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How to get good politicians

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South African President Jacob Zuma visit Berlin

Politicians can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone: balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision that should guide policy-making. Members of parliament act upon this vision, designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership get elected.

That is the theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member who gets selected for higher honours. Some economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up: Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector. (In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative advantage at entering public life.) These selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words, according to this model, it is society’s ‘chancers’ that are more likely to end up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the private sector.

Competency in public office is, of course, is not the only goal of a parliamentary system. Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic make-up of society-at-large – is also a key concern. But competency and representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate. Take the following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens, whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job – competency often trumps representation.

A new NBER Working paper – Who Becomes a Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off. Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an ‘inclusive meritocracy’ is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency and representation correlate in public office. They find that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly because there is ‘strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status.

These results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is a combination of ‘well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic motivation to serve in uncompensated ones’. In other words, a political party in South Africa that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions, are likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties to ‘represent various segments of society’. Political competition is good. Third, the ‘availability of talent across social classes’. This, they argue, is perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.

This reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras fixated on the gowns and glamour of South Africa’s political elite. How do the levels of competency in our parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other countries?

Let’s just look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in Law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, has a Master’s degree in Political Science. Former US president Barack Obama graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence-degree magna cum laude from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.

Politics is messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political party system and broad access to quality education. South Africa, unfortunately, is still a long way from meeting these criteria.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 March.


Written by Johan Fourie

March 24, 2017 at 07:35

Voice Day

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Voting opens at Stellenbosch Town Hall on 3 Aug 2016 in the local municipal elections.

Voting opened at 7h00 at Stellenbosch Town Hall in the local municipal elections.

In Afrikaans, the same word is used for ‘vote’ and ‘voice’ – stem. Today South Africans vote in the local government elections. But it is more than that: it is a day that they will voice their hopes, frustrations, and visions for a better South Africa.

Because, 22 years into democracy, there is now more than ever a need to signal to the ruling alliance that they cannot take their tenure for granted. There is no doubt that those in power have become too emboldened by their own success; weak political competition has provided fertile ground for corruption and mismanagement. As always, the squandering of public funds has hurt the poorest the most.

Although this won’t be an election about macro policy, the failure of the ANC (since Zuma) to stimulate growth (and its incompetence to root out corruption) will deliver more votes for the two opposition parties, the DA and the EFF. The two central questions are: which opposition party will voters prefer, and how many will make the switch? The two parties are run by young men with very different visions of a future South Africa.

In this election, the question should be which of the two can provide the services that constituents deserve. But a careful consideration of this question, unfortunately, is probably not how most of us make decisions. This is not unique to South Africa, of course. As this John Oliver excerpt shows, feelings, nowadays, trump facts. Also: see Brexit.

Today’s municipal elections will be especially heavily contested in three metropolitan areas: Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg. If an opposition party (or a coalition of opposition parties) secures a win in these major cities, especially in Tshwane and Johannesburg, it will signal a fundamental shift in politics in South Africa. But don’t underestimate the resolve of the ruling ANC: the liberation movement continue to be a powerful brand for most South Africans, despite the actions of the man in charge.

Today is stemdag in South Africa. It is a day to vote, yes, but, most importantly, it is a day to make our voices heard.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 3, 2016 at 08:14

Cricket and election fantasies

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Lunch-time cricket at St. George's Park: socialism or the free market?

Lunch-time cricket at St. George’s Park: socialism or the free market?

Here’s what I’d do if I was elected to lead the good people of South Africa tomorrow:

  • I would allocate half the South African budget to Test Cricket. I’d buy out the BCCI and organise a Test League of Nations, to be played in South Africa.
  • I would build fantastic new stadiums, with 120 000 capacity, all around the country. Construction companies would build these stadiums free of charge to show their support for the new government.
  • I would reclassify the ‘unemployed’ as ‘spectators’. Unemployment solved! I’ll give free t-shirts and make these new grounds the only places where you can get your monthly social grant, but only after you’ve watched five days of cricket.
  • I would nationalise forests and tanneries and require them to only make bats, wickets and cricket balls.
  • I’d change the school curriculum to only focus on subjects relevant to cricket: history (cricket history, of course), math (to be able to understand the Duckworth-Lewis system), languages (to allow ex-players to become articulate commentators after their playing careers) and music (to practice playing the various instruments necessary for a stadium band).
  • I would abolish trade with countries that do not play cricket. I’ll call these countries anti-revolutionaries.

