Where we went wrong and what to do about it

Jeremy Cronin warns that we are in danger of a Zimbabwe-style political and moral collapse

No slightest glimmer of reciprocal self-reflection from Ratshitanga’s side

While the crisis around state capture is deepening and those implicated in e-mails are scurrying in several different self-preserving directions, millions of South Africans are unemployed and communities live in deep insecurity. So it is not necessarily the most newsworthy, still less productive use of time to expend energies on a to-and-fro debate, at least one for its own sake, about who said and did what in the 1996-2009 period.

It’s with some caution, therefore, that I am replying to Mukoni Ratshitanga’s “The problem with Jeremy Cronin and the SACP”. Mukoni was responding to my own earlier reply to his initial attack on the SACP (“Men who make their own history as they please”, Sunday Times June 4).

In my first response to Ratshitanga I began by saying that we need to forge the broadest possible patriotic front across ideological divides in defence of our constitution, democracy and national sovereignty (“We must unite to defend democracy”, Sunday Times, June 11). I had hoped that Ratshitanga, Thabo Mbeki’s former presidential spokesperson, would see himself and others like him as part of such a front, at least by way of a constructive and introspective discussion – whatever our differences, historical or contemporary.

In engaging with Ratshitanga I was hoping that we could reflect together on the recent past by asking three interrelated questions. “How did we get into the current mess?” “What is now to be done?” And, the more awkward but essential question for those of us who have operated in the political space: “What, if any, has been our own individual and collective contribution, intentional or otherwise, to the current situation?”

In seeking to respond to this last question from an SACP perspective, I noted that at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane national conference, the SACP (and COSATU) had collaborated in a “marriage of convenience” with a “right-wing, narrow nationalist tendency that expressed the frustration of aspirant BEE players who felt excluded from the inner-BEE circle of the Mbeki years.” It is primarily this tendency that has since morphed into the leading protagonists of state capture. We should have been more robust in opposing this tendency from the start.

Presumably edited out in the interests of space in the Sunday Times but carried in full in the SACP’s Umsebenzi Online, I further noted in my earlier response that: “Although the SACP never formally endorsed Jacob Zuma for the ANC presidency at the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference, much of the SACP’s organisational apparatus was actively involved in supporting him. A mini-cult of the personality was created at the time, and leading SACP voices were among those involved. Going into the future the SACP must vigorously avoid any ‘great-man-as-saviour’ temptation.”

In his latest response, sadly there is not the slightest glimmer of reciprocal self-reflection from Ratshitanga’s side. In fact he now adds further items to the anti-SACP charge sheet which simply serve to underline the complete absence of any interest in, or capacity for, critical introspection.

Apart from being slippery with facts, a repetitive device Ratshitanga deploys is to attribute to the SACP (or to me personally), without clear references, some “loony left”, Luddite dogmatism, much as the Blairites have tried to do with Jeremy Corbyn, or the Clintons with Bernie Sanders. Then Ratshitanga unearths a more nuanced actual position from our side and yelps triumphantly, “Caught you out! Opportunism, inconsistency!”

Yes, as chair of the parliamentary transport portfolio committee I argued that the Gautrain was a strategically wrong priority and a costly diversion of resources better deployed elsewhere. I continue to believe this. A large chunk of the Gauteng provincial transport budget, around R1-billion a year, is still being diverted to the private concessionaire as a “ridership guarantee”. In 2009 or 2010, then as a deputy minister of transport, I attended the official handing over of the rail safety operating certificate to the Gautrain and I commended the company, quite correctly, for its technical safety achievements. I might be left inclined but I am not a Luddite. That didn’t mean that I had suddenly forgotten that the original construction cost had ballooned from a promised R11-billon “turn-key” project to some R25-billion by the time of completion, nor had I changed my mind about the strategic wisdom of the project.  

I have never claimed that the Mbeki administration was full-bloodedly Thatcherite. I concur with economists Jeremy Seekings and Nicoli Nattrass (favourably quoted by Ratshitanga as if scoring a point against the SACP) that there was a significant redistributive effort during the Mbeki administration. There was, of course, a major redistribution of wealth to a tiny, politically connected, black elite in the name of “black economic empowerment”.

