On the BMF and BUSA - Jeremy Cronin

The idea that public and private sector management are all in business together is a perversity

Thinking about class - Part One: What were they doing in BUSA in the first place?

The recent walk-out of the Black Management Forum (BMF) from Business Unity SA (BUSA) has received considerable media coverage. The two caps worn simultaneously by BMF president and head of government communications, Jimmy Manyi, have also been the subject of much critical attention. But there is another side to the BMF story that (as far as I know) has escaped commentary.

In the midst of the walk-out, Business Day journalist Michael Bleby carried an interesting backgrounder on the BMF, apparently sourced from interviews with the organization itself. As if there were nothing particularly problematic about it, more or less in passing, Bleby reported that around 60% of the BMF's membership is located within the public sector, including parastatals.

What on earth was the majority of BMF's membership doing in a business formation like BUSA in the first place?

The idea that public and private sector managers are all in business together is a perversity. Indeed, the notion that "management" is a single generic skill that can simply be transferred back and forth between the public and private sectors lies at the heart of many grave problems that we've encountered as a country since 1994. Until very recently, we have had public sector development finance institutions behaving like private banks, and we have had state owned enterprises shutting down key operations that were not "profitable" - regardless of their overall developmental importance.

We have also seen a series of private sector managers coming in to tell us how to do it in the public and parastatal sector. Remember the flop of the man from SA Breweries, Jacob Meyer Kahn, on loan as "CEO" to the SA Police between 1997 and 1999? Remember the disastrous Coleman Andrews era when he was CEO of SAA and "turned a profit" by selling off the air fleet and then renting it back at public expense?

Public sector managers imagining they were running private for-profit corporations have also been a key factor that has led to a souring of labour relations within the public sector. A generic "managerialism" easily turns what should be a developmental state into a terrain of employer versus employee battles.

Even more problematic is the tendency for a new cadre of public sector managers to see their work not as a critical strategic responsibility, not as an honourable life-time professional career, but as a brief stepping stone on the way to the private sector. Of course there is nothing illegal about people shifting between the public and private sectors.

We shouldn't be surprised, either, that the private sector will, as always, seek to hitch a free ride in a situation in which the public sector has, generally, been relatively exemplary in fulfilling affirmative action measures while many in the private sector have been laggards. Under pressure to fulfill representivity targets, the private corporations simply poach from the public sector. You can maximize profits for your private shareholders if you let the public sector carry the burden of mentoring and training on the job. The resulting constant outflow has had a destabilizing impact on the public sector - but that is not the worst of the dangers.

In the traffic between the public and private sectors there is an inherent (perhaps not inevitable) danger of corruption. Alongside the many creative new words and phrases coined to capture our current reality is "javelin-throwing". It refers, of course, to public sector managers (and politicians) who abuse their authority today in order to create business opportunities for themselves tomorrow. They step out of office, and the next day they skip off to retrieve what they have thrown.

The core values of the public sector are (or should be) distinctly different from those of the private sector. Any progressive forum of public sector managers (like any progressive public sector trade union) should be seized with the over-riding question: How do we contribute to the transformation of our society? In our line departments, in classrooms and hospitals, in our parastatals, how do we serve the public, and particularly the majority of that public - workers and poor? By embroiling itself in battles over representivity in a business organization, the BMF has failed to represent what some 60% of its members are (or should be) focusing upon. Perhaps it's not such a bad thing they walked out. Perhaps they should have walked out a long time ago.

Thinking about class - Part Two: Does capital have a colour?

In late June, the leaderships of the SACP and COSATU had a belated but constructive bilateral, in the week before COSATU's important CC. One of the key issues that the SACP was keen to discuss in the bilateral was collective lessons to be learnt from the pre- and post-Polokwane realities (referring, of course, to the ANC's December 2007 National Conference in Polokwane). Together the SACP and COSATU played a leading role in opposing the general strategic political drift of the ANC and government under the leadership of former president, cde Mbeki. In the run-up to the Polokwane conference, this SACP/COSATU left axis entered, however, into a "marriage of convenience" with what we have subsequently called the "new tendency" - a demagogic, right-wing, populist current that represents the class interests of those bent on the most unprincipled primitive accumulation.

