By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Whether in mining or banking, the structure of the South African economy still bears great resemblance to that of the apartheid era. Mostly black miners take trips deep down into the earth via thin shafts, while their mostly white counterparts stay atop or wear clean shirts to offices on well-manicured grounds with vistas still as beautiful as they were when they first fell in love with the country. If the new mining law, now suspended, asks that blacks own in perpetuity, a 30 percent stake in all mines, is that so unreasonable? Maybe the minimum 1 percent of turnover compulsory distribution to host communities requires a rethink; using another variable, like profit, could be problematic, however; because it could be manipulated. It could be made due only after unavoidable business expenses, though. Asking that half of new prospecting rights be black-owned is not unjustifiable either. In any case, what is the alternative? If the status quo is allowed to continue, a more radical approach would be adopted further down the line. The ultra-nationalist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) opposition party would nationalise all mines (and banks) if it ever got to power certainly. Of course, the mining companies may not mind buying more time to sweat their assets faster under the current lopsided terms: only about 38 years in gold reserves are believed to be left, albeit there is at least two centuries worth of platinum reserves yet untouched. So on balance, there is much to be gained and lost by both sides.
Best to concede a little more now
Even so, it is probably wiser for the industry not to allow things deteriorate to that extent. So even as their resort to the courts have secured them a quick-win, with mines minister Mosebenzi Zwane suspending the implementation of the new law pending when the courts decide on the matter, they would be better served by making some concessions to the government. It is unfortunate, of course, that someone with President Jacob Zuma’s tainted credibility happens to be the one championing the black cause. Like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe before him, his selfish motive is writ large. Had that person been Nelson Mandela, no one would have the temerity to challenge such a move. Such was President Mandela’s stature and power. With lesser beings now floudering at the helm, many argue Mr Mandela could have done much more. Because now a black South African with that kind of influence is not likely to emerge again in our lifetime. (Just like India is not likely to produce another Mahatma Gandhi.) The conditions that create such mythical figures only occur generations at a time. And rarely is a later champion ever able to fill in the shoes of earlier heroes. So with the benefit of hindsight, Mr Mandela should have paid as much attention to economic freedom as he did the political one. Some might say he was constrained somewhat. This is doubtful. The apartheid regime only caved in because it had no choice. Mr Mandela could have pushed harder.
So as the world marks another Mandela Day (18 July), black South Africans must reflect on the future they want for their country. Their reality is what it is. But if they think deeply, they would see how fortunate they already are. White South Africans can be accommodated, allowed to continue thriving in tandem with a similarly successful black population. The key is to find that optimal policy mix that allows both sides get almost all they want without totally alienating the other. Securing more economic power for blacks does not necessarily have to be an entirely zero-sum game. Without some forceful correction of the country’s currently unjust economic structure, however, whatever progress that is made while it subsists would eventually unravel, when an even more impoverished black majority decides they have had enough. Still, no matter how much economic power black South Africans snatch from their erstwhile oppressors, it would be meaningless if most remain underskilled or as is depressingly still the case for a lot, unskilled. Europeans realised a long time ago that it would be far more profitable to give control of primary resources to their former colonies if they could almost exclusively be the ones to add more value to them and subsequently sell them back at premia that dwarfed whatever value the raw materials ever had. So when it seemed like the colonialists had finally accepted reason by succumbing to agitations for independence those long years ago, they were actually motivated by the realisation that what would replace their repression could be even more lucrative. And without any of the bad press.
Not too late
But this is no secret, or excuse in fact: Asians managed to unshackle themselves regardless, rising to levels that African countries they were hitherto at or below par with now only dream of. Without a doubt, African leaders, past and present, are especially guilty for their countries’ frustratingly floundering evolution. For sure, there were foreign enablers. But principally, Africans are primarily responsible for the story state of their affairs. It would be most saddening if all the suffering that Mr Mandela and his people endured for all those long years turns out to be all for nothing. But that is what it would be if all that the black majority achieves is the expropriation of brick and mortar from their erstwhile oppressors without the skills to maintain and enhance them, and innovate new ones. Zimbabwe is the perfect example of how a senseless economic nationalism is almost a sure step to even more bondage. While that country continues to struggle since the selfishly motivated act by Mr Mugabe, the expelled whites have since found fortune elsewhere. A subsequent reversal by Mr Mugabe after much loss is evidence of the error. To that extent, Mr Mandela had some foresight in making what now seem to be overly generous concessions to the apartheid government. His pragmatism was suitable for his time. A new one is required today.
Also published in my Premium Times Nigeria column (19 Jul 2017). See link viz. http://opinion.premiumtimesng.com/2017/07/19/the-mandela-legacy-the-costs-of-not-pushing-hard-on-economic-freedom-by-rafiq-raji/