Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

THE intervention by President Jacob Zuma to remove the word "nationalisation" from African National Congress (ANC) policy and replace it with "strategic state ownership" was an unexpectedly stunning development and a consequence of how his confidence and power has grown since Sunday.

The agreement that ANC policy would be one of "strategic nationalisation" based on the balance of evidence, on a case by case basis, was strongly disliked by the markets and investors for being too vague. It raised the spectre that one day someone in the party could wake up and nationalise their companies.

But, "strategic nationalisation" was the product of a carefully constructed compromise reached at the ANC policy conference in June between the party’s economic transformation committee heavyweights, the ANC Youth League and some of the more radical elements in alliance partner the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

It followed a two-year onslaught against the party leadership in which the ANC Youth League used the issue of nationalisation to whip up enmity against Mr Zuma.

Going into the national conference, it was considered unthinkable that such a carefully balanced compromise could be reversed. The thinking of the leading members of the ANC’s commission on economic transformation was to hold the line against any further attempts to radicalise the formulation.

During the conference discussions in the commission, the idea of removing the "n" word was not even mooted. It was shortly before the final resolution — which contained the words "strategic nationalisation" — was to be tabled in the conference plenary, that Mr Zuma summoned the drafters to a meeting, telling them to remove the offending word.

They were told to come up with something else and to go out and defend in the plenary.

As it happened, with the mood as it was — full of jubilant support for Mr Zuma — the deal was easily sewn up.

After very quick sideline caucuses with provincial secretaries and chairmen, the "n" word was dead.

Committee chairman Enoch Godongwana was jubilant afterwards. It is unlikely he had imagined that jettisoning the troublesome concept would be so easy.

But the political defeat of the youth league and the popular acclamation of Mr Zuma as leader, in five days, had changed the terrain completely.

So what is the difference between "strategic nationalisation" and "strategic state ownership"? The answer is that in substance, it is very little. But in politics it is very big.

Although the ANC was pushed into adopting nationalisation by the strident youth, it had also come to the realisation when faced with the issues, that as the government of a country imbued with rich mineral resources, more could be done to put those to work for the national benefit.

Its real intentions are two-pronged : to capture some of the profit of mining through taxation and state involvement in the sector, and second to use mining to promote industrialisation.

This can be just as easily achieved through the combination of "strategic ownership," a higher tax regime and export taxes on raw minerals as an incentive to promote industrialisation.

The new formulation has not changed the ANC’s intentions. But what it has done is free the party from a word that was causing havoc with its and South Africa’s reputation.