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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.

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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

What do Pope Francis and Julius Malema have in common?

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Beautiful but poor: The Transkei is still largely untouched by capitalism Source:

Beautiful but poor: The Transkei is still largely untouched by capitalism. Source: Tyler Brown

Pope Francis and Julius Malema live worlds apart. But both have a deep dislike – one might even say hatred – of an economic system in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned and operated for profit. This system is called Capitalism.

During a march in Limpopo yesterday, Malema again pronounced the EFFs anti-capitalist sentiments. An Economic Freedom Fighters retweet summarised it best: (The) EFF HAS DECLARED WAR ON #CAPITALISM; MALEMA: THIS IS A DECLARATION OF WAR AGAINST EUROPEAN CAPITALISM.

And a month earlier, Pope Francis made an arguably more eloquent (and damning) critique of capitalism:

Time, my brothers and sisters, seems to be running out; we are not yet tearing one another apart, but we are tearing apart our common home. Today, the scientific community realizes what the poor have long told us: harm, perhaps irreversible harm, is being done to the ecosystem. The earth, entire peoples and individual persons are being brutally punished. And behind all this pain, death and destruction there is the stench of what Basil of Caesarea – one of the first theologians of the Church – called “the dung of the devil”. An unfettered pursuit of money rules. This is the “dung of the devil”. The service of the common good is left behind. Once capital becomes an idol and guides people’s decisions, once greed for money presides over the entire socioeconomic system, it ruins society, it condemns and enslaves men and women, it destroys human fraternity, it sets people against one another and, as we clearly see, it even puts at risk our common home, sister and mother earth.

Ouch. If the Pope and Malema are against it, who on earth wants to be for it?

Well, actually, history is. #awkward

Let’s look at what’s happened to world poverty since 1936, when the Pope was born. Or since 1981, when Julius Malema was born. The remarkable thing is that in 1936, more than half of the world’s people were living in extreme poverty (56%). In 1981, the year that World Bank data starts, 43% of the world’s people were still living in poverty. In 2011, that figure had fallen to 14%. In short, global poverty has fallen enormously in the space of Pope Francis’s lifetime. And the reason? The ‘dung of the devil’: capitalism.

Here’s another statistic to baffle the mind: As The Economist reports, in the decade between 2003 and 2013 (which includes a global financial crisis), the income of the median-person in the world has doubled. Yes, doubled! Why? Because India and China have opened their economies, encouraged innovation, reduced state-involvement and allowed economic growth to improve the living standards of their people.

And all of this has happened despite immense global population growth; in 1936, there were roughly 2.7 billion people, and in 1981 there were 4.5 billion.

We are not only more affluent, but we also live longer. And healthier: we have eradicated illnesses, like smallpox, and we have access to modern medicine that can fight diseases from the common cold to tuberculosis that in the past would have likely killed us.

Blame capitalism for reducing poverty in China: The Shanghai skyline in three decades

Blame capitalism for reducing poverty in China: The Shanghai skyline in three decades

Even the poorest of the poor have access to services that the richest of the rich could never have imagined in 1936. With the press of one button, a cellphone now has access to the world’s information on Wikipedia. It is estimated that 90% of the world’s population has watched at least one episode of Idols, an unthinkable share only two decades ago. And most governments now provide free or affordable schooling and sometimes even university education – a luxury product in 1936 (just ask anyone older than 80).

Of course, capitalism is not perfect. The market cannot and does not solve everything; no economist in their right mind would claim this. Adam Smith, the father of economics, was clear about how the state should create the rules and institutions for the ‘invisible hand’ to do its thing. And those people that, for whatever reason, are excluded should be taken care of by state institutions like pension funds, disability insurance and free schooling.

We can also just ask the poor. If capitalism is so bad, why is it that poor people in non-capitalist countries want to migrate to capitalist countries? Why is it that poor, rural people in South Africa migrate to the cities (where ‘European capitalism’ arguably has a bigger footprint)? Is it because, and this might sound radical to some, they believe they can attain a better life for them and their children in these capitalist places? I think so.

I appreciate the leadership qualities of the Pope and Malema; they are charismatic and have large numbers of followers that look to them for guidance. That is even more reason they need to understand that people are not poor because of capitalism, they are poor because of not having enough capitalism. (Replace the word capitalism with innovation, as Deirdre McCloskey suggests, and suddenly the ideological blinkers fall off.) Here is Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann:

In poverty-stricken Bolivia, Francis criticized “the mentality of profit at any price, with no concern for social exclusion or the destruction of nature,” along with “a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

But this explanation of capitalism’s failure is wide of the mark. The world’s most profitable companies are not exploiting Bolivia. They are simply not there, because they find the place unprofitable. The developing world’s fundamental problem is that capitalism has not reorganized production and employment in the poorest countries and regions, leaving the bulk of the labor force outside its scope of operation.

As Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch have shown, the world’s poorest countries are not characterized by naive trust in capitalism, but by utter distrust, which leads to heavy government intervention and regulation of business. Under such conditions, capitalism does not thrive and economies remain poor.

The ANC, in a discussion document released last week, knows this. It says

capitalism remains the dominant socio-economic system on a global scale. In the era of globalisation, there has been much technological progress which has opened up vistas for human progress and created the basis for the alleviation of poverty on a grand scale.

Spot on. Excellent. But then:

However, the rampant unregulated practices of the past 30 years, including appropriation of most of national income by a few, have undermined its legitimacy.

That is incorrect. Poverty has fallen significantly in South Africa over the last 30 years (the ANC should know better, they ruled for 21 of those 30 years). What has undermined the legitimacy of the ruling government is its inability to get capitalism (or innovation) working in places like the former bantustans (see picture), where conditions are not much better than they were 30 years ago. Where capitalism has worked – in the main metros – it has created jobs and wealth and a better life for all (although for some more than for others). Where capitalism has not been allowed – where chiefs still prevent private ownership, for example – poverty has remained high and living standards low.

If the Economic Freedom Fighters and others continue their campaign in South Africa to discredit capitalism as the solution to poverty, we will never alleviate it, especially not in those regions where the problem is acute. If Pope Francis continues to discredit capitalism in his speeches to the poor and destitute of the world, they will continue to remain poor and destitute. (The conspiracy theorists would say that that is what the church wants. That would be silly, because the church benefits from a rich flock. Ask John Oliver.)

Let us learn from that one true source of wisdom: history. India and China have managed to reduce poverty dramatically by embracing capitalism, not rejecting it. South Korea have managed to reduce poverty dramatically by embracing capitalism, while North Korea, by rejecting capitalism, could not. Pope Francis and Julius Malema should embrace capitalism if they really cared about the plight of the poor.

Forget the SONA embarrassment. This is how we change our future.

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lighttunnelWhat South Africans learned last night – if we did not already know it – is that if we are to make progress as a country, it will happen despite and not because of our politicians. Everyone lost in last night’s State of the Nation embarrassment: the EFF who, after chasing around one of their own MPs in the streets of Cape Town, interrupted the president repeatedly during his State of the Nation Address; the Speaker, who ordered armed police to forcibly remove the boisterous EFF members; and ANC MPs, for cheering on while EFF members were assaulted. And I haven’t even mentioned the jamming device used to scramble all cellular networks (shut down only after journalists and opposition MPs insisted that it be turned off). Or the fact that DA members marching outside were hosed down by riot police, and some arrested. The solemn figures of Thabo Mbeki and FW de Klerk in the parliamentary gallery depicted perfectly how far our country’s leadership has fallen.

But perhaps, in search of our dark cloud’s silver lining, what happened in parliament yesterday, although a reflection of the state of the nation, is not a reflection of the future of the nation. Another South African made news yesterday, news that will affect countless more lives (even South African ones) than what our president did or could say in a State of the Nation address. Instead of focusing on the sorry figure of Zuma, perhaps we should pay more attention to the ideas and plans of our greatest export in recent years: Elon Musk, founder and owner of Tesla and SpaceX, who is, incredibly, still only 41 years old. Musk announced on Wednesday that Tesla is planning to unveil a new lithium-ion battery pack that homeowners could buy to store and supply their own energy. Here’s Time Magazine:

Details on the batteries were sparse, but an obvious use would be placing them in homes equipped with solar panels to store excess energy. Solar energy company SolarCity already offers Tesla battery packs in some markets that customers can use to store energy and use as a kind of emergency generator. Musk is the chairman of SolarCity and its largest shareholder.

In addition to selling to residential customers, Tesla could also sell batteries to utilities trying to increase energy efficiency.

A shortage of electricity is arguably South Africa’s most immediate constraint: South Africa is producing less electricity than it did twenty years ago, owing to a lack of investment in new power plants and maintenance on existing ones. It is embarrassing to explain to my international visitors that, yes, we have a schedule about when power cuts will occur. Load shedding is killing investment, growth and jobs. Zuma acknowledged as much: “The country is currently experiencing serious energy constraints which are an impediment to economic growth and is a major inconvenience to everyone in the country”. He outlined short, medium and long-term responses, none new. According to most experts, we can expect load shedding for most of 2015 and well into 2016.

That is, if we trust government to deliver on its promises. We shouldn’t. Last night showed us that the best we can hope for is a government that does little harm. Don’t expect that any time soon, though. Instead, we should trust those people who have an incentive to get things right: if they do, and we begin to use batteries in our homes like we use toasters, they win fame and fortune. Musk will become an even richer genius. Politicians, in contrast, have none of those incentives. The way they make money is to skim the cream off a big tender. Delays mean larger contracts and more to skim off. There is nothing in politics that incentivize leaders to be efficient.

Entrepreneurs are different. They must innovate, improve, and deliver to satisfy the demands of millions of consumers. The better they do this, the more money they make. And this innovation improves the planet, too. Battery-powered homes (and cars and offices) will allow us to make better use of renewable energies, especially in a sunny and windy South Africa. It will allow us to connect the 3.5 million people that still don’t have access to electricity. (Consider the impact cell phone technology on African living standards.) And it will allow us to escape the inefficiencies of badly-run state monopolies. #powertothepeople #inmuskwetrust

Better politicians are not the answer to South Africa’s woes. Better entrepreneurs are. For South Africans, the light at the end of Eskom’s dark tunnel is a fast-approaching train. For Musk, it’s an entirely new world.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 13, 2015 at 10:28

Land reform: a political not economic problem

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Two sides of land reform? Photo by Robin Hammond, National Geographic.

Commercial or subsistence depends on political and not economic objectives. Photo by Robin Hammond, National Geographic.

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti kicked off the Land Tenure Summit yesterday by making several statements about land reform that has left me perplexed. Reported here, the minister said that “privately-owned land is a serious problem”, that “we want to correct a particular South African historical problem”, that “it cannot be that the worker will work forever and at the end of their time on earth, have nothing to show for it. It is not right, it cannot be right” and again promoted the department’s radical plan to give half of each farm to the labourers working on it.

The distribution and productivity of land is the most serious political issue facing South Africa. The alienation of Khoesan lands by European settlers had already started soon after Van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa, but it was really the expropriation of land in the nineteenth century (as British settlers arrived in the Eastern Cape and the Voortrekkers moved into the interior of the country) that has created a legacy of injustice. By 1913 when the Land Act was signed, black South Africans (and those living in neighbouring colonies like Basotholand, Bechuanaland and Southern Rhodesia) had lost large territories of their most fertile land. The Land Act consolidated this expropriation, and even may have prevented further expropriation (see my earlier post on this).

There is no doubt that redress is needed. The question, really, is how to affect this redress. The reason Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters did so well in the recent elections was because he pushed the land reform agenda to priority number one, and he had a plan. The EFF wants “expropriation of land without compensation for equitable redistribution” and propose a system whereby the “State should, through its legislative capacity transfer all land to the state, which will administer and use land for sustainable-development purposes. This transfer should happen without compensation, and should apply to all South Africans, black and white.” The State will then lease the land for 25 years.

My suspicion is that performance of the EFF in the recent elections has forced the ANC’s hand, and they’ve come up with their own plan for land redistribution. The plan will force commercial farmers to cede 50% of their farms to their workers. This is not the forum to critique these plans in detail, but I can point to others who have done so. Read this, and this. My field of expertise is economic history, not agriculture, and so my only recourse is to look at land expropriation in history. It is not a story to smile about: during the process of collectivisation in the Soviet Union, at least 4 million people died of starvation alone, and the recent land reform in Zimbabwe has resulted in large declines in production, malnourishment and close to 4 million Zimbabweans emigrating to other countries, notably South Africa.

Yet knowing that something has failed in the past – and even knowing that it will fail again – is usually not enough reason for politicians not to attempt it again. In the absence of alternatives, my sense is that black voters will be happy to go along with any plan to redress land, because it will by implication by more fair than the counterfactual, which is to continue the status quo. (This reminds me of why the National Party won the 1948 elections. The ‘racial issue’ had come to dominate the national agenda after the Second World War but the United Party under Jan Smuts had not articulated a clear plan to tackle this issue. Instead, DF Malan proposed a clear plan of separation, of apartheid. Sometimes all you need to win is a plan, even if it is a bad one.)