This is what happens when you spend three days watching some of the best Test Cricket South Africa has ever produced. (For those unfamiliar with Test Cricket, here is an attempt at an explanation.) South Africa beat Australia in an epic encounter at St Georges Park, Port Elizabeth, and I was fortunate to watch three of the four days live. South Africa, having been beaten convincingly in the first test, had a point to prove, and they did. Centuries by AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and Hashim Amla, and excellent bowling by Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel showed why South Africa is the No. 1 ranked test team in the world. Newlands, the venue of the third and final test match in the series, is going to be epic.

Over the same weekend that the Proteas beat the Aussies, two of South Africa’s main opposition parties – the DA and the EFF – released their election manifestos. Perhaps the less said about these manifestos the better. While there is much to applaud in the DAs attempt at realistic expectations, their promise of 8% growth is as fantastic as the fiction that the EFF managed to dish up. I think the EFF missed an opportunity here: their left-leaning policies and energetic (perhaps even inspirational) leadership is attractive to a large segment of society, and understandably so. The fervour of their rhetoric, when the economy is stagnating and improvement is slow, could have attracted a significant segment of black voters (unfortunately, given their biased policies, non-black support would have been weak regardless). But their fanciful manifesto – promising to double wages in the public sector and nationalise 60% of all mines and banks – is much like those email scams I get daily: they are not written for those that can discern right from wrong, but instead for the small percent gullible enough to believe that they can be true. Perhaps in South Africa that is actually a sizeable share of voters.

What could a more realistic EFF manifesto have looked like? I like the idea of additional bursaries for university students, and the fact that we would encourage students to study abroad (I fear, though, that the choice of recipient foreign universities will depend not on quality but political inclination). I also like the ideas of making history a compulsory subject (although, again, probably to teach a very specific type of history), of linking education and training with community service, of special courts for corruption, of moving towards green energy, and even of moving parliament to Pretoria. Instead of 60% nationalisation (see how well that’s working for Zimbabwe), why not advocate a special profit-tax on mining companies (much like Australia has done)? Instead of a higher public wage bill, why not advocate performance-determined wage increases, much like the private sector? Why not emphasize infrastructure spending, which has always been a state-led initiative?

The mantra of the EFFs election manifesto is to build a strong ‘people-led state’ that can, for example, create 1 million small businesses in the next five years. It was lunch on day 3 of the Test Match when I read this. In front of me, on the field, thousands of kids were running around, playing backyard cricket, and the realisation suddenly dawned on me: what we are trying to do in South Africa is much like lunch-time mini-cricket. Two days earlier, Sunfoil (the sponsor) organised official mini-cricket matches to be played by several hundred kids. It must have been a very difficult thing to plan: all the kids had to be brought from schools in the vicinity, buses needed to be organised and paid, t-shirts needed to be printed, each mini-match required a parent or teacher to referee (presumably they were not paid), and bats and balls and wickets had to organised for each of the 20 or so matches played during the lunch break. There was also little incentive to play well: each kid were only allowed to bowl and bat three balls, regardless of how good they were. Some excellent young batsmen, for example, faced a bowler so poor that the ball never even reached them. But it was all planned, so once their three balls were up, they had to move on the next station. Equal, but pretty dull.

The next day, nothing was scheduled. There was no sponsor organising anything, no ‘people-led state’ to ensure that hundreds of kids played cricket. And yet, there were several thousand kids on the pitch, playing their hearts out. How? How could this happen when nothing was planned? In fact, all that was done by the ‘state’ was to open the gates to the field.

That is the metaphor of the free market, of course. Kids brought their own bats and balls. Each mini-game had their own rules, their own number of players, their own parental supervision. They were encouraged to be innovative; some were using shoes as wickets and other mini-games even had umpires and commentators. Some kids played brilliantly well – there really is a lot of talent in the Eastern Cape! Those that had the talent and training could show off their skills to an appreciating audience. Others, with different talents and skills, either stayed on the embankment to sing and dance with the band or were running around as fielders. Different, but thriving.

There is a complication to this story, though. These were probably not the same kids playing on the different days. On the first day, I suspect that most kids were from poorer communities in and around PE, while those on the second and third day were from families whose parents were able to buy tickets and take their children to the ground. For whatever reasons, the kids from poorer neighbourhoods would not have had the opportunity to play cricket at all if their participation hadn’t been planned. How to allow free play, then, in a situation where not everyone has access? Perhaps the state is necessary to help with transport. Perhaps a larger share of the field should be dedicated to kids from poor neighbourhoods. Perhaps they should be given more or better equipment by the state, although that clearly removes the incentives to innovate as was obvious on days 2 and 3.

These are difficult questions, with even more difficult answers. But what was clear to me was that, between the Day 1 experiment in socialism, and the Days 2 and 3 experiment in the free market, the free play experiment worked much better. Those are also the policies I’d vote for.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 25, 2014 at 07:12

Is inequality good or bad?

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Voltaire: Equality is therefore both the most natural of things, as well as the most unreal. Photographed by Johan Fourie in the Pantheon, Paris

Voltaire: “Equality is therefore both the most natural of things, as well as the most unreal.”
Photographed by Johan Fourie in the Pantheon, Paris (2013)

On 7 May South Africans will vote in the country’s fourth democratic elections, 20 years after the demise of apartheid. While there is little doubt about which party will win the elections, and who will be president, there is a general sense of frustration about the slow progress South Africa has made, especially in the last five years, to deliver on the promises of the post-apartheid government. Job creation will be, as always, central to most political parties election rhetoric: from the EFF (“creation of sustainable jobs“), the DA (“South Africans need REAL jobs“) and the ANC (as reflected in Zuma’s State of the Nation Address).

Yet job creation is the means to tackle a much deeper, more striking feature of the South African landscape: inequality. The pervasive difference in living standards that remain 20 years after the end of apartheid – between those living and working in cities and those in rural areas, between those with a good education and those without, and, unfortunately still, between black and white South Africans – is the conundrum that fixates much of our attention. And even though the EFF would want you to believe different, there are unfortunately no easy answers: a massive, state-led industrialisation programme, as history shows, exacerbates inequality, even though the faces of those in power may change. The ANC and DA, instead, propose to grow the economy piecemeal, by implementing market-oriented policies (with differences in emphasis), provide jobs (through the private and public sector), and raise all boats, so to speak. A less radical plan, but also a more proven one.

But regardless of which policies we implement, is it realistic to expect inequality to decline? Sure, some policies may reduce poverty, increase employment, but will it really reduce inequality? And, more fundamentally, should it?

A lengthy debate in the Daily Maverick recently centred around this question: Is inequality a bad thing? Johann Redelinghuys first argued that ‘inequality cannot be fixed’, so we shouldn’t even try to implement policies to attempt to do so. In response, Marelise van der Merwe argued that ‘inequality can and should be fixed’. It is fascinating to also read the comments section, although with the proviso that this is a biased sample of South African public (more educated, and more liberal). This debate mirrors a much broader literature in Economics, dating back at least to Adam Smith, who, many forget, was also critical of societal inequalities. (So, too, were other notable thinkers of the Enlightenment. See Voltaire’s quote above.) But with rising income inequalities globally over the last two decades, notably in China and the US, economists have had to think a lot more about this issue (see Branko Milanovic for more on this issue).

As a positive, inequality creates incentives to work hard. I remember reading a news article a few years ago about a new housing project in the North West province. The government had decided to build several dozen houses after protests by the inhabitants of a small town. One of the commentators on the news site wrote a remarkable story, which went something like this: I was born into a similar township as these individuals. When my friends stayed out late at night, my mother would force me to stay indoors, and study by candle light. I managed to do this for most of my high school career and, when I was the only one to get a C in matric, was fortunate to get a scholarship to go to varsity. It was hard. I failed one year, but finally succeeded with my engineering degree. I found a job, got married, bought my first house, which I’ll have to pay for the next 20 years. Now my friends in the township just got their houses for free. Is that fair?

As Redelinghuys notes, not all of us are born with equal ability, or skill, or determination. Some will rise faster than others, either because they work hard or because they are lucky. In a society where the incentives for self-advanced are removed – like communist societies – innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship, the reason we’ve been able to improve living standards over the last 200 years, dies. If equality of outcome sounds like a great idea, travel to a former communist country that has remained closed to the market (like Cuba). It’s not a great place to live.

But – we are not born equal for other reasons too. Not only do we differ in ability, skill, and other human traits, we also differ because of historical reasons. Some of us happen to be born into a household where both parents have a university education. Others happen to be born into a household on communal land in the former homelands. Some of us happen to be born into a household with a single parent. Others happen to be born into a family with no income earners. Some of us are born more privileged.

