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Opinionista

Dogmatic ideologues have South Africa by the collar

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Mmusi Maimane is leader of Build One SA.

Let’s dump the old and build a new tomorrow borne of ideas that fix our country, rather than being stuck. Our economy needs reforms and modernisation.

The attempt to capture the Davos audience by Tito Mboweni and the South African delegation had a tepid response from the international community. Even the best charm offensive needs to be backed up with credible options.

We have all seen the now-viral commentary on the South African condition by Richard Quest of the global hit show Quest Means Business. It was what everyone thought would be a soft and friendly interview done by Bruce Whitfield. If you have not seen this interview, it’s all over the internet, I would strongly recommend watching it:

In the video, Quest effectively blasts the myths about the “new dawn” South Africa. He points to the extensive looting that has taken place and continues to take place. Quest concludes by saying that it’s no use for South Africa to travel to Davos and ask for business to invest, while clearly it does not have the policies and conviction to suit investment. Quest does not buy the narrative that things are being fixed; the same actors who broke the country are now claiming to have the recipe for economic relief.

President Cyril Ramaphosa himself stayed at home and gave Davos a miss in 2020, to avoid the type of negative which occurred with his Egypt trip during the Eskom power outages. More directly, he also stayed to deal with domestic threats to his hold on the ANC.

The President might as well have gone to Davos. This is because the battles of the direction of the ANC have already been fought at Nasrec. He may have felt that it was imperative to attend the ANC lekgotla to try to sway opinion to his policies but the reality is that it is a forum where the ideologues have the party by the balls. The reality is that the President is in a stalemate. The President needs to execute economic reforms that are directly at odds with the ANC Nasrec resolutions. The NEC is not going to allow him to carry that out. The party is fully captured by the dogma of ideology.

To be clear, I’m not anti ideology. No one party or human being is neutral about how they see the world. It’s why in history we have sought to articulate ideology. It’s why we can discuss socialism, capitalism, Marxism, communism and some are already discussing Third Way-ism.

All these isms have been born in a preceding era and almost all have a context that does not quite fit in with the South African one. South Africa has a unique context and time. During apartheid it became crucial to fight for civil liberties, one man one vote, the reduced role of the devastating state of apartheid, a nonracial future, and a market-based economy. These ideals, I would contend, are still worth pursuing today, and are ever so crucial. We need protection from those who seek to undermine our liberties.

The purpose of this article is to point out that there can be risks in the dogmatic following of ideology, almost certainly unthinking decision-making. Almost the paint-by-numbers of ideological thinking. To do that is to risk being ideologically captured by dogma. Quest was indicating what many know. The economic dogma that has captured much of the body politic in our country is a large part of the problem to effective reform.

This ideological capture has varying consequences of which I will highlight only a few. For starters, there is a dogmatic view within this government that privatisation is a swear word. That if, for example, SAA were to get an equity partner, that majority shareholding would be the private sector. The dominant view is that this would be a betrayal of the Struggle. So we now have an airline that will soon be grounded with a negative ripple effect across the industry as SAA provides maintenance services to other airlines, such as Comair.

While it would be practical to have decided earlier to introduce an equity partner to allow for inflows or funding and new management, we have been hobbled by a dogmatic ideology that means no decision is taken and, as in the rules of the wild, a sitting buck will be devoured by predatory behaviour of the lions. In our case, an indecisive SAA is a sitting duck for corruption in our nation. Every member of the ANC administration is scared of selling out and they are beholden to old ideologies which are not effective for the current economic challenges.

Second, on the most crucial issue, Eskom and its collapse: The introduction of IPPs is a no-brainer, considering the state’s inability to provide energy. I have already written about the future of Eskom being about generation of energy to the continent, the creation of an entity that will utilise our coastline to produce renewable energy and be a supplier to all of Africa. The debate regarding Eskom is an old one; even under President Thabo Mbeki, Eskom’s restructure was debated, and some progress was made under Gear.