So what are the alternatives to the Minister’s proposed plan? It depends on your objectives. If the only criterion is to redress past injustice, land expropriation, either fully or, as the Minister suggests, partially, seems like a solution, right? But what are the consequences of such a policy? One can only speculate, but it is likely that commercial farms will see large-scale disinvestment. Farm prices will collapse, forcing other farmers, who have used their land as collateral for loans, to also sell their properties. Movable assets will be sold to provide some capital for a new life in the city. (Other perverse outcomes: expect more golf courses, light industry parks, gated communities and rural retirement villages, and conservation parks and holiday resorts as farmers shift into other industries not affected by the policies.)

Little of this will benefit the new owners. Land is only as useful as the capital investments on it, and without capital (or, at least, new investment in the farm), many of the new owners will find it increasingly difficult to continue the earlier outputs. The state can help, of course, but the state is not a bank who can easily make decisions about which risks to take and which to avoid. (See my earlier post on Tito Mboweni’s plans for a state bank.) Where the new owners are not former workers, an even more serious issue arises: skills and experience. Farming is an increasingly scientific industry. Our agricultural colleges are simply not producing enough graduates nor would they have the experience to take over the immediate operation of large-scale commercial farms producing for the export market. Learning-by-doing is really the only option, which is why this opinion piece by Peter Curle is a useful read. He suggests that the principles of successful BEE transactions could easily be applied to the agricultural sector. This would mean that farmers are able to choose their black shareholders, train them, and be partly responsible for – and benefit from – their success. That is a system that gets incentives right.

The government could, of course, also take another approach. Given that the agricultural sector employs large numbers of unskilled labour (and has the potential to employ more), it could focus on improving the productivity of existing farmers. To do this, the most obvious thing is to identify the currently most unproductive land. That turns out to be communal and state land, not privately-owned land. (And certainly not foreign-owned land, which seems to get all the blame, but is in fact a tiny share of land owned in South Africa.) The power of traditional leaders, however, prevent such communal or traditional lands from being used more productively. In a recent working paper, Daniel de Kadt, PhD-student at MIT, explains why these traditional leaders continue to have such a powerful hold on the ANC:

We argue that traditional leaders, whose power depends on the state, may be incentivized to strategically support political parties who can guarantee their survival and provide them with rents. We study this quid pro quo in the Apartheid-era Bantustans of South Africa. We show that an alignment between the state party and the chiefs maps to increased political support for the party. Further, we provide quantitative evidence consistent with chiefs acting as clientelistic brokers. Our results suggest that chiefs boost African National Congress (ANC) vote-share by 8.2 percentage points in the Bantustans. This translates into roughly 4.5% of the ANC’s total vote-share, and a distortion in the national vote of 2.5 percentage points. This distortion is pivotal in determining whether the ANC is able to alter South Africa’s constitution.

You could also translate it thus: The poorest of the poor South Africans live in Bantustans on communal lands. They, however, are being held ransom by their chiefs who are in cahoots with the ANC, who rely on their support for 2.5 percentage points in each election.

To eradicate the legacy of colonial land expropriation, a thriving agricultural sector is key. The problem is not “privately-owned land”, as the Minister seems to think. Policies that affect commercial farms will only hurt workers and the consumers of cheap food, exactly those people that suffered because of the initial land expropriation. The solution lies in tackling the unproductive, communal lands that is currently held by chiefs or the state. If these areas can prosper, not only will it pull millions of poor South Africans out of poverty, but it will create the necessary skills and capital to allow faster land reform elsewhere. Yet this most important step is unlikely to occur any time soon. That is because poverty alleviation and real redress is not an economic problem, but a political one.

The dangerous nationalism of Julius Malema

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No laughing matter: nationalism is a dangerous game Photo: Refilwe Modise

No laughing matter: Nationalism is a dangerous game. Photo: Refilwe Modise (The Citizen)

It’s ironic that Julius Malema, in his first speech in parliament yesterday, would reference Louis Botha, the first Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Here is what Mr Malema had to say about Botha:

This elite pact is reflected by the fact that the most prominent statue in this Parliament, is a statue of Louis Botha, and the one of Nelson Mandela is very small and is hidden behind the statue of Louis Botha. Louis Botha is not our Hero and cannot be a Hero of a democratic South Africa. He is a colonial warmonger, who fought for the exclusion of black and indigenous people from running their own country and affairs. Its people like this who made white South Africans think they are superior and if we continue celebrating them, we are equally perpetuating white supremacy. The statue of Botha outside this Parliament must go down, because it represents nothing of what a democratic South Africa stands for.