These differences in our starting conditions expand over time. Wealthier parents can afford good nutrition, can send their kids to good schools, and even make sure that these schools are run well. They can provide the necessary health care, they can travel together, they can watch their weekend sport (and pay for sport tours, and equipment, and a school with good sport facilities). As these differences expand, so do our levels of income inequality, further deepening the divide. These high levels of inequality are bad, as Daron Acemoglu argues, for three reasons

First, people’s well-being [happiness] may directly depend on inequality, for example, because they view a highly unequal society as unfair or because the utility loss due to low status of the have-nots may be greater than the utility gain due to the higher status of the haves. Second and more importantly, equality of opportunity may be harder to achieve in an unequal society … Third and most importantly, inequality impacts politics. Economic power tends to beget political power even in democratic and pluralistic societies.

Severe inequality of the kind we have in South Africa is bad because it removes peoples ability to compete fairly. Two Spanish economists expand on this in a new paper published in the Journal of Development Economics. Gustavo Marrero and Juan Rodriquez suggest that a country’s inequality can be divided into ‘inequality of opportunity (IO)’ and ‘inequality of effort (IE)’. These two types of inequality affect growth through opposite channels, so the relationship between income inequality and growth is positive or negative depending on which component is larger. They test this proposal using inequality-of-opportunity measures computed from a US database for 23 states of the U.S. in 1980 and 1990. As hypothesised, they find a negative relationship between inequality of opportunity and growth, and a positive relationship between inequality of returns to effort and growth.

In essence, Johann Redelinghuys believes that South Africa’s levels of severe inequality is the result of inequalities of effort: that poor people are poor because they are generally less hard-working and unambitious. In contrast, Marelise van der Merwe believes we are an unequal society mostly because the lottery of life predetermine one’s ability to rise to a high standard of living. As she notes anecdotally, “if you’re white and have money, you can be a drunk moron flunking on the bones of your ass for most of high school and as long as our marvellous education system pushes you through matric you can probably get into some kind of college and blubber your way into a job.”

Empirical evidence of our survey and census data suggests that Van der Merwe is much closer to the truth: with a few variables, including race, parental education and location, none of which any of us have control over, researchers are able to predict a person’s future income level fairly accurately. It’s not even only about race anymore: A black girl, born into a female-headed household in the rural Eastern Cape, will have a much lower income and living standard when she is 20 years old, than a black boy, born to parents with a university education in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Note that this statistical probability disregards that individual’s own effort, ability or determination to succeed. Inequalities of opportunity still trump inequalities of effort in South Africa, and by a long way.

The challenge is to design and implement policies that increase equalities of opportunity without decreasing inequalities of effort — policies that level the playing field without without changing the rules for some and not for others. Pure redistribution, of the sort the EFF propose, is unlikely to work. Here’s Larry Summers in the FT yesterday:

If income could be redistributed without damping economic growth, there would be a compelling case for reducing incomes at the top and transferring the proceeds to those in the middle and at the bottom. Unfortunately this is not the case. It is easy to think of policies that would have reduced the earning power of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg by making it more difficult to start and profit from a business. But it is much harder to see how such policies would raise the incomes of the rest of the population. Such policies would surely hurt them as consumers by depriving them of the fruits of technological progress.

Summers proposes to redress inequality through market forces, notably the fiscal system:

It is ironic that those who profess the most enthusiasm for market forces are least enthusiastic about curbing tax benefits for the wealthy. Sooner or later inequality will have to be addressed. Much better that it be done by letting free markets operate and then working to improve the result. Policies that aim instead to thwart market forces rarely work, and usually fall victim to the law of unintended consequences.

