The P-word remains taboo, but ANC’s fears will come true – Business Day, 3 November 2014

Perhaps the most interesting — and possibly prescient — comment on Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s recent medium-term budget policy statement was that of the chief whip of the EFF, Floyd Shivambu. He expressed the fear that once nonstrategic state assets had been sold, the government would do the same with strategic ones. This, he said, was why the EFF opposed any form of privatisation.

PERHAPS the most interesting — and possibly prescient — comment on Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s recent medium-term budget policy statement was that of the chief whip of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Floyd Shivambu. He expressed the fear that once nonstrategic state assets had been sold, the government would do the same with strategic ones. This, he said, was why the EFF opposed any form of privatisation.

The African National Congress (ANC) is no doubt also opposed to any form of privatisation. Indeed, few people dare utter the "P-word". It is clear from Nene’s speech and the accompanying document issued by the Treasury that the sale of certain state assets is being considered only because the government is running out of money to keep Eskom and other shows on the road.

This is actually a good thing — not because of the billions that have been wasted, or the billions that will no doubt continue to be wasted, but because at least some people in the ANC are beginning to recognise that this extravagance must end. There is nothing like the threat of a credit rating downgrade or fear of a debt trap to concentrate the mind.

How far down the road might privatisation actually be? To misquote Winston Churchill, Nene’s statement is probably not yet even the end of the beginning. Questions abound.

How long will the identification of assets for sale take? How will President Jacob Zuma’s government manage the politics of such sales with his trade union and communist allies? Will Luthuli House keep on packing the boards of state enterprises with the deployed cadres who have ruined some of them? How big a slice of the action will be handed over to Chancellor House?

Will putting the proceeds of the sales of some assets into other assets turn out to be throwing good money after bad? What then will happen when there are no more good assets to sell, but only failing ones that have to be auctioned off?

The most likely scenario is not systematic privatisation, but an erratic and reluctant process undertaken for no other reason that there is no other option. This is where Shivambu’s fears come in. He sounds like a left-wing version of Albert Hertzog in the late 1960s, when he dug in his heels against allowing Maoris in All Blacks teams visiting SA. This, they said, would be the thin end of the wedge. Sooner or later, such "minor" concessions to multiracialism would result in black majority rule. The National Party, they said, was "giving in, giving up, and giving over to blacks".

Prime minister John Vorster reacted by orchestrating their expulsion from the party in 1969. They went on to form the Herstigte Nasionale Party. But their predictions were accurate. So also were those of another right-wing rebellion, by Andries Treurnicht against PW Botha, which produced the Conservative Party in 1982. Treurnicht and his followers feared Botha’s decision to bring the coloured and Indian minorities into the new tricameral parliament would eventually lead to the inclusion of the black African majority as well. This was not Botha’s intention. But 12 years later, it is exactly what happened.

Then the issue was a political one, that of black inclusion. The issue today is economic: the money to finance failing state assets is running out. The two issues have in common that ruling parties think they can tweak policies in order to avoid fundamental change, but sometimes a process is set in motion that they cannot be stopped. This is what Shivambu fears. Let us hope he is right.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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