Why a white minority continues to dominate South Africa’s economy


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The economy was now dominated by a minerals-energy-finance-complex.

Alongside the growing financialisation of the economy, there has been a shift in racial patterns of ownership.

At the end of apartheid, companies listed on the JSE were almost wholly owned by white South African investors.

But, by 2016, (if we accept the calculations done by Alternative Prosperity) white South African ownership was down to just 22%.

Meanwhile, foreign ownership had leapt to 39%, black direct ownership (mainly through BEE schemes) to 10% and black indirect ownership (largely through pension funds) to 13%, with another 16% uncategorised.

Such statistics are always a matter of controversy.

President Jacob Zuma recently insisted that black ownership of the JSE was as low as 3%.

Yet the trend towards both greater foreign ownership and increased black ownership is indisputable. Three major issues follow.

Large scale capital in South Africa is less monopolised and more diversified in its ownership than it was under apartheid (even if major corporates continue to dominate).

It follows that the country needs to grasp how the nature of capitalism is changing.

For a start, the growth in black pension funds reflects the strong upward movement of black people into the higher ranks of the public service since 1994.

Even if we continue to refer to “monopoly capitalism” in these circumstances, it makes far less sense to refer to it, uncritically, as “white”.

Yes, it’s probable that the major stake of foreign investment is ultimately owned (largely indirectly via institutional investments) by foreigners who are white.

But, does this suggest that we would prefer that they were yellow or brown?

Surely that takes us on to very shaky territory?

Should we categorise the Gupta empire – the politically-connected family at the centre of state captures – as “brown monopoly capitalism?”

Critics such as Prof Chris Malikane, the economic adviser to Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba, have objected that the growth of black investment on the JSE is not significant.

That’s because, they argue, black pension funds are largely controlled by white asset managers.

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And black direct investments via BEE schemes are largely funded through debt owed to white capital.

These are certainly very real issues.

But, is the main issue here the racial patterns of ownership and control – or the growing power of financial institutions and their lack of accountability?

All this means that it’s simply too crude, too simplistic and too out of date to depict the economy in broad brush terms as under the domination of white monopoly capital.

The reality is more complex.

It follows that suggestions that the decolonisation of the economy demands the nationalisation of WMC is profoundly bad economics.

The troubled experiences of South Africa’s state-owned enterprises such as South African Airways, Eskom and PetroSA do nothing to inspire confidence.

What the economy might gain in terms of direct state ownership would be confounded by flight of capital and know-how.

Class rule by capitalists would be replaced by class rule by state managers who would be no more accountable to ordinary citizens than their predecessors.

South Africa needs to devise far more inventive solutions than nationalisation to tackle the brutally unequal nature of its economy.

Citizens need to pose profound questions about how to make international capital more accountable.

They must ask questions about how to make the country’s corporate elite more accountable and how state capital can work productively with private capital while remaining responsive to local communities.

And, yes, about how present patterns of corporate ownership can be not only de-racialised but democratised.

Yes, it’s a nice idea to think of overthrowing “white monopoly capital”, but we need to think very carefully of what we might replace it with!

By Roger Southall. This article was first published by The Conversation

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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