There was also, more progressively, the mass roll-out of social grants, RDP houses, and water and electricity connections. But, while the latter interventions unquestionably lifted the floor of absolute poverty, they were not structurally transformative. As a result, the GEAR policy package continued to lock us into a jobless growth path that reproduced racialised inequality and poverty.  

In an interview with Irish academic Helena Sheehan, while noting important differences between the ANC and ZANU-PF, and between South Africa and Zimbabwe, I said there was a TENDENCY to “Zanufication” in the ANC. (I also warned, by the way, against Stalinist tendencies in communist parties). We can quibble about the term “Zanufication”, but, sadly, the passage of time has more than confirmed my earlier concern. I don’t think I am alone now in believing there is a very serious threat of ideological, organisational and moral collapse under the weight of ANC parasitic patronage networks reminiscent of many aspects of decline across the Limpopo.

But what are some of the origins of these tendencies?

Ratshitanga dismisses my claim that the corporatisation of key state-owned enterprises during the Mbeki period was, in part, aimed initially at eventual (if partial) privatisation and as a further source for BEE accumulation. He writes: “Cronin does not cite one ‘key’ enterprise that was privatised because none in fact exists”.

Well let’s then cite a few. In 1995 a 20% stake in our Airports Company of South Africa was sold to Aeroporti di Roma. In 1997 a 30% privatisation stake in Telkom went to a US-Malaysian consortium, Thintana. In 1999 a 20% stake in SAA was sold to Swissair. Over the years SANRAL has concessioned out tolling on some of its road network, most notoriously with the e-tolls in Gauteng. In the early 2000s there were also plans to privatise, by way of concessions, rail freight, port operations, and even parts of the Metrorail system. Although these last mentioned never went ahead, the clear intent to privatise delayed recapitalisation with lasting negative effects. This was especially the case with Eskom, another candidate for privatisation in the early 2000s, resulting in uncertainty, a drain of technical expertise, and a delay in commissioning new generation capacity.

But what does this all have to do with the present? Let’s remind ourselves, for instance, of what happened subsequent to Telkom’s partial privatisation. In 2004 the US-Malaysian Thintana consortium decided that it wished to pull out of Telkom. The Mbeki administration saw this as an opportunity to further empower an inner circle of quarrelling associates. These involved, amongst others, Andile Ngcaba, then recently retired director-general for communications (whatever happened to restraint of trade requirements?); the head of the Mbeki presidency, Smuts (“I didn’t struggle to be poor”) Ngonyama; and Dali (“I didn’t struggle, but I’d still like to be rich”) Mpofu.

A consortium of aspirants was cobbled together as the Elephant Consortium, but it couldn’t raise the capital in time for the proposed Thintana sale. No problem. In the face of trade union and public outrage, the Public Investment Corporation agreed to an unprecedented “ware-housing” of the Elephant Consortium’s share until such time as it could raise the funds. And who was the compliant CEO of the PIC at the time?  It was none other than Brian Molefe. 

The current disastrous, Gupta-led state-capture situation did not suddenly emerge out of nowhere with the advent of President Zuma’s first administration. Of course the scale of plundering has expanded dramatically and strategies have been refined. The vast public sector worker retirement funds managed by the PIC remain a key target, as do the SOEs. However, the favoured tactic now is not so much the costly effort of raising funds to purchase share tranches in privatisation processes. The talk is no longer primarily about privatisation. Better to plunder public resources directly by parasitically draining SOE procurement funds.

So what’s to be done? I repeat: we need to forge the broadest possible patriotic front to defend our democracy, our constitution and our national sovereignty. Urgent priorities include building an effective criminal justice system, notably by cleaning out the top command of the SAPS, and particularly the Hawks and the NPA. All of these had already been tainted during the Mbeki years by the likes of Jackie Selebi, even if his associates, the Brett Kebbles and Glen Agliottis, were arguably not quite in the same league as the Guptas. An equally urgent priority is to ensure transparent and effective governance over our key strategic SOEs. Within the executive itself, from within parliament, and across a broad public, there is an emergent willingness to fight for these things.

In seeking to make progress in these directions, it would help if we were all prepared to learn critical and self-critical lessons from the recent past.

Cde Jeremy Cronin is SACP First Deputy General Secretary

This article first appeared in Umsebenzi Online, the journal of the SACP.