Editorial: Empowerment's ironic price tag

Cyril Ramaphosa. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Cyril Ramaphosa. (Oupa Nkosi, MG)

Following the emergence of emails showing how he lobbied Cabinet ministers, unionists and the police to end a violent strike at Lonmin's Marikana mine. it is the wrong question.

Ramaphosa's complaint of "criminality" in a context in which 10 people, including two police officers, had been killed is reasonable enough. And a request for "concomitant" action cannot credibly be construed as an instruction to fire automatic weapons indiscriminately into a crowd.

At most, it may have contributed to political pressure on the police, which, in turn, may have helped to lend command-and-control justification to a reaction fuelled by rage at the death of colleagues. That is worthy of serious consideration by Justice Ian Farlam and his commission.

To frame the question entirely in these terms, however, is to miss what the emails really tell us about Marikana and about the state we are in.

What matters about the Ramaphosa correspondence is his extraordinary degree of access to top government, union and ANC figures, including those at the apex of minerals regulation and policing. That access is derived from his history as a labour leader and ANC politician: a champion of workers and the poor. It is a level of influence most business leaders can only dream of.

Patriotic bourgeoisie
Ramaphosa was "deployed to business" by the ANC to create a "patriotic bourgeoisie" as a by-product of the deracialisation of economic power. It is a policy once enthusiastically supported by many of his fiercest critics today.

Indeed, the "economic freedom fighters" around Julius Malema, who have seized on the emails to beat the man who helped to expel their leader, would like to see the processes that put Ramaphosa on the Lonmin board accelerated.

No doubt black economic empowerment has delivered huge benefits, but the deal between the ANC and big business to trade political capital – and the access that goes with it – for massive chunks of equity has fundamentally corrupted the process and catastrophically weakened the party of liberation.

It is precisely the perception among workers that ANC and union leadership are too entwined with elite interests to represent them credibly that has lead to a breakdown of the labour relations system in the wake of Marikana.

This breakdown ultimately puts at risk not just social and economic stability, but the constitutional arrangement of which Ramaphosa was the midwife.

It is a tragedy that those who delivered the social pact that secured liberation – and the legal framework for democratic development – are also those whose policy choices and private accumulation now threaten both.

If Ramaphosa returns to public life in the ANC's top six, he must set that to rights. If party-political power is not urgently sterilised of commercial interests there will be more Marikanas.

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