Sunday, June 26, 2011

The ANCYL's Inverted Logic on South Africa

The ANCYL’s inverted logic

June 26 2011 at 07:01pm
By Joel Netshitenzhe
South Africa IOL

The global economic crisis has not helped this nations unemployment plight, but South Africas differ to other nations in the sheer scale of the problem, the low education and skills levels, the very high levels of inequality, as well as the historical and racial dimensions to the phenomenon of youth unemployment.

As the ANC Youth League delegates rose from their seats after their 24th congress, the slogan of “economic freedom in our lifetime” on their lips, the “lost generation” seemed to be returning the favour of generational stereotyping. We, the older lot in society, bemused by a misshapen movement taking root in spite of our apprehensions, had by some quirk of fate become the “bewildered generation”.

Mesmerised by the antics of individuals, irritated by the seeming immaturity of it all, and bedazzled by the media focus on palace politics, the historic nature of the moment seemed to escape us.

It is as if the 1976 youth uprising was playing itself out all over again.

Then, it fell to the youth of Soweto to become the outlet of the pressure cooker of apartheid oppression and repression. They threw down the gauntlet, openly articulating and acting out that which the older generations dared only whisper about behind closed doors.

In their impatience and enthusiasm, they did mangle the theory and concepts of liberation politics. And the older, wiser and politically conscious generations counselled caution, calling for the patient building of organisational capacity before radical mass action.

It was as if the 1976 youth were possessed by the spell of history to learn by doing and pay the price. And pay many of them did, in life and limb. Some among their leaders were lured by pro-apartheid global forces to try to set themselves up as an alternative to the established liberation movement; and they ended up marginal to the course of history.

But as a generation, they had seized the moment. Subconsciously, they had become the instrument of a historical epoch.

So it is with the call of today’s youth for “economic freedom in our lifetime”. The genie has been let out of the bottle. And there is no possibility of restoring it to its restful state.

Make no mistake. The sentiment of economic freedom enjoys the support of most young black people, rich and poor, employed and unemployed. Research by agencies confirms the feelings of marginalisation among the youth and their aspiration for radical economic change, though many disagree with some of the methods proposed.

That the youth of 1976 became a sterling generation in the history of struggle is in part because in time they were able to learn – from doing and from listening. Thus the appreciation dawned that they were not the first to defy the might of the apartheid state. Steadily, they came to learn about context and balance of forces. They also came to appreciate that, more often than not, there is wisdom in patience, and that a revolutionary phrase at an inappropriate moment can defeat a revolution!

This was not accidental. The older generations had marshalled the memory of experience to bring this wisdom to the restless youth of 1976. The liberation movement strained its capacities to bring the message of organised struggle into the maelstrom of the uprising. Structures outside the country welcomed the young people and provided political, military and academic training. In brief, a conscious effort was made by organised formations, communities and individuals to lend sense and effectiveness to spontaneity.

Do we have the capacity and the will today, as society, to embrace and translate a youthful impulse into purposeful action?

In its January 8 statement this year, the ANC asserts: “Political emancipation without economic transformation is meaningless. That is why we have to commit ourselves to economic freedom in our lifetime, and the ANC must continue to be in the forefront of that transformation.”

What indeed is “economic freedom” and how can it be attained? Is there a common and coherent storyline across society on the final destination and how to reach it?

This historical moment calls for serious societal debate. Imploring the ANC leadership to put its foot down and suppress the debate will not put the genie back in the bottle. Launching ideological missiles about who is more Left and the vanguard of workers, or speculating whether this campaign is a proxy for ANC palace politics, |will not smother the appeal of a sentiment.

It is no accident that this issue emerges in this stark form 17 years after the attainment of democracy. Having obliged Kwame Nkrumah’s injunction to “seek ye first the political kingdom”, post-liberation states on the continent and elsewhere had to come back to the issue of economic liberation.

The efforts sometimes resulted in success. In many other situations, failure by society to engage the issue honestly and rationally, poor policy choices on the part of leaders, and a brittle and corrupt state produced disastrous results. On the extreme, predatory elites used so-called economic liberation policies such as nationalisation, indigenisation, price controls and tariff barriers for self-enrichment.

It should be expected that youth in our country would be at the forefront of the economic freedom campaign. Just on access to economic opportunities: the employment ratio among 15- to 24-year-olds is 13.2 percent compared with 40 percent in Asia and Latin America; 48.2 percent of those available to work in the 20-24 age group are jobless; 86 percent of unemployed young people have not gone beyond Grade 12; and two-thirds of these have never worked. This has major macro-social implications, including crime and youth mortality, as well as an effect on socio-political stability, especially at local level. It is patently unsustainable.

It can be argued that this problem affects many countries. Besides the youth of the Arab Spring, there is concern in |Japan about the so-called freeters (freelance arbeiters), mileuristas in Spain and the UK’s Neets (not |in education, employment or training).

The irony that is not irrelevant to our own discourse on economic freedom is that in Spain, for instance, the youth’s “May 15 movement” of massive demonstrations led to the recent defeat of the Socialist Party in regional and local elections. According to the Financial Times (June 17), the right-wing Popular Party is expected to win the next general elections. And so, counterintuitively, socio-economic difficulties result in the rise of the right-wing, as the Left is unable to pose, and mobilise around, alternatives to the status quo. Under such circumstances, phenomena such as Louis Bonaparte’s lumpen proletariat in 19th century France, the Tea Party extremists in the US and the Green Bombers across the Limpopo river can gain prominence.

While there may be structural causes to youth marginalisation in many countries, a major contributor to the problem is the global economic crisis.

South Africa differs in the sheer size of the problem, the low education and skills levels, the very high levels of inequality and the historical and racial dimensions to the phenomenon of youth unemployment. In our situation it is systemic, manifesting even during high growth periods. As the National Planning Commission (NPC) points out in its Diagnostic Overview, the central problem in our country is that too few people are involved in economic activity.

If “economic freedom in our lifetime” is to have any meaning, it should address this fundamental challenge. The root causes of the problem, the NPC argues, relate to the structure of the economy, the quality of education, poorly located and inadequate infrastructure, a resource-intensive path dependency, and spatial economic and settlement patterns, among other things.

South Africa needs a growth storyline that addresses these issues and clearly describes:

--How we can use the infrastructure programme not only to crowd in the private sector, but also to build supplier industries that will absorb more labour.

--The competitive advantages that we need to forge to be able to manufacture many of the mass market goods that we import.

--A strategy to take advantage of our massive mineral endowments to exploit the commodities supercycle and, more critically, to build a mature industrial cluster around these endowments.

--How we can take advantage of these and other endowments and potential to build a green economy that is more than just cost-neutral.

--A clear strategy to take advantage of the high economic growth rates on the continent through regional integration and the pooling of sovereignty.

We should build “an economy in which cutting-edge technology, labour-absorbing industrial development, a thriving small business and co-operative sector, utilisation of information and communication technologies and efficient forms of production and management all combine to ensure national prosperity” (2007 ANC Strategy and Tactics document). This will ensure that we escape the middle-income country syndrome, where countries reach a level of development and then stagnate, unable to break out because of path dependency and sheer inertia.

However, the immediate challenge of unemployment, particularly among young people, cannot wait until high growth over five years starts to have qualitative impact. By then, the ticking time bomb may have gone off. As such, specific programmes to address this deficit need to be pursued.

Besides the public works programme, this should include measures such as massive artisanship training, learnerships, a school-to-work transition programme, job transition through the state and so on.

Programmes to address asset poverty including housing and land reform need to be intensified. And the approach to black economic empowerment should also focus on community trusts for youth and women as well as employee share ownership schemes.

With regard to land, policy and planning should take into account the reasons that measures such as the audit of state land, the Communal Land Rights Act, the Land Use Management Bill, revival of collapsed agricultural schemes and other support programmes in rural areas are taking so long fully to materialise.

It is this kind of methodology, first to identify the objective, and then the processes and mechanisms required to achieve it, that should inform the approach of the “economic freedom movement”.

An inverted logic is bound to lead to wrong conclusions. This is one major weakness in the youth league’s approach. Some of the “seven cardinal pillars of economic freedom” it identifies put the cart before the horse.

This applies for instance to “expropriation without compensation” and “nationalisation for industrialisation”.

Besides issues of constitutionality, the disadvantages of these actions in relation to sustainably building a prosperous and equitable society, and alternatives to them, are treated dismissively.

Thus, like in 1976, the youth impulse to sense and seize a historical moment is somewhat infused with the mangling of logic, impatience and a revolutionary phrase that can in fact defeat a revolution.

The campaign for economic freedom in our lifetime cannot be the preoccupation of one sector of society, inward-looking and posited to antagonise potential participants.

Among the youth and across society, serious discussion needs to take place about what we want to achieve, what contribution each sector of society can offer and, indeed, what sacrifices each can make to realise that objective. In such dialogue, even the privileged would come to appreciate that a prosperous and equitable society is in their self-interest.

This should include a campaign for the youth to value personal advancement from an honest day’s work, to uplift schools that perform poorly and are dysfunctional, to abhor corruption and campaign against it, and to eschew the conspicuous consumption that not only highlights our levels of inequality but also subtracts from the savings needed for a consistent and sustainable high growth rate.

Handled in this way, the economic liberation campaign will be embraced by society in a dynamic social compact, for the benefit of society.

*Joel Netshitenzhe is executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute (, a member of the National Planning Commission and of the national executive committee of the ANC.

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