The revolutionary demand for nationalisation of South African wealth
Azwell Banda questions why eighteen years after 1994 the demand for nationalisation is firmly back on the political agenda in South Africa.
Why is nationalisation such an important, absolutely necessary and essential demand among black people in general and Africans in particular, an issue in South Africa today?
But, perhaps more importantly, why has the demand for nationalisation become such an urgent matter for the majority of the black and African members of the working class?
What do they mean and want when they demand nationalisation?
After the 1994 democratic breakthrough, there was a brief period when many in and outside South Africa thought that the South African “miracle” would quickly deliver a “rainbow nation” in which all people – black and white – would happily start to live side by side in equality and freedom.
It was also thought that the poverty, unemployment and inequalities which the majority of black people and Africans suffered from would be eradicated.
To understand why nationalisation has become such a hot topic in South Africa today it is necessary to start from the beginning, to first understand what South Africa is, and how it came about.
Any other attempts to understand the demand for nationalisation and debate it outside a clear understanding of its origins and what South Africa is today are a waste of time, and quickly degenerates into a simple discussion about forms of managing economic assets.
In the programme of the South African Communist Party, adopted at its Seventh Congress in 1989, we find a very useful summary of the origins of present-day racist, patriarchal (male-dominated) and capitalist South Africa:
"The South African capitalist state did not emerge as a result of an internal popular anti-feudal revolution. It was imposed from above and from without.
From its birth through to the present, South African capitalism has depended heavily on the imperialist centres. Capital from Europe financed the opening of the mines.
It was the colonial state that provided the resources to build the basic infrastructure – railways, roads, harbours, posts and telegraphs. It was an imperial army of occupation that created the conditions for political unification.
And it was within a colonial setting that the emerging South African capitalist class entrenched and extended the racially exclusive system to increase its opportunities for profit. The racial division of labour, the battery of racist laws and political exclusiveness guaranteed this.
From these origins a pattern of domination, which arose in the period of external colonialism, was carried over into the newly-formed Union of South Africa. From its origins to the present, this form of domination has been maintained under changing conditions and by varying mechanisms.
In all essential respects, however, the colonial status of the black majority has remained in place. Therefore we characterise our society as colonialism of a special type.”
We learn from this that:
• “South Africa” was born out of the violent European destruction of the lives and economies of the local African populations, which the Europeans racially oppressed and dominated because could not completely wipe them out.
• The origins of modern capitalist South Africa lie in an imported capitalist revolution – imperialism financed and provided the military means to establish the modern racist, patriarchal and capitalist South Africa.
• The original white South African capitalist class was born within a colonial setting.
• To increase its opportunities for profits, the South African capitalist revolution relied on the racial division of labour which was coded into a battery of racist laws and political racial exclusiveness.
• From its origins to the present, racial domination has been maintained under changing conditions and by various means, but it has always been the backbone of South African capitalism.
• In all essential respects, however, the colonial status of the African majority has remained in place.
Although in 1910 the white settler community in South Africa won political freedom from British colonialism, black people in South Africa remained in a colonial relationship with the white settlers through a system of white racial domination.
It is this reality of internal white racial domination of black people in general and Africans in particular that correctly led the South African Communist Party to characterise South Africa as “colonialism of a special type”.
We have used some terms that need to be explained. First, we are saying that South Africa is a capitalist state. This means that South Africa is dominated by those who own the means by which wealth is created.
It means that the economy of South Africa is dominated by private individuals whom we call “capitalists” because they own “capital” – wealth which is used to exploit workers for profits.
We have also used the word “imperialism”. We have said that the change from a place populated by Africans into a capitalist South Africa was financed and militarily supported by European countries. The Europeans countries are “imperialist” countries because they used their financial power to advance their interests all over the world; they seek to dominate the world.
We have used the phrase “capitalist revolution” precisely because the change from being settled by Africans in their local settings into a capitalist South Africa was total, brutal, violent and irreversible. From then on, African lives would never be the same!
We have used the phrase “racial domination” to mean that Africans were not only violently dispossessed of their land and in many instances their animals, too. They were not only badly treated (oppressed), they were relegated to the bottom of the racial system – “apartheid” gave this racial domination of Africans its ideology in South Africa.
We see, then, that Africans not only lost their land and independent economic means, they were reduced to serving the interests of white capitalists in order to survive. So began the process of turning millions of Africans into the South African working class.
Of course not all white people were capitalists. The majority, in fact, were workers and ordinary famers. But the white domination of black people in general, and Africans in particular, by the white population meant that white workers enjoyed a far superior life to black and African workers.
This is true to this day, and it is the greatest obstacle to the unity of the South African working class of all races.
What is South Africa today?
It is an insult to the struggles and blood of all the South African revolutionaries who fought for the end of formal racial discrimination in South Africa to assume that nothing has changed since 1994. A lot has changed.
South Africa has a liberal constitution.
This constitution gives equal rights to all human beings in South Africa. Legal racism has ended in South Africa.
