Sunday, July 3, 2011

'Big Society' offers South Africa a way past tired old dichotomies

‘Big Society’, the selling point of the Conservative Party in their successful 2010 general election campaign in Britain, is an attempt to reframe British politics beyond the liberal/conservative paradigm mapped out by the worn-out dichotomy of big business (on the right) and big government (on the left). As an on-going strategy it aims to empower citizens and their communities by engaging decentralized local government with community work and social enterprise. In light of recent calls from Julius Malema (pictured above) for nationalisation in South Africa, it’s time the Distributist alternative, embodied by many of the ‘Big Society’ ideas circulating around Britain, entered the local debate. In a June 2010 article for BusinessDay, Chris Waldburger argues that instead of nationalising our country’s assets into a vague emanation of ‘the people’, we should recapitalise the people themselves, and allow South Africans to become the true stakeholders in their own future:
When the Soccer World Cup recedes into memory and South African public life begins again, there is no doubt that the debate over nationalisation will recommence.

It was African National Congress (ANC) Youth League President Julius Malema who sparked these fires, and what concerns many investors is the fact that Malema was also the first to demand the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki . And with Malema declaring Mugabe’s land-grab a success, one wonders if nationalisation is the next logical step for an ANC propelled by a fatalistic momentum outside the control of party moderates. 
But if truth be told, Malema was not the first politician to urge nationalisation. As he himself has pointed out, Nelson Mandela as late as the early 1990s was calling for nationalisation of the mines. And perhaps the chief source for the debate is the Freedom Charter, which declared that “mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; all other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people”. 
Mandela would vociferously and somewhat paradoxically contend that the document was not a blueprint for socialism, yet before the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the rise of the New Left in the shape of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and indeed Mbeki), nationalisation remained firmly on the ANC agenda. 
And now the ANC, in the face of widespread discontent at the failure of Mbeki’s neoliberal Gear policies to provide meaningful gains in standard of living for the poor, finds itself in an internal wrestling match for its doctrinal future. The general argument against nationalisation runs along the lines that since para-statals such as Eskom are failing, why would government intervention in the mining sector fare any better? Can the state possibly extend itself even further when health, education, and energy already seem like time bombs waiting to explode? Let efficient and competitive private corporations do what they do best — make profit — and then we will see the inevitable trickle-down benefits of supply- side economics. 
Those in agreement with Malema, however, contend that monopolies were created in the mineral industries by imperialist henchmen such as Cecil John Rhodes — a figure who notoriously allowed fires to burn in De Beers’ mines for eight hours before he sounded the alarm, all for the sake of turnover, which mostly found its way into foreign banks. Such exhibitions of corporate power will always insist on the enrichment of the few at the expense of the working-class many, activists contend. 
And so, depending on your background and political bent, it seems that is predetermined to favour one of these two options. 
But what if there was another option — an option other than the devil or the deep blue sea that could marry the concerns of the poor, with the innovation and competitiveness of the free market? As South Africans hash out an age-old, and a seemingly anachronistic, debate, it may be useful to broaden the horizons of our economic thinking.
Read the rest of the article here.

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