Many South Africans probably breathed a slight sigh of relief last week when two key business organisations indicated that they were ready to engage in a “robust” debate on the merits, or the lack thereof, of proposals to nationalise the mines, banks and the land.
The issue, but more especially the uncompromising tone adopted by the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) in its pursuit of “radical policy” change, has been sucking the confidence out of the country’s business sector, as well as society more generally.
Although many accept that the debate (or absence thereof) has less to do with any policy agenda and far more to do with key succession struggles within the ANC itself, it has nevertheless raised anxiety levels.
Concern has been heightened primarily by the lack of any overt opposition from within the governing party to the rhetoric, despite the obvious costs to society and the economy through deferred investment and the lowering of South Africa’s attractiveness as an investment destination.
Yes, the ANC has established a “research project” to examine “Forms of State Intervention in the Economy”, including mine nationalisation, and the study, which is likely to explain why nationalisation cannot be pursued, is expected to be finalised during the second half of 2011.
But in the meantime, the destructive demagoguery has been allowed to proceed mostly unhindered.
Ironically, it has been left to the labour unions (whose own language and natural policy inclinations have been all but hijacked by right-of-centre nationalist forces) to do the job that, by all rights, should have been done by leaders in the ANC and government – although business has now also formally joined the fray.
For their part, the unions have cautioned about the potential costs to employment of pursuing an ill-conceived and currently uncon- stitutional policy proposal. Business has, meanwhile, described it as a “bad idea”, which is eroding policy certainty, business confidence and resulting in a deferment of investment not only in the mining sector, but also across the full business spectrum.
However, the near silence of the political leadership means citizens have also been left to interpret what it all means.
Their understandable conclusion? That the senior ANC leadership is weak to the point of impotence and, by extension, that those running amok will eventually occupy the current leadership void.
It’s an entirely unhealthy position and proposition and one that cannot be allowed to fester.
As Business Leadership South Africa CEO Michael Spicer put it recently: “Government can no longer pretend that this can just carry on for another 18 months in a way that has no impact on the size of the economy, the size of employment and the investment decisions that both local and international investors make.”