Business Day column: Common ground lies beyond the labels

HERMAN Mashaba, lesser devil, or greater angel? Will he succeed or fail as Johannesburg’s new mayor? It depends on the extent to which he reconciles apparent opposites: his capitalism and the socialism of the EFF.

His party, the DA, does not have enough votes to run the city without EFF support. But the EFF opposes virtually everything he espouses. All they have in common is a common enemy, the "governing" ANC. Does that mean Mashaba’s tenure is doomed? So it seems.

However, a few skilful tweaks to superficially opposite paradigms could make lovers of rivals. How? They are off to a bad start. Anti-Mashaba invective by the EFF knows no bounds. Compared with his rival, former ANC mayor Parks Tau, EFF leader Julius Malema called Mashaba a "lesser devil". EFF chairman Dali Mpofu accuses Mashaba of hating "his black skin" and of disrespecting "poor black people". Mashaba, he says, does not have "the interests of the poor at heart", thinks "only rich people can rule", and espouses "the dogma of market fundamentalism". All of which contradicts the EFF’s "tenet of (black) economic emancipation".

The big question is whether the EFF has "the interests of the poor at heart". If so, it can find common ground with Mashaba. Is the EFF blinded by antimarket fundamentalist dogma? If not, common ground will be easy to find. Does the EFF require Mashaba to think with his black skin instead of his nonracial head? If so, they have the wrong man.

I have spent enough hours discussing the plight of impoverished South Africans with Mashaba to know that the EFF is wrong about him. It will not find anyone more genuinely concerned about the poor than Mashaba. Nor anyone more resourceful at finding solutions.

If Mashaba and the EFF agree that what they want is results, differences between his capitalism and its socialism will be more apparent than real. "Capitalism" and "socialism" are so ambiguous as to be meaningless without clarification. Capitalism can mean a system that enriches capitalists at the expense of the working class, or a system that unleashes market forces for the benefit of all. Socialism can mean a system that enriches government at the expense of the masses, or a system that delivers prosperity to the masses.

Slavery can be called capitalism because slaves are traded, or socialism because slaves are unfree. Apartheid can be called capitalism because whites enjoyed property rights, or socialism because blacks never had property rights. Nazi Germany was capitalism because there were private companies, or socialism because the government controlled people and resources. Civil liberties, due process and the rule of law are claimed by capitalists and socialists as characteristics of their system. That these and related words imply opposites, tells us more about linguistic anomalies than reality on the ground.

The EFF and the DA, especially Mashaba, should leave debates about the meanings of words to linguists, and turn their attention to the meanings of actions. They can agree, for instance, to end land apartheid by converting millions of black-held properties under their watch into full freely tradable ownership. Capitalist privatisation could be replaced by people’s privatisation, whereby, instead of outsourcing to listed companies, they create thousands of empowerment opportunities for emerging entrepreneurs and existing employees. Most things capitalists want, socialists will agree to if done in ways that maximise opportunities and improve delivery.

Everyone knows the EFF will oppose infrastructure outsourcing to giant corporations. We do not know whether it wants small neighbourhood enterprises to get contracts for local security, roads, robots, parks, sidewalks, fences, bus stops, toilets, sports fields, street lights, catering and so on. Time and Mashaba will tell.

Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation.

This article was first published in Business Day on 14 September 2016

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