SOME representatives of the mining industry have declared the nationalisation debate within the African National Congress (ANC) dead and buried, since pro and anti factions appear to have fought each other to a standstill at the party's recent policy conference. This is dangerous wishful thinking.
What may in fact emerge out of the conference is a mutation, described as "strategic nationalisation", seen as a kind of compromise measure, which would tally with the ANC's current notion of the state leading economic development. Whatever may or may not appear to be the case, the fact that six of the nine ANC regions favour nationalisation means the debate has by no means ground itself out.
There is a different way, however, to discuss nationalisation without defaulting to pro or anti positions. Historically, waves of nationalisation typically happen when four situations intersect. These are high commodity prices, high economic disparity, the predominance of a certain commodity as part of the economy and weak social structures.
To a greater or lesser extent, these are all part of South Africa's social DNA. There is nothing South Africa can really do about high commodity prices and the predominance of mining in the economy, neither would it want to. But high levels of social disparity and a weak social structure are obviously social ills the country should be addressing.
Social disparity is normally measured with indices such as the Gini coefficient, and the hard truth is that South Africa's level of inequality has not improved in 18 years of democracy. It is important to find out why this is the case, as Business Unity South Africa has started to probe. It's quite possible that the level of inequality has not improved for two related reasons: poor education and low productivity. Better education and higher productivity would accelerate the process of reducing the income gap by improving the chances for advancement of those on the lowest rungs of the ladder. Once people have a bigger stake in the economy, nationalisation becomes a non-issue, as it is in most of the developed world.
The reasons for the decline in the education system are complex, but when business talks about nationalisation, it is important not only to focus on the failure of nationalisation efforts historically but to impress on the government that the quality of education is a component of this discussion, as is the debate on improving productivity.
The other problem is weak social structure. This might seem to be one problem South Africa does not have. It has a strong constitution, a free press, a whole range of social stability institutions and an independent judiciary. But there is more to it than that. A lackadaisical attitude to crime and property rights, for example, contributes to a culture of law-breaking in which contracts are not honoured and the underlying trust needed for effective business systems begins to falter. It is no accident nationalisation occurs in states with low levels of liberty and individual rights.
This is why the ANC's residual socialist constructs should not be ignored as historical relics. The tendency by ANC politicians, and sometimes those of other parties too, to slide into glib generalisations about race and society is partly a reflection of this societal weakness. They are current problems and current threats not only to the wealthy but to a society based on liberty.
There are plenty of examples, but just to take a recent case: Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma calling for Africa to control its mining sector. She said: "At the moment, the company doing the extraction, (the) beneficiation, gets the resources and gets the financial benefit while the country and its people receive very little."
This is just factually incorrect: the mining sector in South Africa and elsewhere is a massively disproportionate contributor to the fiscus.
The mining industry has the right to demand a fact-based discussion, and should insist that vague notions and fanciful politics are not part of the debate. That is what constitutes strong social structure, not just formal committees and fine-sounding words on a page.