Massive social and economic changes have taken place among black people and Africans since 1994. Some have even become billionaires. Houses, water, electricity, sanitation, education, health and so on are now available to a significant proportion of black people in general and Africans in particular.
Many Africans have moved into former white suburbs and their children now go to former white schools.
All these are extremely important developments which we all must celebrate.
There is a popularly elected parliament and government in place. Many positive changes have taken place in the justice system.
Why then has the demand for nationalisation become such a hot issue in South Africa 18 years after 1994?
The economy of South Africa still remains largely white. Mass poverty in South Africa is largely black and African. The ANC itself acknowledged this ugly fact in its centenary January 8 statement.
White private land ownership still dominates in the country. Black people in general and Africans in particular still live far away from the main economic centres, are served by inferior schools and hospitals, and generally live very inferior lives to white people.
The South African economy has in fact increased the presence of imperialism in the national economy after 1994. Banks, mining, the chemical and energy industries, telecommunication, retail and so on are fast becoming dominated by imperialism.
It has, in fact, been estimated that the greatest economic benefits after 1994 have gone to white people!
We see then that the basic colonial character (colonialism of a special type) of South Africa is well and alive, and black people in general and Africans in particular, continue to occupy the bottom of the social, economic and cultural ladder.
What exactly is the demand for nationalisation in South Africa today?
At this stage, it is important to pause and deal with some very important distortions of the debate around nationalisation.
The newspapers, magazines, television and so-called political analysts, particularly those from the liberal camp, have reduced the revolutionary demand for nationalisation into a simple debate about how to manage the same unchanged, largely foreign-owned (imperialist-dominated), white capitalist South African economy.
To these, nationalisation is seen as just another tool by which a capitalist system can be organised. In this camp are those who, in fact, will agree that a measure of “nationalisation in boom times” must be inevitable.
Then of course there are those aspiring African capitalists who think that the demand for nationalisation is about giving them a chance to also become rich.
There are those who reduce the demand for nationalisation to a chaotic demand for a free for all in the economy – they raise the racist fears of a “African takeover” of white social, economic and cultural privileges which would simultaneously impoverish white people.
None of these positions address the main reasons for the revolutionary demand for nationalisation.
Let us see how the people, as organised in their progressive and revolutionary formations, articulated the demand for nationalisation in 1955. They said:
“The people shall share in the country’s wealth! The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; the 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 well-being of the people; all people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.” This is found in the Freedom Charter.
Nationalisation is about restoring the wealth of South Africa to the people as a whole. Nationalisation in South Africa is about ensuring that “the 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 well-being of the people; all people shall have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.”
When this is done, there will be no foreign imperialist domination of the South African economy and society. Nationalisation will bring to an end the white domination of South African society and economy, and restore social and economic equality among all the people of South Africa. Only then can all people have equal rights to trade where they choose, to manufacture and to enter all trades, crafts and professions.
The demand for nationalisation is a revolutionary one requiring that the white and foreign domination of South African economy and society be ended, and in its place, a society of economically equal citizens be created. It is about
ending the foreign domination (imperialism) of South African society.
Only this will lead to a truly non-racial society – a society in which no single race dominates and thrives on the domination and exploitation of others.
At this point, it is important to explain an often ignored important point. No reform of South African colonialism of a special type will change the racist nature of the South African economy and society. Only the kind of nationalisation as described above can create a truly economically equal society.
What this means is that it is no longer important whether the racist colonial capitalist economy of South Africa is thriving or not: the majority of black people and Africans in particular will always suffer from extreme inequality, live lives in poverty and always suffer unemployment. This is what racial domination of the economy and society is all about!
Thus we saw that after 1994, notwithstanding the so-called growth in the South African economy, mass poverty, unemployment and the negative effects of inequality increased among black people in general and Africans in particular, even though the ANC government did a lot to reduce the suffering of the black and African people.
At the moment, many of the human rights in the South African constitution are beyond the reach of the majority of the people of this country who are black and African. The situation is, of course, more horrible for African women and youth.
Without destroying foreign and white domination of South African economy and society, as the SACP said in 1989, in all essential respects, however, the colonial status of the African majority will remain in place.
The extreme poverty, mass unemployment and inequality in South Africa, among black people and Africans, are a necessary consequence and condition of white and foreign domination of the South African economy and society.
To pretend that without changing this domination, if economic growth of a certain percentage were to take place in the South African economy, mass unemployment, poverty and inequality would be eliminated is to indulge either in deliberate self-deception, or to advance and defend consciously the class interests of the real ruling group (white capital and imperialism).
Thus in South Africa, as in all racist post-colonial states, the question is not whether to nationalise or not, the real debate is HOW to nationalise!
South Africa is a rich country in which, if properly shared, the wealth and productive capacity of this country could guarantee everyone a decent place under the sun and lay the real foundation for a democratic society.
The challenge, however, is to address the property question in favour of an economically equal society. To answer this question will require more than debates, it will take a social revolution.
As someone in Marikana said, the majority of people in South Africa today are rich but poor.