RET and the cul-de-sac of ideas

Radical economic transformation is the only way out of South Africa’s mounting economic woes, writes KHALID SAYED

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s founding father, continues to play an influential role in Indian politics even 70 years after the founding of the Indian Republic. Recently, his great-grandson Rahul Gandhi, now Indian National Congress vice-president, visited the Somnath Temple and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party again brought up the name of Nehru. Using every opportunity to criticise Nehruji, BJP insisted that Nehru had not wanted to renovate the temple that Gandhi was now visiting and he was simply using the temple for political purposes.

As with Mandela-Tambo struggle heroes’ legacy here in South Africa and the attack by opposition parties on the ANC, BJP uses every opportunity to try and chip away at the cultural capital that Congress possesses. The political attack on Rahul Gandhi had to include a reference to his great-grandfather, Nehruji, and so even the great Indian statesman’s abilities to understand the agricultural space was dismissed by BJP president Virendra Singh.

Agriculture lies at the head of the Indian economy and Singh dismissed both Nehruji and Gandhi as not having an appreciation for the ‘basics of agriculture’. According to a report by Indian news outlet NDTV, Singh suggested that the BJP government was investing up to 42% into the agricultural sector whereas the Congress-led UPA government only spends between 10% and 12%.

In an essay written on the occasion of Nehruji’s death in 1969, H. Venkatasubbiah writes that India’s first prime minister was heavily influenced by the thoughts of the English Fabian society. The ideals and practices of social democracy would not come about through revolution but rather through the gradual introduction of policies and programs. In other words, one had to work with the system and reform it rather than overthrow it altogether.

While Nehruji was sympathetic to communism, having read Karl Marx’s ‘Capital’, he was convinced, according to Venkastasubbiah, that uninterrupted economic growth was not possible under capitalism. Impressed with the five-year plan introduced in the Soviet Union, Nehru soon introduced the practice in India. Today both China and India can boast about having relied on five-year plans of development for their success.

Venkastasubbiah suggests in his essay that the thinking of Nehruji was slightly different to that of Mahatma Gandhi (no relation to Rahul Gandhi). Gandhi could advocate voluntary poverty and an opposition to modern industry, him sitting at the cotton spinning wheel being the most vivid image. At the same time, Nehruji did not agree with Gandhi on these thoughts as well as the fact that Gandhi believed that the wealthy were the custodians of the poor. To Nehruji’s socialist mind this was anathema.

In the year after India’s declaration of independence, the Nehru administration in India adopted the Industrial Policy Resolution. Through this policy, Nehru’s appreciation for socialism was apparent but so was his bias towards Fabianism, and the gradual introduction of socialism, rather than Marxist dialectics. The policy introduced in India the ‘mixed economy’ where agricultural emphasis was as important as technological advancement.

There should be no doubt that Fabianism played an influential role in the thinking of Thabo Mbeki. Partly the reason why he could have had his membership of the South African Communist Party lapse, Mbeki advanced a gradual ‘talk-left, walk-right’ attitude in bringing about social democracy in South Africa. While his government advocated a vast roll out in social security, his administration also ensured neoliberal practices of macroeconomic policies such as inflation targeting, currency

It is for these reasons that the Mbeki administration always raised the ire of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the SACP. Whilst these two advocated rather the national democratic revolution, literally, the ANC under Mbeki and his Finance Minister Trevor Manuel were cautious in their restructuring of the economy post-Apartheid.

On the one hand, they knew that they only had the government and government institutions to intervene and rectify this economy while on the other hand, they were succumbing to the dominant neoliberal outlook which advanced the idea that if the economy needed to be restructured that the market itself would do so. Needless to say,  Cosatu and the SACP opposed this view and believed in direct state intervention.

Lately what has come a surprise though is the ‘toenadering’ of Cosatu to business and the flirtation of some SACP leaders with the wealthy. These two alliance partners it would seem have somersaulted in their approach and have instead adopted a Fabian approach to transformation instead of a Marxist dialectical one.

Their rejection of radical economic transformation and their support for billionaire capitalist, Cyril Ramaphosa, paints a picture which suggests that they have become what Fredrich Engels described when he compared the British Fabians with the German Kautskyites: ‘a band of careerists who have understanding enough to realise the inevitability of the social revolution but would not possibly entrust the gigantic task to the raw proletariat alone. Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle.’

In the wake of the 2017/2018 budget, Cosatu called for the year to be ‘dedicated to radical economic transformation’. They went on to reiterate their call for ‘the abandonment of inflation targeting and for a new macroeconomic framework that will target economic growth and employment targets.’ Therefore, on the one hand, they reject inflation targeting, a hallmark of Ramaphosa’s ‘New Deal’, while on the other hand, they support archaic economic policies such as economic growth.

In April 2017, Cosatu’s Gauteng provincial secretary likened radical economic transformation to the looting, by some, of state resources. While the organisation in the province welcomed the idea of RET, they did not support those who were advocating it.

In the July 2017 edition of ‘Amandla’, Gunnett Kaaf reports that Jeremy Cronin, the first deputy-general secretary of the SACP, suggested that radical economic transformation should have occurred in the wake of April 1994 when the foundations of white monopoly capital were shaken. Kaaf states that Cronin branded RET an SACP invention and had ‘always supported RET since 1994’. Kaaf disagrees suggesting that even RET is gradualist in its approach.

As December looms for the ANC and by extension SA, the country faces a fork-road. Either we continue on the gradualist trajectory that we have come for the last two decades and maintain the current status quo or we choose the path of radical economic transformation that must be fundamentally revolutionary.

Hopefully by December, ANC delegates would have come to their senses and realised that the ‘raw proletariat’ in South Africa are demanding change. The ANC has no choice but to advocate radical economic transformation. Unfortunately, the patronage politics of billionaires are so strong that we will continue seeing a shunning of change and an appeal to Fabianism.

Sayed is the Provincial Chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape 

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