Private enterprise stands little chance without state opening the way - Businesslive

May 17, 2020
17 May 2020 - It is almost poignant that trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel invests his hope in consumers buying SA products — “made proudly by local workers” — as a way of making sure “we can rebuild the economy”.

Michael Morris

It is almost poignant that trade & industry minister Ebrahim Patel invests his hope in consumers buying SA products — “made proudly by local workers” — as a way of making sure “we can rebuild the economy”.

We should, and most will try to. SA’s manufacturers and retailers might well pray that such spirited patriotism will do the trick, as Patel imagines it will. But local pride will come to nothing if domestic producers are unable not just to get back on their feet but to be free enough to be competitive, enterprising, innovative and flexible — all of which will depend on an environment stripped of every impediment to their success.

But if there’s one thing the lockdown has shown us, it is that the government just doesn’t have a grasp of this. We can only hope inventive local manufacturers and their proudly industrious workers are, indeed, engaged in delivering to the market “closed-toe flat shoes”, “crop bottoms [to be] worn with boots and leggings” or “short-sleeved T-shirts (where promoted and displayed as undergarments for warmth)".

There’s no mistaking the exasperation in former finance minister Trevor Manuel’s incredulous response: “You aren’t allowed to sell T-shirts or flip-flops? What is this? It is not rational.” More troubling is the gist, which is a state still beset by the illusion that it alone has the power to conjure success. Which is not to overlook the power it does have.

If you aren’t worried enough after these weeks of indifference to the threat of a devastating humanitarian crisis, you have only to consult last week’s News24 column by Dr Mukovhe Morris Masutha. For all the seeming reassurance that the column was written in his “individual capacity”, it is fair to assume the private musings of the “manager for research, strategy and policy analysis at the ANC’s policy unit” align with the ideas he brings to his day job.

His target is ostensibly British American Tobacco and what he calls its “aborted attempt to bully Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the national command council”. To be sure, corporate power can be as malign and unscrupulous as any other, but Masutha’s offensive is mounted against a larger enemy: “A treacherous trend of postapartheid SA’s tyranny of the markets ... that has underwritten our nation’s failed neoliberal experiment”.

Overlooking postapartheid policy failures that have cost the country investment, growth, skills and millions of jobs, he reasons: “It is under this neoliberal economic order that we have plunged into the most unequal country in the world today (sic). Left unchecked, private corporate interests will gradually undermine the very democracy that many South Africans died for,” and deliver instead “a tyranny of ‘investors’ and ‘lenders’.”

Fortunately, he argues, the coronavirus crisis has delivered “an unprecedented opportunity” to defeat the evil axis of private enterprise. “While others question the legality of the national command council,” he proposes, “we must perhaps make it a permanent structure responsible for rapid implementation of government’s programme of action”.

Masutha concludes that now is the time “for us to carefully study the past 26 years of democracy ... [and] guard against the tyranny of the markets, defend democratically elected leadership and put the wellbeing of our nation first, even if it means risking everything”.

He doesn’t spell out what he means by the ominous six words at the end of that final sentence, but the lockdown may have given SA a foretaste. It’s doubtful shoppers filling their trolleys with proudly SA-made products come into it.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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