Nationalisation's Bogus Ambassador

By Fazila Farouk · 24 Apr 2010

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Picture: Treatment Action Campaign
Picture: Treatment Action Campaign

The news that Julius Malema jetted off to Venezuela to learn more about nationalisation is distressing. Much more depressing than the fact that Malema has appointed himself ambassador for nationalisation in South Africa.

Nationalisation is already poorly judged in our neoliberal dominated world. Yet, if implemented with honour and integrity, it could potentially become one of the most effective programmes for governments to follow to engender a more equitable society, as the Venezuelans (and Bolivians) are showing.

By being associated with a self-aggrandising politician like Malema, nationalisation’s case is being done great harm. Malema is no Hugo Chavez; he comes across as more of a Robert Mugabe.

Nobody was too surprised when Malema went off to Zimbabwe and hit it off so well with Mugabe. Megalomaniacs of a feather will flock together. And, given Malema's track record in breakneck wealth generation, one kind of expected the Zimbabwean model of agrarian reform (if one can call it that) to appeal to him. So, no surprises there -- we all knew what to expect from Malema on his trip to Zimbabwe. There's also absolutely nothing that the wayward president of the ANC Youth League could have done to ruin his host's reputation. Mugabe has already done an unassailable job of that himself. 

But now the bigheaded bully from Limpopo stands to ruin the reputation of a country that can ill-afford to be associated with him. The Star reports that Malema is on a six-day study trip to Venezuela to learn about the country's nationalisation policies in a surprise visit that also marks the run up to his 3rd of May disciplinary hearing to be held by the ANC. Anti-nationalisation zealots must surely be rubbing their hands together with glee at the opportunity provided by Malema to denounce 'big government' and spirited leaders like Chavez. The Venezuelans had best not make too much of the young man's visit to their country. The oil-rich Latin American state and its president already have a fragile reputation in the West and Malema's study trip will only exacerbate this problem. 

Malema's visit to Venezuela presents a dilemma for progressives who've been extolling the merits of nationalisation sweeping through parts of Latin America coupled with groundbreaking participatory democracy. In some parts of Latin America, a revolutionary brand of democracy - the kind that towering intellectuals like Noam Chomsky have called experiments in real democracy - has led to unprecedented progress for the poor whose lives have improved dramatically. 

And, while communist metaphors are often used to misrepresent Chavez and his country as a dictatorship, the truth is that Venezuela is a constitutional democracy. Governance reforms have borne witness to government - big government - responding to the needs of the very poor. Chavez's nationalisation of Venezuela's oil industry, which is redistributing the country's wealth to the poor, is nothing like Mugabe’s kleptocratic agrarian reform programme that's resulted in millions of Zimbabweans fleeing their country in search of a better life in South Africa.

On the contrary, most Venezuelans (apart from the odd elite evacuee who feels endangered by the redistributive policies of their government) have stayed put. Venezuela's working class not only has hope for a better life under Chavez; they are already experiencing it.

Mark Weisbrot Co-director of the Washington DC based Centre for Economic and Policy Research who also has a column in the Guardian newspaper reports, "(For) five and a half years from the first quarter of 2003, when the Chavez government first got control of the state-owned oil company, the real economy grew by 95 percent. Poverty was cut in half and extreme poverty by more than 70 percent, social spending per person more than tripled, and access to health care and higher education rose sharply. The voters rewarded Chavez with a re-election by his widest margin ever, 63% in 2006."

Weisbrot reports further, "In 2007, Venezuelans once again came in second for all of Latin America in the percentage of citizens who are satisfied or very satisfied with their democracy, according to the prestigious Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro - 59 percent, far above the Latin American average of 37 percent."

Bolivia, too, has successfully nationalised its oil and gas industry, but is poorly appraised by the West despite having its approach equated to the Norwegian model of nationalisation. Bolivia, by the way, is leading the world in its democratic approach to governance, which is a bottom up grassroots orientated democracy that has created the space for broad based social movements. It is also the only country in Latin America that posted an economic expansion (up 3%) during the global economic meltdown. Evo Morales, the country's president, achieved this via a well-timed stimulus package targeting public investment.

Malema threatens to tarnish the reputation and good work of leaders like Chavez and Morales, by appointing himself as the spokesperson who will carry news and information about Latin America's nationalisation and pro-poor democracies back to South Africa.

It is unfathomable for anyone who has monitored Malema's rise in the Youth League that this study trip will result in the deep-seated personal value changes that are required for someone like him to advocate, with honour, the brand of nationalisation that Chavez and Morales have implemented. Even if Malema were to climb up a Himalayan mountain and spend a decade under the guidance of an ascetic yogi, one has no doubt that the first thing he'll do upon his return is throw a big boozy party for himself and his crony friends. This behaviour is more in line with the kind of nationalisation we expect he has on his mind -- the greedy Mugabe elite enrichment model of nationalisation.

Malema is simply the wrong ambassador and spokesperson for nationalisation in South Africa. Most supporters of nationalisation run for cover when he opens his mouth to talk about it. Even the communists cringe. Witness one of the most famous communists in South Africa, Jeremy Cronin, distancing himself from talk of the nationalisation of South Africa's mines since Malema adopted the issue as his pet project. 

There is also the concern that in the broader scheme of Malema’s political life, he has demonstrated no capacity to engage convincingly with the discourse on the developmental state. One has yet to hear Malema say anything profound in the realm of effective pro-poor policy dialogue.

Malema is not likely to be well received by either the media or the public upon his return from Venezuela. Who can blame them? His proclivity for patronage, extravagant lifestyle and dubious business dealings simply do not endear him to the press or any other rational, upright, conscientious citizen of this country.

But perhaps the biggest victims of Malema's thirst for knowledge will be the Venezuelan leadership -- already tainted by an unrelenting propaganda crusade against them.

The reality is that nationalisation has been successfully implemented to engender a more equitable society in Venezuela. But what chance do South Africans stand of achieving the same or even just of having an intelligent debate about it if its ambassador and spokesperson is one of the most ill tempered, foul-mouthed, dimwits in the country?

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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23 Apr

Chavez's Brand of Nationalisation

It is true that nationalisation can benefit the masses if implemented properly by an efficient and honest regime (Norway?). But these conditions are so rarely in place that the odds are overhelmingly against nationalisation succeeding, especially in Third World countries like Venezuela (and SA). The "success" of Chavez's brand of nationalisation coincided with the oil boom - of course poor people will be better off initially if the wealth is redistributed, but what comes later? In the case of Venezuela, the collapse of oil prices meant there was far less honey to hand out to keep the masses sweet. The inevitable outcome has been increasing repression and the blatantly antideomcratic persecution of political opponents, not unlike Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Chavez is a dictator in the making, and his version of nationalisation will fail in the medium to long run, of that you can be sure.

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25 Apr

An Excellent Piece

This is a very clear sighted & valuable intervention.

We have to democratise before we can nationalise.


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Paul Richardson
28 Apr

Malema in Venezuela

Interesting, well-argued piece. Have to agree with Moss though on his point about the oil boom. Would be interested to see more recent stats on poverty reduction now that that bubble has burst. Your article also neglects to mention another Guardian report that Chavez's family has been one of the principal beneficiaries of the revolution:

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