To what extend the South African tax system can redress the inequalities of the past (without thwarting the incentive to work hard), is a tricky question. What is clear is that we need new ideas. Don’t expect any enlightened answers before May, though.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 17, 2014 at 21:11

DAgang: A very short engagement

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No laughing matter: Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille in good times. Photo by: Mike Hutchings

No laughing matter: Mamphela Ramphele and Helen Zille in good times. Photo by: Mike Hutchings

The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s largest opposition party, announced last night that Mamphela Ramphele will not be the party’s presidential candidate in the national election. Only a week ago, Ramphele hailed her offer as the DA’s presidential candidate and acceptance of it as “another astonishing moment in what we offer the people of South Africa, and once again the world”. Not so. The media statement released last night states Ramphele “reneged on the agreement that she stand as the DA’s Presidential Candidate, and that Agang SA’s branches, members and volunteers be incorporated into the DA. … The DA negotiated with Dr Ramphele in good faith. Indeed she is a long-time personal friend of mine and I sought to bring her into politics over many years.  We have been through many false starts, but when Dr Ramphele insisted on Monday that we go public on Tuesday to announce her acceptance of our offer of the DA’s presidential candidacy, we accepted that she had finally made up her mind.By going back on the deal, again, just five days after it was announced, Dr Ramphele has demonstrated – once and for all – that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity.”

Perhaps the backlash from her own supporters is what caused Ramphele to renege on her agreement. When she created Agang, her party, early last year, she was adamant that the DA was not the solution to South Africa’s socio-economic problems:

As I met with young people I heard a refrain: we want to take up the challenge confronting us, we want to be more active and engaged but we do not have the platform. We will not vote for the ANC because of their corrupt, autocratic ways, nor will we vote for the DA because we know they do not understand the transformational challenges facing the country.With these comments foremost in my mind I went back to the DA. I did not believe that the English-speaking white supporters of the DA understood the inequities visited on the majority in the country and the consequences of their perpetuation for the quality of our democracy.Some, including Hlumelo [Biko, Ramphele’s son], would argue that the political settlement of 1993 allowed white privilege to remain unchallenged. Hlumelo calls it the ‘Great Fraud’ that let white people escape redressing the socio-economic consequences of apartheid. I felt the DA was complacent, trapped in their inability to realise that poverty could be eradicated.Eventually my discussions with the DA reached a point where we agreed on the principles: most importantly, that the economy needed to be restructured. We agreed we needed to work together.

The DA was an established machine but it needed to be repositioned. And repositioning meant more than rebranding the DA. This problem would not be solved by my presence as leader of that party. My presence would not obliterate the misgivings of the majority of black people.

Take Malusi [Magele, Ramphele’s son] as an example. He grew up playing with Helen Zille’s children. He was always welcome in their household. He did not doubt for a moment that Helen Zille was committed to a better South Africa. Yet he told me that he would rather die than vote DA.

How often would this sentiment not be repeated across the country? So what would be achieved by my joining the DA or even joining a rebranded DA? Nothing.

It is difficult to understand why these sentiments would change so suddenly. More will surely become clearer as the election battle heats up. What is clear is that it is Helen Zille that will suffer the most from Ramphele’s about-turn. It is already forgotten that it was Zille’s position to give – that she voluntarily offered her own position to Ramphele in an attempt to improve her party’s chances at the ballot box. Now she has to front up to questions of window-dressing – the ANC called it ‘rent-a-black’ – and the unhappiness within her party at the abuse of power, however benevolent. On paper her decision was plausible: Ramphele has the CV of a presidential candidate; compare, for example, hers with our incumbent president Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, leader of the EFF. Yet what Zille failed to see, perhaps clouded by the bonds of friendship, is that Ramphele lacked the political nous that Zuma and Malema have in abundance.

Zille made the mistake of equating friendship with good politics. Perhaps her ambition to affect change was too strong; her patience at the slow political change in South Africa since 1994 had finally waned. Perhaps she thought that, when ANC opinion (especially of its leader) is at an all-time low, there was a chance, however small, that a large minority for the opposition will force the incumbent party’s hand. Instead, she overplayed her own, and her miscalculation has put the DA back another four years.

But the larger lesson should not go unnoticed. What Zuma and Malema understand is that it is impossible to ‘restructure’ the economy, for good or bad, without political power. We still have little idea what ‘restructuring’ means to Ramphele and her followers: Agang has been extremely vague in proposing economic policies. Yet for all her good intentions, by reneging on her candidacy, Ramphele has failed not only in her own attempts at transforming the economy – a transformation that, given her experience, would likely have boosted South Africa’s tiring economy – but she has dealt a huge blow to the Democratic Alliance’s aspirations to do so too. #DividedForChange has never been a sexy slogan, nor a successful one.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 3, 2014 at 06:31

Ramphele’s choice

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Yesterday Mamphela Ramphele launched a new ‘political platform’ in South Africa, a move that may have important implications for South Africa’s political landscape.