There is a recognition across the economic community of a need to sell off certain assets and create a diverse energy range. There seemed at some point to be a movement in this direction, but the handbrake came when the unions invoked the dogma of ideology and the resolutions of the conference. It’s clear that if private operators are introduced into the energy sector, this will be privatisation and as such, it can’t even be considered. The dogmatic ideologues win again, but their model does not work — the net consequence is Stage 8 load shedding. We are hobbled.

Third, on the issue of healthcare, it is no use discussing NHI under an ideological banner; this is what we are currently doing. We need feasibility studies, we need business plans. We need operations management reports and environmental impact reports. The situation as it is requires that we must work out how best to create a partnership between public and private sector assets in order to provide the best healthcare for our citizens.

Ideology is not interested in management and operations. I know first-hand how painful it is to be exploited by the private sector when the anaesthetist looks you in the eye and, without a hint of shame, says I’m going to charge 300% of your medical aid rate. Imagine your plumber saying she is going to charge you 300% of your insurance rate to fix your burst geyser and the shortfall is yours.

Capitalism in South Africa is in need of reform. I have written about this subject to add value to citizens. However, ideology is holding us back.

Last, the land debate has been the ultimate ideological stick. Land as a means of production is the ultimate Marxist mantra. Now, to be clear, I agree that we must pursue justice and that asset transfer is crucial for economic inclusion. Asset transfer is not only justice but certainly for economic inclusion.

There are other models to achieve land equity. For instance, we could build a land trust fund, which will pay out dividends to citizens who have been left out. A freedom dividend that will build an inclusive economy.

Why can’t we transfer shareholding of SoEs to South Africans left behind? This is progressive and future-oriented. Where most citizens may need wealth assets in order to build an inclusive economy. These are ideas we could explore if we had creative space to discuss these matters. However, once again ideology is capturing the process and closing out alternatives.

Justice must be attained and where citizens have the graves of their ancestors, justice and land restoration must be invoked. Future economies inevitably require some form of private property rights, at the very least a clear property regime that investors and lenders can understand. Instead of dealing with that we are debating an ideological position in a manner that is never-ending and regressive by nature. In 2030, something tells me that we will still be debating this, and South Africa will be no further along. No investment will come, but the dogmatic ideologues will triumph and their victory will be an indecisive South Africa.

I worry about our nation. In addition to ideological capture, we suffer from the ideological incoherence of parties. For example, the ANC is proud to be a broad church. Our incoherence has left us with no direction and this is what Quest was referring to. The Democratic Alliance is not helping either. They want to turn back to the past, European liberalism from 1970 which is incongruent with South Africa and the political moment. Even if you buy into their approach, appreciate that even there we are caught up with a new pencil test as to who is more liberal than the next person. The black, green and gold are captured by the reds both of the EFF and Communist Party. That our economic model is discredited and we have a president who wants all just to get along.

If I could have responded to Richard Quest directly, I would have said that our problem is not that we have looters, it is that we have been captured by special interests, connected and powerful people. We are also ideologically captured.

I would argue we need to reform. We need a new economic model. A social market system. The recognition that markets create jobs but have the crucial need to add value to citizens, that in fact, an injustice occurred in our nation through decades of oppression and that it will take both black and white capital to build an inclusive economy. That we would be better off creating a freedom fund that will invest in poor communities so enterprises can develop. That education’s solutions don’t just lie in the state but that private-public partnership can deliver schools in communities so that our children can have a better education. That security in our nation can be decentralised so that police can work in cities. This surely must be the change that says we are working to a plan and that our future is neither left or right, but has to find the centre where most citizens can live and work. That we must build not only a capable state but an agile one that will respond to our challenges.

Our future will have to confront climate and technology. The role of the state is to be more inclusive so that in these economies no hijacking can take place to the exclusion of the other. So the urgent business that Mr Ramaphosa must stay home to deal with is not to confuse people in Davos but to truly introduce a plan for the future of our nation.

If the dogmatic ideologues win, we shall remain stuck, incapable of moving, racialising our country and creating enemies of one another; we will build a state that is in competition to the markets, and the converse. Call me naive, but we need a reformation, new terms and a new ideological mantra for the future. Let’s fix our nation and leave the dogmatic purists of ideology who seek to use it to be marginalised. DM

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