Property rights can narrow gap between Claremont and Philippi - Businesslive

14 February 2021 - Google Maps tells me it takes 17 minutes to drive from my home in Claremont to Philippi on the Cape Flats, which sounds about right when I think back to taking our Scottish terriers to the kennels there, where they’d be cared for while the family went on holiday.

Michael Morris
Google Maps tells me it takes 17 minutes to drive from my home in Claremont to Philippi on the Cape Flats, which sounds about right when I think back to taking our Scottish terriers to the kennels there, where they’d be cared for while the family went on holiday.

It was always a faintly grim exercise of semi-abandonment (though Bonnie and Fergus never seemed anything but keen on arrival) and I’d make a point of distracting myself with a more than usually deliberate effort of observation on the journey, taking in the sights, such as they were; the lay of the land.

What was remarkable every time was that in just 17 minutes you could cross from one edge of society to the other, from the patched-up shanties leaning into the wind on the peninsula’s sandy plain to the lawned, unstirring mansions on the rising ground below the mountain, and see at once what is best described as SA’s asset profile.

Assets can be intangible, of course — skills, habits of mind, historical advantage, learning, even luck, all of which are integral to what is tangibly obvious in the landscape. None of this is beyond the reach of policy, which can be used to adjust the socio-economic environment and so stimulate and nurture the fortunes of people, overcome historical injustices, and widen economic participation and wellbeing.

But no dependable process of improvement — of the kind SA needs and deserves — can occur without preserving the right to own property, and an enormous effort to expand its reach.

Making this case highlights the irony in Ruth Hall’s confident discursion into what she imagines motivates the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in opposing the Expropriation Bill; her bald assertion that “in its world view the existing set of property relations in this country should be preserved” (“Why the expropriation bill is needed — and why it is not enough”, February 11).

Every word the IRR has written on property rights and the risks that arise even just from talk of eroding them underscores the danger to all South Africans of the country’s failing to dramatically alter “the existing set of property relations”.

Making it easier for the state to imagine it can remake the national asset profile via land expropriations is the real contribution to what Prof Hall (rightly) calls “preserving economic inequality”.

Which is why the real debate is about how to extend the benefits of property rights — accrual of assets, having a stake in society and the economy, and, importantly, the prospect of actual benefit — to the millions who don’t have them.

Will taking property from some to give to others (which, perversely, is not even government policy, as the egregious David Rakgase case demonstrates) succeed in meeting that objective?

The danger, as my senior colleague Anthea Jeffery noted last week, is that “[people] will lose what is the most important way to developing a better life: acquiring an asset, building it up, seeing its value appreciate over time, transferring it to their children, so that they have a head start compared to where their parents began — that’s the way in which people around the world are able to build up individual prosperity, and property is vital to it”.

Weakening property rights by making it easier for a state to take from some, ostensibly to give to others, seems at first glance to have a gloss of moral justice, but it nullifies the greater, pressing objective.

In my case, a 17-minute journey is all it takes to reveal what that objective is.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-02-14-michael-morris-property-rights-can-narrow-gap-between-claremont-and-philippi/

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