As the economic collapse began in Zimbabwe nearly two decades ago, those who warned that South Africa could head that way, too, were often ridiculed and labelled Afro-pessimists.
At the time, the evidence might have indicated that this ridicule was justified. However, things have changed – the African National Congress (ANC) which governed then is very different from the one that dominates our politics today.
The ANC of the early 2000s was committed to fiscal discipline, it created an enabling environment for local and foreign investors which led to a growth in jobs and average incomes. There were certainly some missteps, such as the government’s policies around HIV/AIDS and foreign policy stance on Zimbabwe, but on balance, the country was well-managed, with capable people in important positions.
The country was effectively the polar opposite of our northern neighbour.
In that country the farms of white citizens were being seized, increasingly there was a crackdown on opposition , and the demon of inflation was awakening. In 2002 annual inflation in Zimbabwe reached nearly 200%, a harbinger of things to come (in November 2008 hyperinflation reached 79 600 000 000%, leading Zimbabwe to abandon its currency).
In that same year, Tito Mboweni, an ANC stalwart and then governor of the South African Reserve Bank, said: ‘We are not Zimbabwe. We believe in property rights.’ Anyone who said that South Africa could possibly suffer the same fate as Zimbabwe would rightly have been laughed out of the room.
However, there is a very real possibility today that South Africa could become another Zimbabwe. This idea will be dismissed out of hand by some, but the evidence is clear – if we continue on our current path it is not a question of ‘if’ we become a bigger Zimbabwe, but ‘when’.
The ANC that governs today has shown that it is prepared to sacrifice a functioning, fairly sophisticated economy on the altar of populism.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recent late-night announcement that his party would support a policy of expropriation without compensation (EWC) shows that we are a step closer to emulating our trans-Limpopo brethren.
Make no mistake if EWC becomes official policy, any hope of South Africa tackling our appalling unemployment or poverty rate will be gone.
Investors will flee, and as the economy flatlines , so will many South Africans (white and black) with the means to do so. In the main, these will be business owners and those with skills, those very people who pay the majority of tax and who are vital to ensuring that South Africa becomes a prosperous society.
As we have seen in Zimbabwe and Venezuela, the erosion of property rights leads to the erosion of other rights. Democracy in Venezuela is dead, and the situation in Zimbabwe is similar. Although there was much hope that after Robert Mugabe was overthrown Zimbabwe would allow free and open elections, recent events in that country have dashed these hopes.
There have been scenes of gratuitous violence in Harare, with unarmed civilians being attacked by the military, and a number of people have already lost their lives. This could be our fate if South Africa legislates for EWC. Other rights will be eroded if we no longer have property rights.
We at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) will be accused of being alarmist, but to be frank, it is time to be alarmed.
The ANC does not know what it is doing with EWC. Its backtracking on the expropriation of tribal land is an example of this, and it is clear that there are many within the party who are opposed to the changing of the Constitution. Unfortunately, it seems that the populists are winning the battle in the party on this issue. Kgalema Motlanthe’s High-Level Panel also found that the Constitution was not an impediment to land reform, but it seems that these findings and recommendations are being ignored.
The land question is an emotive one in South Africa, but it can be solved without destroying property rights, which will in turn destroy the future of all South Africans.
Land reform and restitution is vital for South Africa but it needs to be given a proper budget and must be implemented by skilled technocrats and officials.
Furthermore, the IRR and others have pointed out elsewhere how real sustainable land reform could be implemented. The National Development Plan (NDP), which President Ramaphosa played a key role in developing, also proposed innovative ways of land reform, which would help grow the economy, rather than damage it. However, this document (while not without its flaws) seems to be gathering dust in a forgotten office somewhere in the Union Buildings.
It is not too late. The government can still implement land reform in a sensible way which will not only restore land to those who lost it, but it can be done in such a way that will not destroy our economy.
South Africa has stood at the abyss many times, and each time, stepped back. The next few months will determine whether it once again steps back, or this time topples in. The dream of 1994 can still be revived but it will take the efforts of all South Africans to realise this.
* Marius Roodt is a campaign manager at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) ), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then SMS your name to 32823.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
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