Of nationalisation, land grabs and vanguards

Terry Bell
Terry Bell
Terry Bell

Over this past week, the National Union of Metalworkers congress has again put both nationalisation and the Freedom Charter firmly onto the political agenda.

“Numsa is going to insist on the implementation of the revolutionary programme of the ANC — the Freedom Charter,” said Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim as he called for state ownership of all “strategic economic sectors” in the country.

At the same time, and again sourcing the demand to the Freedom Charter, the ANC Youth League called for the Constitution to be changed to “allow for the expropriation of land without compensation”. It is a call that was repeated by Jim. He noted that the property clause in the Constituion “must be dumped so that we can take back the land”.

However, these demands seem to entail a one-sided interpretation of the contradictory clauses in the Freedom Charter and a misreading of the relevant section in the Constitution. The relevant clause in the Freedom Charter is headed: “The people shall share in the country’s wealth.”

But while this clause calls for the wealth of the country to be “restored to the people”, it also states: “All people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.”

And the man who drafted that clause, veteran ANC MP Ben Turok, maintains that the demand to transfer ownership of the “mineral wealth beneath the soil” to “the people as a whole” has been achieved with the government — in line with international practice — now owning such wealth. Rights to exploit the minerals beneath the soil are leased out to individual companies.

This was the same interpretation given to the congress by President Jacob Zuma when he said: “The state is already directing infrastructure development in our country, as one of our primary tools of achieving growth and development.”

It is these differing interpretations that have led to a great deal of confusion. This was compounded when Blade Nzimande, speaking at the Numsa congress in his role as general secretary of the SA Communist Party (SACP), opposed the general nationalisation call.

Adding to the confusion was the fact that Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers last week repeated the claim that the call to nationalise the mines was merely an attempt to help out Black Empowerment capitalists who might be getting into trouble.

And while the calls to seize land without compensation grew, there was no reference to the Constitution other than to demand that the property clause to be scrapped, apparently because it insists on a “willing buyer, willing seller” model. But it does no such thing.

The property clause in the Constitution (Clause 25) leaves the question of compensation up to the government, stating only that an “equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected” be sought. The clause adds that the pubic interest “includes the nation’s commitment to land reform, and to reforms to bring about equitable access to all South Africa’s natural resources”.

This was spelled out clearly by former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskelson at a recentseminar in Cape Town. He pointed out that, subject to an action being reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society, there was nothing to stop the state taking measures to redress the results of past racial discrimination.

At this time of economic stress, these facts are being lost in a welter of vague and emotive terminology that is in constant use as battles for power, patronage and influence intensify. And these battles are not only occurring within the ANC and government, they are also underway within Cosatu and in the SACP.

Individuals seeking positions is one aspect, but there are also larger political agendas at play, some of them discernible in the differences in Cosatu and among the SACP members who head various unions. For Numsa, there is a degree of historical irony in this.

Thirty years ago, the broad divide, especially within Numsa, was between the Workerists and the Charterists. The Workerists demanded that the Freedom Charter be replaced by a “workers’ charter”. They opposed the “multi-class character” of the ANC and the “Stalinist” SACP whose policies they equated with another form of minority rule since the SACP’s model was the then Soviet Union and its satellites.

The Charterists supported the general, anti-apartheid Freedom Charter that spoke of “national groups” and “all people black and white” without reference to class. The SACP trade unionists supported this on the basis that it signalled the first stage of a two-stage revolution: first, a multi-class national democratic revolution (NDR) under the “vanguard” of the ANC, followed by a socialist revolution led, in turn, by the SACP “vanguard”.

The Workerists eschewed stages, maintaining that South Africa was not a colony but a “racially exclusive parliamentary democracy” that should be overthrown by the action of the “working masses” to establish a “socialist collective”. A disparate grouping of activists, they had no model and no programme apart from supporting the idea of workers and of communities getting together to take control of their lives.

Like the SACP Charterists, they comprised an activist minority that helped establish Cosatu while promising a “socialist future”. This would be a world of equality, peace and plenty, where human need and not private profit would be the priority, a system that would liberate all of humanity from drudgery and joblessness.

But the Workerists, unlike the SACP Charterists, had no coherent ideology or organisation, and so gradually dissolved into apathy or the ANC, leaving the way open for the SACP — and for a version of history to repeat itself. Some senior members of the SACP now see this time of crisis as the end of the NDR and time for the second stage.

Others SACP members disagree. But Jim and Numsa have thrown down the gauntlet: the ANC must follow “pro-worker policies” or else. Come December and the ANC elective conference, perhaps some vanguard will emerge.

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TOPICS:  Economy

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