What Nelson Mandela thought about nationalisation

We examine ANCYL insinuations that the controversial policy remained an ambition of Mandela.

JOHANNESBURG – The ANC Youth League, both in its formal argument for nationalisation and as uttered in public arenas have suggested that nationalisation was a policy of former South African president, Nelson Mandela.

In its basic document on the nationalisation of mines, the ANCYL argues that a clause contained within the 1955 Freedom Charter, the “transfer of mineral wealth beneath the soil, monopoly industries and banks to the ownership of the people as a whole” implies a call for the nationalisation of mines.

The claim forms the basis for the league’s argument justifying a call for nationalisation.

While the interpretation of the clause is heavily contested by academics, the league has, in part, called on utterances from notable ANC leaders to support their interpretation.

Included is Nelson Mandela who, it quotes as saying: ““It is true that in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land the (Freedom) Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude.  But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people”. – Nelson Mandela, 1956”

His statement goes some way in supporting the league’s assertion that Mandela believed the charter called for nationalisation, although the author of the clause, notable anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Congress of Democrats, Ben Turok, has rejected the interpretation.

However, youth league leader, Julius Malema, has implied that Mandela maintained such an interpretation of the charter and a commitment to the aim of nationalisation throughout his political career.

The league quotes him as saying, in his first public address after his release from prison, “nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industry is the policy of the ANC and a change or modification of our view in this regard is inconceivable”.

And Malema was quoted, at an ANC breakfast commemorating the 20th anniversary of Madiba’s release from prison, as saying that He [Mandela] supported a policy of nationalisation.

“We stand opposed to any peace-time heroes who want to oppose nationalisation as not being a policy of the ANC,” Malema was quoted as saying at the breakfast by Sapa.

So how historically accurate are Malema’s claims?

Leon Louw, head of the Free Market Foundation (FMF) and author of a chapter in the book Nationalisation, which contests the youth league’s arguments for nationalisation, claims that Mandela never called for nationalisation in his first public address to the public.

Indeed, official transcripts from the speech don’t contain any reference to nationalisation.

Floyd Shivambu, ANCYL spokesman, has, however, told Moneyweb, that Mandela’s call for nationalisation is captured in SABC footage of the event and that the FMF have done only “desk-top” research in examining the issue.

Moneyweb requests for SABC archival footage were unanswered.

But Mandela did release a statement shortly after his release in 1990 in which he wrote: The nationalisation of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable. Black economic empowerment is a goal we fully support and encourage, but in our situation state control of certain sectors of the economy is unavoidable.” 

And in his autobiography The Struggle of my Life, released in 1990, Mandela writes: “The African Nationalism for which the ANC stands is the concept of freedom and fulfilment for the African people in their own land … it would be a hollow gesture to repeal the Gold Law prohibitions against Africans when all gold mines are owned by European companies. In this respect the ANC’s policy corresponds with the old policy of the present Nationalist Party which, for many years, had as part of its programme the nationalisation of the gold mines”. 

It seems that the youth league is at least half-right. 

But the crucial question remains: what was Mandela’s position on nationalisation by the turn of Democracy in 1994? 

One man who knew the issue well is Alistair Sparks, veteran journalist and political analyst who has written three books which chart the history of South Africa through the end of apartheid.

Sparks claimed that shortly after Mandela’s release he wrote an article, disputing the nationalisation argument, in which he examined Zambia’s catastrophic failure in its nationalisation of copper mines.

Sparks  told Moneyweb that following the release of his article Mandela invited him to discuss the nationalisation issue, after a three hour discussion Mandela concluded that “he didn’t really know enough about economics and said that he would have to call in some business people,” to further discuss the matter.

But “the great u-turn,” in Mandela’s attitudes with regards to nationalisation came after a series of visits to the World Economic Forum in Davos said Sparks.

When Mandela attended the forum in 1992, what “everybody told him was that if that (nationalisation) happened SA would get no investment”, from foreigners.

Mandela had, reportedly, been reproached for his views on the topic by leaders of former communist countries whose nationalisation policies had failed miserably, according to Sparks.

Sparks recounts Mandela’s conversation with him in which he spoke of a meeting Mandela had with a key Vietnamese figure who told Mandela that “the world has changed and you have got to get into the stream of what’s going on”.

Ian Taylor quoted Mandela in his book Stuck in Middle GEAR: South Africa’s post-Apartheid foreign relations as saying to delegates gathered in Davos in 1992 “he asserted that the ANC was ‘determined to … establish the political and social climate which is necessary to ensure business confidence and create the possibility for all investors to make long-term commitments to South Africa”

Anthony Sampson, Mandela’s official biographer, wrote: “it was not until February 1992, when Mandela went to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that he finally turned against nationalisation. He was lionised by the world’s bankers and industrialists at lunches and dinners. He argued with them that other industrialised countries, including Britain, Germany and Japan, had needed nationalised industries to restore their economies after world wars … But he sounded, as one economist complained, like an early Fabian socialist; and he was outgunned by both De Klerk and Buthelezi, who made their own arguments for free enterprise at the conference.”

This has been confirmed by former Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni who told Moneyweb that the most interesting and memorable occasion at Davos was around 1992 with President Mandela  “had occasion to meet the Chinese prime minister and also the prime minister of Vietnam and they had a conversation – and one of those conversations was about nationalisation – and both prime ministers actually indicated to President Mandela that they were leading communist parties, they were both general secretaries of their respective communist parties and at the same time, they were prime ministers of their respective countries.  They said to Madiba, ‘we are privatising state corporations because we have found that they did not work as we wanted them to.  You are a leader of a nationalist organisation – a liberalisation movement.  What is this thing of you talking about nationalisation’.  The national liberation movement when communist party governments were privatising – that was a wonderful moment in the history of policy formulation in South Africa and when we returned, the ‘old man’ said this talk of nationalisation needs to be debated and finalised.  That’s why, when we went to the NASREC Conference in 1992, the issue of nationalisation was debated for over eight hours, at the conclusion of which the final document entitled “Ready to Govern” did not have the work nationalisation in it”.

On returning from Davos, Mandela, according to Sparks, called in key ANC officials and said: “chaps we’ve got to change (our policy with regards to nationalisation)”.

“He certainly changed his mind absolutely, Mbeki always took the blame (for an ANC departure from nationalisation) but it was Mandela who took that decision … what we need then and what we need now is foreign investment because we don’t have enough local investment to employ all our people”.

Further, Sparks contends that, unlike the ANCYL, Mandela never based his calls for nationalisation on the Freedom Charter, “he based it on what the national party did”.

“His position, as he exposed it to me, never touched on the Freedom Charter, it was based on the fact that the NP had uplifted the poor white people,” through an aggressive policy of nationalisation.

Write to Malcolm Rees – malcolm@moneyweb.co.za


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