That statue represents backwardness and apartheid and therefore it belongs to the dustbin of history and to be replaced with a bigger statue of seaparankwe Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela. We will never have true friendship and peace if white minority still behaves like they are superior and we should remain inferior in our country. All black people continue to learn the languages of white minorities as part of our attempt to reach out to them and create friendship but with very little attempt from their side to at least learn one of our African languages because they have a wrong mentality that we must suck up to them.

These are some of the legacies people like Louis Botha have left us and it must be crushed,we must not celebrate anything that perpetuates white supremacy. As part of nation building maybe we need to harsh steps by not celebrating any white person who doesn’t at least know or make an effort to at least know one of our African languages because by not knowing our languages or our culture they are effectively perpetuating the stereotypes of white supremacy. If you have a white friend as black person and he/she doesn’t know your language or not taking initiative to learn your language that person is no friend at all.

Perhaps it would surprise Mr Malema to know that, almost exactly a century ago, one of the big debates in our country was about what it is to be South African. The Second South Africa War at the start of the century, which saw the savagery of concentration camps and scorched-earth tactics, was still fresh in the minds of South Africans. One political group, lead by Louis Botha and Jan Smuts under the banner of the South African Party, claimed that the two white races – as the Afrikaners and British were generally referred to – should reconcile and build a unified country. Their definition of South African was ‘inclusive’, at least in terms of their world view: it included whites from opposing sides of the War and, in the Cape, Coloured South Africans. (Because of the pseudo-science of race hierarchies at the start of the twentieth century, blacks, in South Africa, elsewhere in Africa, and in the Americas, were not allowed to vote.)

In contrast to this message of unification, a small group of Afrikaans-speaking whites began to assert that the only ‘true’ South Africans were those that distanced themselves from the British Empire, that wanted to see a South Africa independent from the British throne. These ‘true’ South Africans also had to have another trait: they could speak the emerging language of the locals that we would later call Afrikaans. Only by speaking Afrikaans did one show true loyalty to the country. The National Party would emerge from this second grouping, and even though their leader, JBM Hertzog, also favoured the more inclusive definition of what it is to be South African, the nationalist tendencies would finally win out, with the formation of the ‘Purified’ National Party, which, as we all now, gave us the policy of apartheid. Nationalism, in this case white nationalism, would have devastating consequences for the country. It is difficult not to draw historical parallels: a message of unification after an intense period of racial confrontation (the 1910s/1990s). The rise of organised labour against monopoly capital (1920s/2000s). The impetus to solve the social and economic difficulties of a depression (1930s/2010s). A rise of nationalism and the defeat of the moderates (the 1940s/2020s?). And then?

Just as the message of the white nationalists appealed to white voters in the 1940s, there is a reason Mr Malema’s message appeals to black voters. There is a common enemy (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the British Empire, and when that turned out to not be scary enough, black South Africans; for Mr Malema and his nationalists, it is arguably white South Africans). And there is economic disenfranchisement (for Afrikaner nationalists, it was the ‘poor white problem’; for Malema, it is inequality). Much like the nationalist leaders of African countries that gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, Malema speaks directly to the hopes and aspirations of millions of people frustrated by the current economic stagnation. Even his speech is clothed in the same rhetoric. Here is Mr Malema last night: We “acknowledge and greet the millions of South African workers, the poor, and downtrodden and dejected masses of our people”. Here is Kwame Krumah, elected as the first president of an independent Ghana in March 1957: I am the “Hope of Millions of down-trodden Blacks, Deliverer of Ghana, Iron Boy, Great Leader of Street Boys”. Idi Amin called himself the “Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”, Malema calls for the “political, social and economical (sic) liberation of blacks in general and Africans in particular”. Yet both Kwame Krumah and Idi Amin caused tremendous hurt to their economies. Krumah nationalised key industries. He heavily taxed (black) export farmers. His idea of African socialism failed to deliver his followers from the perils of poverty. Ghana is now, with a working democracy and market reforms, finally realising its potential, the black star of Africa. Amin, in his attempt to rid Uganda of the ‘external forces’ (sound familiar?), expropriated land and assets from all whites and Asians, and forced them to leave the country. The economy collapsed and Uganda, one of the most beautiful countries on earth, has never really recovered.

There is a reason the statues of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela stand outside our parliament. Both men fought for the reconciliation of different race groups. Both wanted South Africa to participate in the global economy. Both believed that education is the key to a better life for all. That should be enough reason to keep them in their place. But there is another reason for those statues: it is that we should learn from history never to open our society to the poison that is nationalism. Perhaps that is why Mr Malema wants us to forget the past.

Written by Johan Fourie

June 19, 2014 at 09:10

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