The South African economy is essentially based on private enterprise, but the state participates in many ways. Through the Industrial Development Corporation, the apartheid-era government set up and controlled a wide array of public corporations, many relating to industrial infrastructure. Two such corporations—one, the country’s primary producer of iron and steel; the other, an important producer of oil from coal—were privatized in the 1980s. The Electrical Supply Commission (ESKOM), the major electricity utility, remains government-controlled, but several entities that formerly were branches of government have been converted to public corporations, including Transnet, which runs the railways and harbours. In the 1990s the government partially privatized airlines and telecommunications, and, despite fierce opposition from trade unions, official economic policy has been to continue partially or completely privatizing many public enterprises.
Economic policy has been aimed primarily at sustaining growth and achieving a measure of industrial self-sufficiency. High rates of inflation and declining investment, however, have complicated the economic situation. Trade sanctions exacerbated these problems, but they continued even after the end of apartheid and sanctions. Dependence on imports renewed inflationary pressure while limiting the government’s ability to meet pressing social demands. Economic policy became the subject of ongoing debate between those favouring market forces and the advocates of substantial state intervention; still others favoured an export-led or inward-looking industrial policy.
Historically, the stated policy of the African National Congress (ANC), which took power in 1994, was that it would seek a state-led mixed economy based on nationalized mining and financial enterprises; since taking leadership of the government, it has in fact pursued privatization of a substantial number of formerly state-owned enterprises. The government faces competing demands—to improve the living conditions of the impoverished Black population while also addressing the demands for economic liberalization from business interests and Western governments. It has chosen to make maintaining business confidence and boosting investment the core element of its economic policy.