV, they would have learnt how things are actually going to happen.

The ANC is going to send the report to the branches for deliberation. The branch members will then send delegates to the ANC policy conference to vote on the document. The process will be repeated at the elective conference in December. At some point, someone is going to say: look, there’s no need for a debate here. Let’s just adopt the report’s recommendation. There will be some push-back from Limpopo, where nationalisation has some traction, but they’ll be shushed. The delegates will vote, and once again, as it was in Polokwane, nationalisation will not become ANC policy.

Then, and then only, will the nationalisation of mines debate be over. DM


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