Book Review: From the Freedom Charter to Polokwane, the Evolution of ANC Economic Policy

By Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen · 21 Apr 2009

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Picture credit: PhotoBookSA & Ben Turok
Picture credit: PhotoBookSA & Ben Turok

"The People shall share in the countries wealth." This clause in the Freedom Charter tells of a continuing struggle to build a society that is more equal, prosperous and in which opportunity abounds for all. In recounting the Freedom Charter, Ben Turok – who introduced the economic clause at the authentic Congress of the People, describes this role as an accident of history.

Turok is the author of the book "From the Freedom Charter to Polokwane: The Evolution of ANC Economic Policy." Over decades, he has been an important voice for economic and social justice, often standing against dominant thinking. Consequently, my expectation before starting to read the book was that I would end the book with a ringing endorsement.

On finishing the book, I have mixed feelings about the conclusions reached and I am disappointed that perspectives from activist organisations are not correctly summarised as well as not discussed with reference to policy proposals that have been developed and widely circulated. In turn, this book, perhaps tells the story of a generational gap between activists, who draw inspiration from the Freedom Charter, but hardly ever meet to discuss, learn, disagree and possibly join forces with those who inspired it.

One paragraph stands out in this book for me, as an exemplar of these criticisms. In a discussion of the dual economy, Turok argues that the trade union movement is worried about measures to assist people in the second economy, due to it creating a parallel economy or because it would divert investments into the second economy, as opposed to industries. Turok writes:

"We have to concede that they (trade unions) have some grounds for concern, but we have no choice. We cannot wait for future growth of the first economy. We have to address the plight of the millions in our townships and African rural areas if we are to build a nation at peace with itself."

I had to re-read the arguments several times, because this is the classical argument of a "labour aristocracy." Somewhat surprised that it comes from a person on the left, I concluded that Turok has every right to hold such a view. However, the argument does not hold up to the record of trade unions, especially COSATU, in the democratic period. Across various campaigns, significant alternatives have been built precisely to address the question of inequality, in ways that target the structurally poor and excluded.

Moreover, this is well-worn territory with the links between formal workers firmly established. For instance, the employed supporting unemployed communities – with ratios of one worker supporting five other people – is commonplace in South Africa. In fact, this is not a new relationship in a dual economy, with even the classic arguments on the dual economy referring to these dynamic linkages. As such, there is a fundamental disagreement on both the stance of trade unions, but also the development strategy that would break structural inequality. This is but one example, and similar criticisms can be made on how Turok describes calls for comprehensive social security, trade and industrial policy and more broadly the so-called "second economy."

This criticism evokes a common question: How important, in the first place, is understanding civil society to understand their impact on economic policy? In the book under review, there is a significant gap on the role of trade unions and more broadly the role that civil society has played in attempting to shift ANC economic policy. Arguably, it is precisely the campaigns that have continued that provide an important impetus to the changes that occurred at Polokwane. One may dispute the impact of national level campaigns (e.g. anti-privatisation strikes) or local campaigns waged by social movements have had on policy changes in the ANC. However, Turok rarely focuses attention on these initiatives, (except as a warning and a worry) and as such, there is little or no analysis of the relative influence of civil society on economic policy.

In turn, the overarching question on the level of influence civil society organisations have on the ANC economic policy is not even a theme of discussion. I would argue that the change in ANC policy, especially social policy, has been driven by these activist organisations. Conversely, the role of the World Bank is meticulously discussed, especially in relation to the adoption of GEAR. 

Another important gap in the book is the relationship between the Alliance partners since 1994. Turok, in the postscript to the book, admits to deliberately excluding this analysis. Yet, the omission is huge, precisely because debates in the Alliance have been central to the robust debate on economic policy. Moreover, in the context of the book, it is central to understanding why, how and if economic policy has or will change. One can understand the comradely need not to go over a bitter period of dispute, but for the reader it leaves one attempting to piece together some of the conclusions that Turok reached, without an adequate understanding of the underlying analysis. 

The contribution of this book, however, lies in unpacking the historical changes in the ANC, especially before the democratic revolution. The chapter dealing with the Freedom Charter and years of the ANC in exile offer an important historical record of the tensions and schisms and most importantly how consensus was reached in the ANC. In addition, several gaps in the steps taken before GEAR was implemented are recorded and explored. In this sense, the book is an important resource for a new generation of activists attempting to make society more equal and change the economic fundamentals. 

Turok's argument and proposal to changing economic fundamentals seems to rests on "boosting productive capacities." Underpinning this is the need for more effective central planning, limiting luxury purchases and ensuring that development financial institutions play a developmental role. There is a richness in the proposals presented that needs to be unpacked in greater detail. Here again, value could be added by reviewing the industrial policy interventions by COSATU in particular, over the last two decades. 

The chapters covering Black Economic Empowerment and the Dual Economy are the most important in attempting to understand the alternative embedded in this book. The investigation of BEE is important, as it attempts to understand the emergence of BEE from a class perspective and in so doing, outlines the challenges and motivations for different groupings participating in BEE. This is vital to understanding the limits of BEE, but holds significant lessons for public policy aimed at economic inclusion.

The chapter on the dual economy provides a thought provoking summary of governments intervention in the so-called "second economy." It also begins to explain why dualism persists. I would have different answers to Turok on why dualism persists, especially around the highly concentrated economic structure. However, I share with Turok the scepticism that industrialisation will be the single biggest route to job creation. 

My biggest disappointment in the book, however, relates to the story of a factory that Turok helped establish as part of his constituency work. Located in Mbekweni, the textile factory employed twelve women. Turok argues that this is an example of what can be done to stimulate economic development in poorer areas. However, he does not continue the story, and we do not know whether the factory survived, prospered or closed down. This is important, as many such initiatives in the "second economy" have failed due to a lack of demand in local area, or the inability to build linkages with larger companies. The story is significant because it tells an exemplary story that a politician with initiative can battle the economic structure through playing a developmental role. Perhaps, it does raise the question that whatever the meaning of the developmental state is in South Africa, it will require politicians like Turok that will experiment, coordinate and implement programmes. 

In raising several criticisms in my analysis of the book, I nonetheless would argue that that it adds to the growing number of contributions, that ask the question – Why do the people not yet share in the wealth of the country? And because this book attempts to answer that question, it is a relevant and important read that records an important issue and in the end, is one of the dominant discourses contending for hegemony in ANC economic policy.

Hassen is the founder of Zapreneur and Proposal Desk, both websites aimed at answering the question, "Can the Internet help South African small business?"

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