I will, doubtless, not add longevity to the political shelf-life of Deputy Public Works Minister Jeremy Cronin by expressing admiration for his bravery and eloquence. His marooning in the obscurity of a deputy ministry hardly matches his talents and struggle credentials. But the real wonder of it is that he holds any executive office at all.
Cronin’s ideology might be from the 1950s and his prescriptions for economic growth might have been long-discredited in the real-world, rough-and-tumble market economy he so dislikes. But there is nothing retrograde in the clarity of his thought, or his courage to express them. Especially on state power and its abuses.
During the big chill of the Mbeki presidency, he spoke out, almost alone in the high councils of the governing party, against what he termed the “Zanufication” of the party and the state. Or, the war being waged by the presidency against dissident ideas.
Now, this national executive member of the African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) has taken aim against the Gupta family and the issue of state capture.
In an extraordinary article penned for The Star on April 13, Cronin decried the “parasitism of the Guptas” and issued a stark warning against what he termed “their smash-and-grab business model”. By the standards of even the most stringent ANC criticism of Saxonwold’s most notorious émigré family, Cronin goes beyond the usual admonitions about “state capture”. He also suggests strongly that the sun is setting on the presidential favouritism that has enriched both this family and the Zumas.
Cronin — as all good communists must — also weighs in against the ultracapitalist, although indigenous, families of Stellenbosch, notably the Ruperts and Bekkers. But he dispels any doubt as to which model and family of capitalism a true communist should prefer. “The Ruperts and Bekkers repatriate some of their considerable global earnings back to SA,” he notes.
In starkly unfavourable contrast, stands the president’s fast friends and business partners to his son Duduzane: “By contrast,” he writes, “the Gupta family is shipping its ill-acquired wealth (and possibly themselves) post-haste out of the country to Dubai in anticipation of a loss of political influence in the near term.”
The next Cabinet knees-up is going to be fascinating. There, alongside Cronin and the president are at least two of the Guptas’ faithful fixers; the notorious Des van Rooyen and Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane, who doubles as a part-time Gupta negotiator and airforce base co-ordinator.
Two years ago, Nigeria ousted SA as the number one economy in Africa. Last year, it notched up another first. The country democratically ousted an incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, who, in a rare act in our part of the world, accepted defeat gracefully. The Financial Times was not alone in describing this political earthquake as “one of the most significant events on the continent since the 1994 election in SA brought an end to white minority rule”.
Last month, the newspaper’s Africa editor, David Pilling, wrote a rather gloomy assessment on how new president Muhammadu Buhari is faring in a country that is essentially a “mono-commodity state” or petro-economy. This is hardly surprising given the plunge in the oil price from $100 a barrel two years ago to about $40 today.
More striking is the caution he sounds on Buhari’s war against corruption. While Buhari’s fight and the oil price collapse have discomfited the previous army of “cronies, schemers and skimmers”, Pilling warns that while Buhari’s drive is laudable, it is “unlikely to work”. Leaving aside the amusing complaint of Nigerian Champagne importers and car dealers, who lament that only corruption funded their business models, he offers a more fundamental critique.
It also has a local echo. While complimenting Buhari for trying to end the culture of impunity and ensnaring big offenders into his net, he warns: “Unless (Buhari) can tackle the underlying causes of corruption, the victims of his campaign will be seen as arbitrary and his victories fleeting.”
Pilling identifies the central cause as the “opportunities presented to a coterie of middlemen, gatekeepers, arbitrageurs, licensers and fixers…. In such a rentier system, the disencentives to actually make anything are huge.” Hardly surprising, then, that President Buhari complains that Nigeria cannot even produce toothpicks.
But for all the accuracy of Cronin’s complaint about the Gupta family values, he blames the “established monopoly capital” for locking our economy into — as he puts it in impeccable Marxist jargon — an array of our economic ills. The charge sheet includes “ruinous path dependency” that has locked the economy into “a semiperipheral mineral exporting role” that has resulted in “deindustrialisation, squeezing out small enterprises amid crisis levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality”.
Doubtless, there are many guilty parties around to whom we can attribute our steep declines on an array of economic fronts. Leaving aside our possible rating downgrade, the precipitous fall of our currency and our sky-high unemployment, there are a raft of other indicators. While we make our own toothpicks, manufacturing has declined in its contribution to gross domestic product by more than 50% since 1994.
But Cronin’s solution to the array of economic ills confronting us is a touching reliance on the state as a sort of cure-all. He suggests that the way out of “ruinous path dependency” is a “strategically disciplined and strategically oriented state”. Forgive my scepticism here. Or as one wag put it, “the only thing worse than being exploited, is not being exploited at all”. Presumably, part of the “ruin” of “path dependency” lies in our dependence on mineral exports, still the largest item on our export bill.
But mining is in the deepest slump. In the 1980s, at the height of the wrong economic path, Cronin laments, it provided work for 800,000 people. Today, the figure is 300,000 and dropping. Mines are closing at a rapid click. Anecdotally, but tellingly, this year’s marquee Mining Indaba was the worst attended in memory. Investors or exploiters are finding other localities in which to invest and exploit.
Cronin’s colleague, Zwane, provided a surprise package last Friday. Undeterred by the investment strike against this country and its mining sector, he released a new draft Mining Charter. Front and centre of it is not an incentive to invest, but more rigorous and onerous black economic empowerment (BEE) requirements.
Now, it is no longer sufficient for mining companies to have a one-off 26% black-owned stake in their operations.
If such unlikely mining moguls as parliamentary speaker Baleka Mbete sell off their large, free stake in South Deep, for example, new beneficiaries will have to be found and funded. I have little doubt that in global mining centres, this change to the rule book will lead to the closure of the more consequential deal book when it comes to SA.
One of the supporters of the new charter is Sipho Dube, aptly described as BEE partner at Endulwini Resources. He does not resort to Cronin’s nonracial and socialist ideology, but states his proposition straightforwardly and in racial terms. “The issue is about those who want to continue to perpetuate the exploitation of black people and undermine the state because it is black.”
Or perhaps, to cite Nigeria’s ailments, it is all about increasing the “opportunities presented to a coterie of middlemen, gatekeepers, arbitrageurs, licensers and fixers”. With this rentier system lies the road to ruin for many and fortune for the few.
• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA