Communist trade minister wins praise from IMF


South African Trade and Industry Minister Alexander ("Alec") Erwin, a former trade union leader who arrives for a visit to Ireland tomorrow, is an anomaly.

He is a member of the South African Communist Party and yet he holds a key ministry in a government which has earned plaudits from the staunchly pro--capitalist International Monetary Fund for its investor-friendly macro-economic policy.

The anomaly deepens when one recalls what former finance minister Derek Keyes - who served in the first post-apartheid government under Nelson Mandela - had to say about Mr Erwin (53).

The religious-minded Mr Keyes, a successful businessman who was first recruited to the cabinet by former president F.W. de Klerk, is on record as saying that he thanked God for sending him that "young man" to serve under him as deputy minister of finance.

Mr Erwin, a member of the Communist Party, invokes "Marxist analytical methodology" and "dialectical thought processes" to explain why he is not uncomfortable in a cabinet which subscribes to a macro-economic policy that advocates privatisation of major state-controlled corporations.

He admits that the African National Congress (ANC) - which permits its members to join the Communist Party - has moved away from the Freedom Charter, a seminal document, adopted in the mid-1950s. The charter calls for ownership of the "mineral wealth beneath the soil", banks, and "monopoly industry" to be transferred to the "ownership of the people as a whole" or, as Mr Erwin summarises it, "nationalisation of the commanding heights" of the economy.

However, Mr Erwin says the move away was made "in open and public debate" and refers to the government's ongoing commitment to the ANC's 1994 Redistribution and Development Programme (RDP) and its need to adjust to new economic and social forces, encapsulated in the phrase "global economy".

"But I think that the thrust of the Freedom Charter, that the state must ensure equity, development, justice and dignity for the people, has been retained," says Mr Erwin, the son of a concert violinist and farmer.

Mr Erwin, who has emerged as a key protagonist of South Africa's controversial multimillion-rand arms deal, substantiates his position with two further points.

"To be a member of the Communist Party does not mean you cannot say the South African economy should perform effectively in the global economy", and, "what we have done is to adjust to the realties of the global economy but keep to our basic principles . . . What we have done by successful economic management is to divert more economic resources to where it is needed: health, poverty alleviation, rural development and so on".

Mr Erwin has seen the rand depreciate sharply against the dollar and sterling since he joined the cabinet in 1994, serving first as deputy minister of finance and then as Minister of Trade and Industry. But he points out that depreciation of the rand dovetailed neatly with government moves to make the unit cost of production more competitive and thereby served to boost South African exports.

As Minister of Trade and Industry he has helped to oversee the dismantling of the protective shield placed over the economy by the previous government and to supervise South Africa's compliance with its free trade obligations under the Marrakesh Treaty of 1994.

While opening South Africa's economy to foreign competition has led to job losses, Mr Erwin thinks that those losses have been more than compensated for by employment gains through increased exports.