Face the facts and realise land policy can take SA to brink of disaster - Businesslive

Dec 10, 2018
10 December 2018 - Perhaps some critics were right about the lesser details, yet here we are at the brink, reached via an ideological trajectory obvious to the vigilant for more than five years.

Michael Morris 
Of all the clichés of doom, “ticking time bomb” is the most popular for signalling an inevitable eruption in SA, a devastating bang imagined as the unavoidable consequence of mounting discontent that eventually proves irrepressible. Weary news consumers could be forgiven for instinctively discounting the risk; democratic SA’s time bombs are always just ticking.

Or is it only the metaphor that’s deficient — and to blame for a complacency that is a genuine risk?

The billions lost to corruption in the two decades since the arms deal have not had a final incendiary result, but consider the far-reaching costs. The same is true of the (continuing) dismal failures of our schooling system, of healthcare and policing, of the electricity supply.

Nor has the stubborn attachment to economic and other policies that staunch dynamism and discourage the most enterprising triggered a fireball so much as a dispiriting dwindling of investment, jobs, opportunities, hopes of prosperity and social optimism, and, with it, capital flight, emigration, populism and risk (violent protests have increased by at least 300% in a decade).

But only the deluded could be tempted to think of this sum as a perpetually deferred catastrophe. Outspoken educationist and Institute of Race Relations (IRR) president Jonathan Jansen expressed it bracingly last week when he wrote: “It’s clear but nobody wants to say the obvious: this government does not have the competence and the capacity to govern effectively.”

And yet, to the vigilant who have been warning for years what is in store comes only the bitter accusation of alarmism and panic-mongering. Over the past half-decade, my IRR colleagues have been warning of the looming risk of land expropriation without compensation, but have been repeatedly told how wrong they were, and how poorly they were misreading the governing ANC if they really thought it was willing to take the country to the brink.

It’s instructive, just days after parliament and the National Council of Provinces put their seal on the report recommending a constitutional amendment to strengthen the state’s hand in taking property without paying for it, to consider some of our detractors’ assurances. Nearly five years ago, on February 17 2014, the IRR warned of the drift towards property rights erosions in the combined impact of the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Bill and the Promotion and Protection of Investment Bill.

The government and its supporters, said CEO Frans Cronje, “seem careless of this outcome” but the IRR was compelled to sound the alarm “because we can see where policy is headed”. A day later, a key figure in organised agriculture confidently asserted: “The economic consequences of the large-scale taking of property without compensation will be disastrous… which makes it very unlikely that our government will go this route.”

A leading scholar in the field said there was no way an expropriation by stealth strategy will be approved by parliament. Two years later, when the since-withdrawn expropriation law was approved, organised agriculture persisted in discounting IRR concerns, saying: “We’re not overly worried.”

Perhaps some critics were right about the lesser details, yet here we are at the brink, reached via an ideological trajectory obvious to the vigilant for more than five years.

The costs of deluded optimism can be high, as scholar Milton Shain wrote in Business Day last week in his assessment of current affairs in the light of US intellectual Robert Kagan’s latest book, The Jungle Grows Back. Cautioning that individual rights, freedom, universality, equality regardless of race or national origin, cosmopolitanism and tolerance are, as Kagan tells us, not the natural order, Shain concluded: “Democracy is fragile. One would be foolish to assume that SA is immune to its demise”.

“Ticking time bomb” really is the wrong metaphor; dry rot is more like it. It can be treated, but you need early warning and timeous remedies.

• Morris is head of media at the IRR.


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