Oh no, here comes the future - Businesslive

11 February 2019 - Assurances, however, tend only to confirm the threat, whose real victims are plain in the measurable reality of joblessness having risen from 1.9-million people in 1994 to 6.1-million today, or by more than 200%. That’s the political heat that needs attention.

Michael Morris

Dictionaries have a way of making society obvious to itself — and quite snappily in the digital age by wizardry that captures instantly how words are used, and how often.

Oxford University Press, the pre-eminent standard in lexicography, draws daily on about 13,000 RSS feeds worldwide to stock its corpus, or warehouse of words, now numbering more than 8 billion, and named “Komodo” conceivably a nod to the gigantism — and territorial dominance — of the lizard.

This is of more than passing interest to us, I learned recently. Komodo, it turns out, established that the word that trended most in SA in 2018 was “expropriation”. If this tells us something we already knew, it confirms the intensity of a stubborn political idea. Less encouraging is the possibility that the idea is now so familiar and commonplace that it tempts complacency.

To borrow from the language universe, “general acceptance” as Kingsley Amis has observed, can confer acceptability on atrocious usage, for though a “crude test”, general acceptance is “impossible to fudge or cancel”. And when it comes to expropriation, it’s probably true that most South Africans — which means urban residents — were prone in 2018 to the delusion that this was really about khaki-clad farmers, a rural minority who live “out there” and who, even if the dots aren’t consciously connected in any deliberately brutish way, could if necessary be sacrificed should the reward be a reduction of political heat.

As my colleague Terence Corrigan has pointed out, by a “rhetorical sleight of hand”, what is in fact “the abridgement of property rights and the expansion of the discretion of the state” is being dressed up as something altogether more benign, commonsensical and necessary.

If, since January, popular (perhaps especially urban) perceptions have shifted with the governing party’s considering adding prescribed assets to its expropriation policy arsenal — and the prospect of big sums being funnelled out of the country’s R4-trillion pensions and savings into projects or entities meant to serve the public good — the real risk remains a misappreciation of the genuine and justified source of political heat. This is the low growth and rising unemployment that expropriation in its various forms, far from reversing, can only exacerbate.

The risk was captured in the Institute of Race Relations’ (IRR’s) response to Cyril Ramaphosa’s state of the nation speech last week, in which CEO Frans Cronje warned there was “very little … to suggest that the government is in a position to tackle SA’s greatest structural threat — the economic exclusion of very large numbers of young people”.

Too much government policy had the effect of “stunting rates of growth and shutting off avenues to employment”, the two prominent examples being moves towards expropriation without compensation and the new minimum-wage laws, which “will have a net negative effect on overall living standards and income levels”. Much the same case was put in the — subsequently controversial — discussion paper endorsed by SA’s leading trading partners in the West, which reportedly cautioned: “No investor would venture to come to SA without proper and comprehensive guarantees for his investment … There are widespread concerns about implications of the debate about land reform that should be addressed quickly.”

It cited “regulatory uncertainty” in mining, black-empowerment targets and scorecards and intellectual-property rights. Where the governing party thought fit to see off what it saw as foreign meddling with an overwrought reaction invoking “the history of master-slave relations” and condemning “this dramatic holier-than-thou stance of these former colonisers”, the president himself has been at pains to assure the jittery that their assets are safe.

Assurances, however, tend only to confirm the threat, whose real victims are plain in the measurable reality of joblessness having risen from 1.9-million people in 1994 to 6.1-million today, or by more than 200%. That’s the political heat that needs attention.

• Morris is head of media at the IRR.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2019-02-11-michael-morris-oh-no-here-comes-the-future/

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