Economic war in South Africa

Posted on June 14, 2013


For all the sound and fury of the current fight between poultry producers and meat importers, their dispute may turn out to be only a minor skirmish in what promises to be a war of words and protest action aimed at securing the high ground of economic policy. And central to this will be the question of land.

The initial drive started started on Thursday, June12, at a press conference staged in Johannesburg by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) and the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu). There they announced a joint campaign that includes a call to nationalise the land of South Africa.

Although Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim, and Fawu deputy general secretary, Moleko Phakedi, declared war under the banner of “agrarian transformation”, their battle plan extends well beyond farm lands and remote rural areas. It can be summarised by the famous 1992 quote by US President Bill Clinton: “(It’s) the economy, stupid.”

Earlier in the week Jim made it clear that the land question was a beach head. Once sufficient impetus has been built up over ownership and distribution of land, the battle would spill out onto the industrial, manufacturing and financial fronts.

“We will concentrate on the whole supply chain,” Jim said. This would include dealing with the dumping of products such as poultry onto the South African market, the effect imports have on the current account deficit and the margins of retailers.

These first salvoes by Fawu and Numsa should be taken seriously because the two unions are merely the vanguard for some of the big battalions of the labour movement that have indicated they will join the fray. Cosatu, for example, has already made clear its support for food security and sustainability, focussed on the nationalisation of land.

But there are already signs in the sniping about poultry imports, production and sales, that that old aphorism about the first casualty of war being truth still applies. Not necessarily because of deliberate lies, but because of a plethora of confusing facts and propaganda.

And whether the present rallying of forces for change — accompanied by a cacophony of claims and counter-claims — will lead eventually to radical shifts in policy is an open question. The campaign may peter out after a few marches and verbal cannonades, but almost certainly not before next year’s election.

What is clear is that it was inevitable that a major campaign of this nature would emerge this month since next week marks the centenary of the notorious Natives Land Act of 1913. The effects of that Act were accurately summed up by one of the founding members of the ANC, the polymath and author, Sol Plaatjie: “Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

Since 1994 and the transition from apartheid, there has existed a commitment by government to redress this. As a result, there have been many promises and plans, decorated with a plethora of acronyms. These started with the RDP and progressed through such schemes on the rural front as the NRDS, RDF, ISRDS, BATAT and the CRDP or Comprehensive Rural Development Plan. All of which were, or are, supposed to slot into the wider GEAR, Asgisa, NGP, IPAP and, lastly, NDP frameworks.

The simple fact is that little has been done in the past 19 years to remedy an historic injustice that has implications that extend well beyond farm lands and remote rural areas. Now, with an election looming and the chance of perhaps gaining commitments to action in one or other direction from the governing party, the largely phoney war of words, centred on land, looks likely to become at least a little more real.

With the government under increasing pressure and concerned about a possible loss of electoral support, the radical ranks in the labour movement see this as an opportune time to launch a campaign to take control of the policy high ground. They seek to defeat the free market forces that have so far dominated the economy by gaining acceptance for the nationalisation of land, for protectionist tariffs to halt dumping and for greater state intervention to bolster industry.

Such changes would probably have the support of most trade unionists, along with many of the dispossessed, the landless and the unemployed. This was a factor identified — and used — by the disgraced former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema.

Earlier this week, Malema issued a widely publicised statement that he would be starting a “national forum”. This, he said, would discuss “economic liberation”, including the seizure of land “without compensation”.

But, as several Numsa and Fawu members were quick to point out, Malema’s actions have nothing to do with the union campaign. In the first place, Malema made it clear that his forum could morph into a new political party as an alternative to the ANC.

As such, Malema’s agenda tends to be seen as self-serving, having less to do with the redistribution of land than with putting pressure on the ANC. “He wants not to go to jail and even be brought back into the fold,” was one comment.

Since they are very much in the fold, the same intentions cannot be attributed to Numa and Fawu. But they are also committed, along with Cosatu, to securing the largest possible victory for the ANC in the 2014 elections.

As a result, the union campaign faces the same contradiction it has faced with every previous battle to change economic direction: its troops are part of the very army that they are in the process of wanting to defeat, while at the same time supporting the leadership of that army and the policy grounds on which it chooses to stand.

Hopefully, as the battles unfold, there will be some coherent debate. And it may be accepted, as the late chief justice, Arthur Chaskalson noted, that willing buyer-willing seller was a government decision and not a constitutional requirement.