Finally we are starting to see some real momentum and broader buy-in for government's New Growth Path (NGP) framework document. In the first weeks after its public unveiling in the latter part of 2010, the NGP was met by a chorus of criticism and scepticism emanating from several quarters.
The unreconstructed neo-liberal fundamentalist Dawie Roodt, for instance, immediately played an anti-communist rooi-gevaar card, warning darkly about the NGP's "true nature". Investec's chief economist, the normally more considered Annabel Bishop, followed Roodt with a slightly less hysterical but equally superficial labelling of the NGP.
Prominent business people, from some of whom we had come to expect a bit more of a social conscience, also succumbed to knee-jerk rejections in the early days. Bobby Godsell reduced the NGP to a single proposal (wage restraint for those workers earning over R3000 a month in exchange for capping executive salaries and bonuses). Displaying surprising insensitivity to the huge inequalities of our society and to the many local and international scandals of recent times surrounding executive remuneration, Godsell told us that nobody was going to tell him what salary and bonuses he should be getting.
All of this initial carping from the side of business and free market ideologues was in marked contrast to the warm reception that GEAR received from the same quarters back in 1996. So we might have expected that this time around at least from the left there would be a more positive response. Indeed, the SACP did respond very positively, noting that the NGP opened the door for a significant paradigm shift in government thinking on the economy. In immediately welcoming the broad drift of the NGP, the SACP was not foregoing the duty to engage critically with the detail of the NGP document and also, more importantly, with the challenges of implementation. However, we appreciated from the beginning that there would be a class struggle around the NGP and that a sceptical, stand-offish position would be a mistake. But for a while the SACP was something of a lone voice.
COSATU's initial reaction tended to be rejectionist, focusing narrowly (like Godsell) on the wage/salary pact proposal. While COSATU is not wrong to be cautious about any such pact, in the judgement of the SACP, COSATU was, certainly in its early reactions, entirely missing the bigger picture. The NGP's often unenthusiastic early reception wasn't helped by speculative stories in the media suggesting that government and the ANC were not collectively united behind the framework.
Happily all of this has begun to change very substantially. In his January 8th ANC anniversary speech, President Zuma very firmly put his own personal and ANC stamp of support and approval on the NGP. Last week's ANC's national executive committee's lekgotla followed this up with an extensive discussion and agreement on the job-creating strategic proposals and specific programmes of the NGP.
Preceding the ANC NEC lekgotla, COSATU's CEC also issued a statement that marked an important, if still cautious, shift in position. The COSATU CEC welcomed the important paradigm shift that it now said the NGP represented, and committed the federation to engaging constructively with the NGP. At the ANC lekgotla (and contrary to mischievous media reports), the COSATU delegation took up a similar constructive stance and agreed that we could not allow ongoing debate and differences to delay active and collective implementation on those critical parts of economic policy on which we all agree.
However, COSATU continues to have a number of reservations about the NGP. Among these are:
The analytic framework of the NGP which, they argue, is unclear and does not sufficiently analyse persisting apartheid economic fault-lines; and
Linked to which is their argument that we need to pursue a strategy of redistribution of income, wealth and ownership, and the NGP is lacking clarity and forcefulness in regard to redistribution.
These are important concerns around which we need to engage collectively and constructively. In this brief intervention we cannot do justice either to the detail of COSATU's criticisms noted above, nor to several other COSATU points of NGP concern.
But let's at least flag some general SACP perspectives in this regard.
On the importance of making the analytic framework informing the NGP more explicit - in the SACP we have tended to agree that matters could be made more explicit. However, we must bear in mind that this is a government document, and it is really the job of the ANC and its alliance partners to provide a more explicit and a more popularly accessible political underpinning to the NGP.
So what IS the implicit framework that we should now help to develop and popularise? It does, indeed, relate to what COSATU calls the persisting "apartheid fault-lines" - that is, racialised, class and gendered inequality, poverty and massive unemployment. But, in our view, while correctly drawing our attention to these fault-lines, the COSATU position does not yet sufficiently connect these chronic features of our society to an underlying reality. That reality is, precisely, a persisting and problematic semi-colonial growth path that has not been transformed in the period post-1994. And that is why, precisely, we need a NEW growth path.
Because COSATU, in our view, does not sufficiently anchor our interlinked crises of poverty, inequality and unemployment in the problematic nature of our productive economy, its critique of the NGP tends to default into a strategy of redistribution rather than into a strategy of radically transforming our persisting productive economy. And in so doing, COSATU tends to miss what is, precisely, paradigm-shifting about the NGP.
Let's be a little less abstract. In pointing out, for instance, the persisting apartheid inequality fault-lines, COSATU notes, among many other things, the continued disproportionate dominance of white ownership of shares and capital in general. They are quite right, of course. But if this observation is connected to a call for a redistributionist approach to transformation then you risk falling into the illusion that a more "equitable" racial redistribution of capital-ownership will somehow contribute to transforming the underlying problem in our society. We are not suggesting that this is remotely COSATU's argument - but the way in which the federation has tended to position itself on the NGP does not offer a sufficient class barrier to this kind of argument. Let us not forget that narrow BEE proponents advance, precisely, a redistributionist (and NOT a transformative) argument.
Our practical experience of narrow BEE (and COSATU has consistently agreed) is that it has often actively contributed to the entrenchment (rather than transformation) of existing patterns of capital domination, and to the process of de-industrialisation, and job losses that we have seen over the past decade.
On other fronts, even in the hey-day of GEAR, there have been very extensive redistributive interventions - social grants, RDP housing, water and electricity connections, sanitation, etc. But this has been redistribution out of a persisting problematic growth path that has continued to reproduce chronic levels of unemployment. Our redistributive programmes have, therefore, been chasing after an ever augmenting crisis.
And THIS is where the NGP has stepped in with what is a potentially paradigm-shifting approach. It is calling on us to absolutely prioritise jobs, jobs, jobs. We need to aspire to having a full employment economy over the medium to longer-term, with 5-million new jobs in 10 years as our immediate objective.
This jobs focus, by its very nature, forces us onto the terrain of asking what is right and wrong about our productive economy. It compels us - not to abandon redistributive programmes - but to submit all of them to the key litmus test of whether they are contributing to transforming sustainably the labour absorption capacity of our growth path.
The paradigm shift at work here is a shift away from what has often been a narrow equity or justice based approach to our economy and society at large. Yes, it is grossly inequitable that whites own a hugely disproportionate share of productive agricultural land, for instance. That must change. But, as we have learnt in the period since 1994, a narrow, equity-driven redistribution of land will change very little without addressing the question of sustainable jobs on the land, without addressing sustainable productive activity and all that implies in terms of skills training, agricultural extension officers, appropriate infrastructure, cooperative and enterprise development, and financial assistance.
If we hold on to this paradigm-shifting perspective, that lies at the heart of the NGP, we will lay the basis for a more intelligent and constructive South African-wide debate and consensus on the practical steps that we need to take collectively to address our social and economic crises. But this will require an active ideological and practical class struggle by the SACP, COSATU and the ANC. If we fail to grasp and champion the implicit paradigm shift within the NGP, we will risk repeating the experience of the mid-1990s, in which the RDP was reduced to a redistributive programme that needed a market-driven growth strategy (GEAR) to "provide the resources" needed. We ended up chasing our tails, as the resulting jobless growth reproduced high levels of structural unemployment whose devastating social impact our redistributive measures heroically but often vainly pursued. The key to sustainable redistribution is jobs, and the key to jobs is placing our economy onto a radically different growth path.