Blinken's message to SA - The Citizen

12 August 2022 - The recent visit to South Africa by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminds us that as a country we are part of a global system, and that how countries interact with one another matters greatly for their individual prospects.

Gabriel Crouse

The recent visit to South Africa by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminds us that as a country we are part of a global system, and that how countries interact with one another matters greatly for their individual prospects.

Coming as it does after the ANC’s Policy Conference, Blinken’s visit should prompt some reflection on how our policy choices reverberate abroad.

Some background is important here. In 2020, in Addis Ababa, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned: “South Africa is debating an amendment to permit the expropriation of private property without compensation. That would be disastrous for that economy, and most importantly for the South African people.”

We at the Institute of Race Relations warned that Expropriation without Compensation (EWC) was the opposite of genuine land reform and would offer nothing to address the abject failings in that sphere. Instead, EWC would be a potent tool for an ideological agenda that keeps most poor people, most of whom are black, in hoc to a state riddled by corruption.

But the failure to impose EWC through the 18th Constitutional Amendment last year has not made the ANC think twice. EWC remains the official intention, through the Expropriation Bill, which stands before Parliament.

At the ANC Policy Conference, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Despite the setback of our efforts to amend … [the] Constitution we must continue to pursue all available options, including through legislation, like the Expropriation Bill, to implement the resolution of our 54th Conference on land redistribution without compensation.”

This would “be disastrous” for ordinary South African people, as the Venezuelan precedent demonstrates. In Venezuela EWC first came in as a law that was supposed to be limited to “idle land” on “latifundios” (“colonial estates”). The Expropriation Bill similarly lists “unused land” as a candidate for EWC, but explicitly says that EWC is “not limited to” the examples named.

In Venezuela the limitation was paper thin and ineffective. Property is either protected from corrupt government officials or it is not, and when it is not, everything is up for grabs while the poorest suffer the hardest. Concrete companies and breakfast cereal factories were eventually subject to EWC in Venezuela for the simple reason that once government officials are allowed to dispossess private actors the temptation to extort bribes or else seize assets becomes overwhelming.

Former US President Barack Obama also warned South Africa against messing with the market. Obama threatened to remove South Africa from the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa) trade agreement in 2015 “because South Africa continues to impose several longstanding barriers to US trade.”

This we could ill afford: Before the Covid pandemic, SA exported roughly R150 billion to the US and imported roughly R75 billion from the US, our second-largest trading partner behind China. That translates into large numbers of jobs, incomes and state revenue.

The US has previously stated its position that if South Africa wants to continue to enjoy Agoa benefits, protection of private property rights and open trade are a necessary condition. Ironically, in these examples, US leaders have been more in keeping with the average South African than President Ramaphosa was at the latest ANC conference.

In 2020 an independent opinion survey commissioned by the IRR asked a statistically representative sample of South Africans which they would prefer: policies that grow jobs and the economy, or EWC? 15% of white respondents said they would prefer EWC. But over 80% of respondents of all races said they would prefer a growing market. That, together with privatizing most government land by handing out title deeds to those in RDP houses or former “Bantustans”, is the way to get out the shadow of apartheid.

Blinken started his trip at the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto, paying homage to the struggle against apartheid. That is good. Everybody agrees apartheid social engineering was wicked and stupid, and retarded South Africa’s development to the type of society it could be.

It was to be hoped that Blinken would deliver a clear message to South Africa’s government on the policies threatening South Africans going forward. South Africa has the worst unemployment rate on record, globally, and EWC means making that even worse.

But instead of following in the footsteps of Obama and Pompeo by talking straight, Blinken was lost in abstractions and flattery. The specifics he discussed at length were Covid-19 vaccines that most South Africans preferred not to take and a telescope looking at space. He was diplomatically critical on Russia. But on the biggest problem for South Africa, unemployment, and the greatest threat to jobs recovery, EWC, he was silent.

With foreign diplomats eager to entice the ANC-led government into condemning Russia there may be no criticism of EWC from abroad forthcoming.

Gabriel Crouse is a writer and analyst, and Head of Campaigns, at the IRR

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