This is ground that we have already covered in discussions with COSATU, but on this occasion we were keen to explore whether there were also ideological notions that were blurring the sharp class differences between the SACP and COSATU on the one hand, and the populist demagogues on the other. It was in this context that we asked a simple question: Does capital and, more specifically, does monopoly capital have a colour?

Everyone these days is quoting the economic clause in the Freedom Charter. So let's remind ourselves that the Freedom Charter speaks of "the mines, the banks and monopoly industries" - NOT "white" monopoly industries (or capital). The Freedom Charter is absolutely right. Capital does not have a colour, and the laws of capital accumulation are universal laws, not colour-coded habits.

Moreover, monopoly capital in SA is heavily penetrated by multi-national capital - Chinese banks, US and European pension funds, Dubai sovereign funds, etc; and also heavily invested in by our own private and public sector pension funds and even union investment arms. If you are going to give monopoly capital in SA a colour, what colour would you give it?

In pursuing this matter we were, of course, fully mindful of what is absolutely incontestable. Over many decades whites in general have been (and largely still remain) the principal BENEFICIARIES of the particular path that the development of capitalism in SA assumed, including the consolidation of high levels of concentration ("monopoly capital") in the minerals, energy and financial sectors.

It is equally true that the leading echelons of capitalist enterprise within SA (CEOs, CFOs, board members, senior managers, individual shareholders, etc.) have been and remain overwhelmingly white (and male) - these have been the key AGENTS of monopoly capital within SA, and the key INDIVIDUAL CAPITALISTS. It is also true that a STATE APPARATUS associated with white minority rule had its policies largely shaped and driven by monopoly capital (think of the role of the mining sector in pioneering native reserves, pass laws, the colour bar and migrant labour).

But we must be careful to distinguish monopoly capital as such from its beneficiaries, its supporting agents and its individual capitalists. If we fail to make this distinction, then we can easily land up in one of a couple of illusions.

When it comes to beneficiaries, for instance, the real struggle now is not to ask monopoly capital to become more generous to all South Africans regardless of race - as if the national democratic struggle was a struggle for charity to be dispensed non-racially by the rich. Yet, there was a time after 1994 when this line of march often threatened to become a dominant feature of our politics. It was what the SACP described, at the time, as the "helicopter state", in which leading politicians would fly into some remote rural village along with a captain of industry in order to cut the ribbon on a "donated" school or clinic.

This top-down (often literally so) style of politics played havoc with any attempt at an integrated and planned approach to transformation, as political leaders and their plutocratic partners hopped from one photo opportunity to the next. Fortunately, the prominence of this style of politics has diminished, although it has not completely disappeared. Nowadays the captains (or rather lieutenants) of industry stay in the background, allowing their sponsored (usually more junior) political partners to claim the credit.

Likewise, a fixation on the colour or gender of the agents and individual capitalists involved in monopoly capital can easily delude us into imagining that changing people will change monopoly capital. Surely more than a decade of experience has taught us that it is the boardroom that changes the person, and not the person the boardroom. Of course we are not arguing that boardrooms or share-ownership should be reserved for white males.

Nor are we denying that some capitalists might be reasonably decent human beings as individuals, while others are just awful. But we are reminding ourselves of what cde Chris Hani expressed so succinctly: "the point is not to transfer power [from some individuals to others], but to TRANSFORM it." For any consistent Marxist the problem with monopoly capital in SA is not that it is white, but that it is concentrated capital locked into the universal laws of capitalist reproduction and exploitation regardless of who is in the boardroom.

There is a world at play in the slippage between a consistent Marxist perspective and the illusions that arise from adding one small word "white" to "monopoly capital". And it is in this small slippage that you will find the ideological bed on which the Polokwane "marriage of convenience" was consecrated. When the "new tendency" and its demagogic vanguard rail against "white monopoly capital" what they are hearing is "white" and what they are thinking is "it's our turn now".

And while populist demagogues might scream about "imperialism" and "monopoly capital" - the threats to carry out nationalization and expropriation simply increase (as they are meant to) the length of the queues of wealthy supplicants outside their office doors, the numbers of sponsorships, the gifts of whisky and helicopter trips they are offered from the very monopoly capital they are threatening!

The time has come to be much more scientific in our class analysis of what is happening around us, and much more decisive in drawing a clear line between a workers' vanguard and storm troopers for primitive accumulation, between a principled left programme of action and mere demagogy.

This article by SACP deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin first appeared in the Party's online journal, Umsebenzi Online.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter