Evolution, not revolution
Sometimes I find something that is so unbelievably jaw-dropping that it challenges my perceptions about how far we’ve come as a country. A leading Johannesburg investor recently retweeted the thoughts of Bafedile Mafologele, a trained Chartered Accountant who is now Chief Operating Officer for an investment company “whose core business is the provision of Investment Consulting, Asset Management, Private Wealth and Hedge Fund solutions”. This CV is important: these are not the pseudo-intellectual ramblings of a leftist scholar that has just awakened from a twenty-year slumber. No, this is indeed a UCT-educated, qualified Chartered Accountant that now manages other people’s assets.
So what is so unbelievably jaw-dropping? In a post, titled “Black South Africans – I have a feeling one day your children are going to piss on your graves and call you stupid whilst the Zimbabwean children will be worshipping their parents as gods!!!”, Mr Mafologele proclaims the virtues of Robert Mugabe’s economic liberation campaign:
Dare I say Zimbabweans are richer now than they were during their times of prosperity. … Someday, if not today, the Zimbabwean people will realise that their suffering was worthwhile and that their days of prosperity are fast approaching. As Zimbabweans reap the rewards of their suffering and enjoy what is rightfully theirs on their land, our children as black South Africans will ask us a very simple question: “why did we not think of similar radical policies?” The policies did not have to be as extreme and bring about dire poverty however, they needed to ensure that the goal of freedom is realised not only in a political sense but also in an economical sense.
I remain South African but, it is at times like this that I wish I was Zimbabwean so I could enjoy the fruits of my “forefathers’” suffering. President Robert Mugabe is villainised and seen by many as a dictator but what he has managed to do is give Zimbabweans political freedom and economic freedom. It can be said that Mugabe’s dictatorship has worked in favour of Zimbabweans and he will die a happy man. It is said he has left a trail of deaths, that remains an uncertainty as he is yet to be convicted in a court of law, however I believe he has liberated the people from economic slavery. History will judge him and I wonder if people will say at that point that it was for the greater good. The people of Zimbabwe will see economic freedom in their lifetime.
Where to begin? History will remember Mr Mugabe as a revolutionary leader who freed his people politically, and then misused his power to repress them economically, dashing the hopes and dreams of black and white citizens of what was once one of Africa’s most thriving economies. Zimbabweans are not better off than they were 20 years ago. In 1992, life expectancy was 58 years. Today it is 50. Gross national income in 1992 was 690 US$, today it is 460 US$. (All this from the World Development Indicators.) Thousands of Zimbabweans have died because of conflict, hunger and disease. Following Mr Mafologele’s argument, all this suffering was “worth it” because it was the only way black Zimbabweans could prosper. Rubbish. This is like arguing that the Black Death was a great economic boon to Western Europe during the fourteenth century, as it killed off nearly half of the population and resulted in high wages for those that remained. While it did increase wages – and living standards – for those that survived, I’m pretty sure no-one would propose the Black Death as a policy mechanism to increase economic prosperity.
Moreover, Mr Mafologele claims that, even though Zimbabweans are poorer, at least now they own whatever is left. I’m not so sure that this is true either. How sure is he that ownership is widely spread, and not captured by the supporters of Mr Mugabe? Moreover, do the people who now live on the formerly white-owned farms have legal tenure of their newly acquired farms? What if a new dispensation after next year’s election again decides to redistribute farms to their own group of supporters? If it happened once, there is no reason why this won’t happen again.
The real scary part is where Mr Mafologele pleads for similar policies in South Africa: “South Africa perhaps needs a bit of dictatorship and people with radical minds to ensure that all citizens share in its wealth.” There is only one quick way to reduce inequality, which inspires the thinking of populist ideas such as those Mr Mafologele propose, and that is to take away from the rich (which includes himself) so that everyone is equally poor. This is what happened in Zimbabwe. The rich – black and white – have left Zimbabwe because their prospects of prosperity was dashed and they could find better opportunities elsewhere. The revolutionary speed at which such change can occur makes this an appealing proposal, but it only results in sustained poverty and hardship (as is evidenced by the statistics). Redistributing from the rich is not a solution if one really cares about creating prosperity for all.
No, the only way is the hard way – it takes time to build up the necessary physical capital (savings, which is still extremely low in South Africa) and human capital (which is why the Apartheid education policies were particularly bad), time to build the necessary trust that makes markets work, and time to build networks that allows capital to find its most efficient use. (Let’s also not forget that South Africa, through the hard work of politicians on both sides of the spectrum, was fortunate to adopt a political system, legislative framework, system of property rights and media freedom that creates and protects the right institutions for this “construction project” to happen. For some countries, such as the United States, this process of democratic required several conflicts over several centuries.) There is no quick-and-easy solution to quality education, descent health care and high incomes for all. Chartered Accountants like Mr Mafologele should know this from personal experience.
In truth, I am surprised because I expected such sentiments from populist politicians, not asset managers. I understand the frustrations of Mr Mafologele – seeing how, 18 years after 1994, the number of poor remains large – but calling for revolutionary approaches will only harm the marginalised even more. Instead, what is necessary is that Mr Mafologele encourages his 823 followers to engage in constructive ideas about how South African society can evolve into a nation where everyone has an equal opportunity to prosper. If Mr Mafologele wants to be remembered as a god (and avoid being pissed on), he would do well to think about economic evolution, rather than revolution.