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Nationalism and nationalisation: A blind spot 


FOR ease of discussion, Nationalisation will be understood as a process while nationalism will refer to a state of identity and commitment to that national identity. 

Nationalisation, therefore, alludes to a process of conversion from private to public ownership. Nationalism is not a process, but a state of reality created by decisions of identity. 

Yet even with these simplified definitions, these two terms cause emotive political confrontations that vacillate between visionary sense and vain populism. 

In other words, the interpretation of nationalism and nationalisation depends on the audience and what benefit is to be gained by the given candidate. Herein lies the blind spot or the unseen connection and confusion. 

Part of the confusion, which is the reason for the blind spot, is that some people often mistake government’s ownership of an asset as patriotism and preservation of value. 

To put it differently, that when a natural resource or sector of value is wholly owned and managed by government then the benefits will be shared equitably among citizens. 

In this logic, the presence of government eliminates the private enterprise notion of profit and greed. Like most things, this logic becomes sensible when decisions concerning national assets are made by experts in respective fields. When decisions are centralised in an individual, then failure is inevitable. 

Venezuela, under the late President Hugo Chavez was a rare example of nationalised oil companies distributing resources to the poorest sectors of society almost equitably. 

Brazil, under the first rule of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva also tried to show the flat-society concept of socialism or Marxism by directing resources from nationalised companies towards marginalised groups. 

In short, these countries tried to distribute resources using the idea that the State, or Government, is custodian and activist of economic parity. However, both these countries fell short because the concept is led from the top and not necessarily institutionalised. 

In this respect, China is the best example of an institutionalised system of resource distribution that is anchored in law. The communist system as a theory becomes operational through legally created resource distribution channels with government at the centre.

What further separates China is that it does not suspend the need to commercialise industries or participate in lucrative sectors for the benefit of the State and citizens. 

At best, human capital is encouraged so that commerce and profit is not only a preserve of government but of (select) private entrepreneurs. Although imperfect, China has uniquely shown the workable balance between economic freedom and political caution. 

The tricky part is trying to distinguish what is genuinely private and what belongs to the state. How long this could be sustainable is another debate. 

In Africa, Rwanda is another example of resource distribution that appears to be functioning with visible resource distribution. There are many other examples, of course. 

But no matter how many we cite, it is a fact that every society has rich people and the poor, irrespective of the system of resource distribution the government chooses, whether state-led or in partnership with the private sector. 

It becomes a challenge to believe that nationalisation is efficient when basic commodities are absent in the economy. When government owns all (nationalised) resources, but citizens do not benefit from them except in funding military and police to threaten, contain and cage citizens; when medicines are lacking in hospitals and civil servants are underpaid if paid at all. 

When the system of resource distribution ends with those connected to the state. It is irresponsible to suggest that such a system is progressive. 

In Zambia for example, what became essential after the fall of autocratic rule in 1991 was to shift the understanding of value from natural resources to human resources. National assets owned by government did not add to the value of human life for over 17 years. 

Mental capital became the way out of economic, social and political stagnation. In this respect, 


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