Or it may not. Political parties that are created around the image of its charismatic leader often struggle to sustain the initial enthusiasm: think of Bantu Holomisa’s UDM. And where a person rather than principles guides policy, the internal debate – the checks and balances that established political parties offer – often disappears.  Instead the party’s constituents are subjected to the whims and feelings of a person in need of approval. That is a dangerous situation: Robert Mugabe was globally celebrated for his role in Zimbabwe’s independence and economic success of the 1980s; today he is ridiculed and chastised.


Don’t get me wrong: Mamphela Ramphele is a leader of great repute and character. She has the perfect CV for South African politics; I suspect that Helen Zille would have offered to step back had Ramphele decided to join the DA. At the moment, though, Ramphele’s political platform (called Agang, an unfortunate choice in my opinion – their followers have already been called ‘Agangsters’ by opposition parties) is little more than an idea, a hope in the minds of the electorate. Here’s one of their tweets: “Do you remember our commitment to promote human dignity (Ubuntu) & banish humiliation & disrespect of our apartheid past?” Not exactly what I’d call a policy statement.

And perhaps that’s exactly the issue I have with this new addition: it is the easy way out for Ramphele. What South Africans need more of is the execution of existing policies, not fluffy statements that is meant to make us all feel better about the future. We don’t need an economic CODESA: we have a brilliant plan for the future – the National Development Plan – compiled by one of the few leaders that can match Ramphele’s impressive CV, Trevor Manuel. It’s a plan adopted by the ruling party, touted during the State of the Nation speech, and one with which the main opposition agrees. Even academic economists are happy with it. But the success of a plan is judged on its implementation. What we now need are the entrepreneurs, the unemployed, the national, provincial and local government officials, the teachers’ unions, the trade unions, the unions for minorities, the business, church and community leaders, the farm owners and farm workers, the mine owners and mine workers, and all other South Africans in-between to buy into this plan. This is not easy. In fact, it sounds terribly difficult.

Which is the reason someone with Ramphele’s capacity should have asked herself what is it she can do to help make the National Development Plan a reality. Starting Agang might not be the best way to do this.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 19, 2013 at 11:40

Food Security

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Two quite unrelated news items caught my attention today. The International Trade Administration Commission (ITAC) of South Africa yesterday announced that it will impose provisional anti-dumping duties for the following 26 weeks against Brazilian imports of frozen whole chickens and boneless chicken cuts. The magnitude of the duties is between 6 and 63 percent. (Read the tralac report here.) A few hours ago, the DA released a media statement “Mr Mulder needs a history lesson”, in which they attack Freedom Front Plus leader Pieter Mulder’s claims of land redistribution. Mmusi Maimane, the DA National Spokesperson, makes a fair point about land redistribution, but he then makes the following claim: “The first freedom is the freedom to eat. We need working farms that ensure the food security of our people and create employment opportunities in rural areas.”

Unfortunately, Mr Maimane and ITAC (and, for that matter, the Freedom Front Plus) is guilty of the same incorrect rhetoric. Food security is not about production. Food security is not about producing enough food for your citizens. If it was, then Hong Kong and Singapore would be the most food insecure regions in the world, which it isn’t. Food security, as Wikipedia will tell you, refers “to the availability of food and one’s access to it”. Food insecurity is the inability of citizens to consume, not produce, food. Food insecurity can occur in a country that is nearly entirely agricultural, such as Somalia and Ethiopia, two countries that only recently experienced food shortages and starvation.

Why should South Africa produce all its own food, when only 13% of our land is suitable for crop production? Why not import our food from other breadbaskets, like India, or (subsidy-rich) Europe, or Brazil? Nineteenth century England realised this and removed the Corn Laws that protected local farmers. Instead, they focused on what we today call the Industrial Revolution, and imported their (growing) food requirements from the American Corn Belt. The South African Poultry Association alleged that frozen chickens were being dumped on the South African market, at prices below what South African chicken farms can rival. ITAC perceived this as a threat to food security, and instituted duties that will almost certainly increase food prices. This will have the exact opposite effect on food security: higher prices would allow fewer (poor) South Africans to buy chicken, reducing food security for those that are most at risk.

Food security is not about South Africa producing all its own food. Food security means we should provide all our citizens with food at as low a cost as possible. That’s the lesson from the Industrial Revolution. It seems that both Messrs Maimane and Mulder need history lessons.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 16, 2012 at 12:44