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Making South Africans more productive

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Drone

Economic growth is defined, in its most basic form, as doing more with less. Economists often overcomplicate things. We talk about ‘an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of 2%’ when in fact we could simply say ‘the average South African produced 2% more than last year’. More production translates into greater incomes. Take India and China. At an average growth rate of 7%, these countries will double their production/output/income in 10 years. In contrast, if South Africa continues to grow at 2% it will take 36 years to double our income. That is why South Africans are so upset: we see millions of Indians and Chinese growing wealthier, transforming their countries from subsistence breadbaskets to industrial and ICT powerhouses, while we are frustrated by the meagre increases in our living standards.

The Indians and Chinese also show that it is only economic growth that will allow us to escape poverty. We cannot redistribute ourselves rich. Even if incomes were equalised in South Africa, we would still be poorer than those Americans who live below the poverty line. The unescapable truth is that if we want to prosper, we need to make South Africans, all of us, more productive; we need to get South Africans to produce more than they do at the moment.

With an unemployment rate upwards of 30%, this would not seem to be too difficult a task. A lot of people are able and willing to work – to produce stuff – but they currently cannot find employment at the price they are willing to work for. How we address this mismatch is a question that should occupy the minds of the smartest people in our society. Perhaps we need more students to study growth theory, industrial organisation, labour economics and economic history – compared to India and China, for example, too few South Africans take up graduate studies in Economics. But perhaps we also need more scientists, entrepreneurs, tinkerers, coders, designers, educators and experimenters with the vision and ability to make their fellow citizens more productive. In short: we need more people like Norman Borlaug.

An agronomist who completed his PhD in plant pathology, Borlaug became fascinated as a student with the productivity of crop farming. In the 1940s, he moved to a research unit in Mexico where he began developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. His wheat varieties, combined with modern agricultural production techniques, soon improved Mexican farmers’ incomes, and then spread to other countries. By 1963, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India. In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the ‘Green Revolution’, a massive transformation of agricultural productivity in mostly Latin America and Asia.

A new NBER Working Paper by three economists spell out just how consequential this revolution was. They use variation in geography combined with the exogenous timing of agricultural research successes in high-yielding crops to measure the effect of the high-yielding crops on output. The results are startling: they find that a 10-percentage point increase in the share of area under high-yielding varieties in 2000 is associated with a massive 10-15 percentage point increase in per capita GDP. To put that differently, if a country moves from having no high-yielding crops to having half its crops of the high-yielding type, then income will almost double. That is why Borlaug is considered to have saved almost a billion people from starvation.

Higher agricultural output, in a Malthusian world, usually results in fertility increases as food becomes more abundant. But the authors also show that this was not the case with the Green Revolution. Higher agricultural yields actually reduced population size, as parents chose quality over quantity.

The paper also shows that the new high-yielding crop varieties, in contrast to what many environmentalists believe, actually benefited the environment. Increases in the area under high-yielding varieties has, the authors find, tended to reduce the amount of land devoted to agriculture – ‘improvements in the productivity of food crops actually lead to intensification of agriculture on a smaller land area, preventing expansion on the extensive margin’.

Their results suggest at least three lessons. First, there is huge potential for improving living standards in developing countries through new crop varieties remains. This is especially true in many African countries, where adoption is far from universal, and agriculture is still an important sector. Second, new biological technologies are available to increase productivity of some crops, both by increasing yields and by reducing costs – for example, disease-resistant varieties that minimise the need for spraying with costly pesticides. Third, ‘technology continues to have a huge potential for improving incomes in the poorest places on our planet’. Indeed, the authors’ results suggest that the investments in the development of high-yielding crops have been ‘the most successful form of foreign aid to developing countries in the past half century’.

By itself, land reform in South Africa will not be enough to improve living standards, as the rest of the continent’s poor agricultural productivity attest to. What is needed is large investments in developing new technologies – universities, research institutes and the research capacity of state-owned enterprises, with the help of foreign donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – to improve the productivity of our farms and factories and fibre-optic networks.

‘Whoever makes two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before,’ writes Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, ‘would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.’

Technology and scientific advancement is often last in line when the menu of economic policies are discussed in South Africa and on the rest of the continent. But technology that can ‘make two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before’ – or, in a more general sense, can make South Africans produce more with less – is the only way we can escape the stasis of the last decade, regardless of what South African politicians repeatedly promise.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 19 July edition of finweek.

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Written by Johan Fourie

August 27, 2018 at 08:00

Land expropriation: learning from the Chinese

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GreatLeapForward.jpg

The complexity of the debate about land expropriation without compensation can ultimately be summarized into two questions: Should land be expropriated without compensation? And, if so, who should own the expropriated land? While much media attention has focused on the first, with the focus often on how such a policy will scare off foreign investment, it is the answer to the second, ultimately, that will determine the success of any attempt at redress and wealth creation.

The two proponents of a policy of land expropriation without compensation in South Africa – the ANC and the EFF – stand on very different sides with regards to answering the second question: the ANC has made it clear that ownership should be in private hands, while the EFF has forcefully and repeatedly made the case that the state should be the custodian of all land. Their policy would see the state expropriate all private farm land and lease the land ‘equally’ to the people of South Africa. Dali Mpofu, National Chairperson of the EFF and a respected advocate, has defended this stance by referring to China in a 2017 tweet: ‘Chinese land is owned … by the state and it has registered the highest consistent economic growth in the world!’

Mpofu’s example is an interesting one, and worth exploring. Indeed, Chinese economic growth over the last four decades has been a historically unprecedented 8% per year. But Mpofu would do well to note that this growth was not a consequence of agriculture. Between 1990 and 2016, the share of agriculture in GDP has fallen dramatically from 26.5% to 8.5%. This was associated with massive urbanization; in 2016, 57.4% of the total population lived in urban areas, a dramatic increase from 26% in 1990. Far fewer people now live off the land, and those that have moved to the (often new) cities, are remarkably better off.

This is because land is not the valuable commodity it once was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a way to empower people, land is probably the least useful asset nowadays, because it requires significant investment in physical and human capital to make it productive. Even then, the most valuable assets today are intangible – skills, intellectual property rights, data. In the twentieth century, agriculture could only thrive with significant state intervention in the form of marketing councils, favourable tariffs and other measures, measures that came at the cost of the South African consumer. In the 21st century economy, living off the land – without significant capital investment – will limit the ability of those that most need access to good education and health services and opportunities for social mobility that are found in cities.

This is even more true if the expropriated land is owned by the state. Let us return to Mpofu’s country of choice: China. Between 1955 and 1957, 96% of China’s 550 million peasants were dispossessed of their private property rights. This was the largest movement from private to communal property rights in history. As Shuo Chen and Xiaohuan Lan show in a 2017 paper published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, the results of this process of land dispossession was devastating for the peasants, and the Chinese economy. The authors use data of 1600 counties that launched the movement in different years, and find that in the year of the dispossession, the number of cattle declined by 12 to 15%. In total, this was a loss of almost 10 million head of cattle. Why? Because people started killing their own animals to keep the meat and hides as soon as they released that they will lose the property rights to the use of those animals, and they did not trust the state to be able to safeguard what used to be theirs. This loss also affected grain output, which fell by 7%. We now know that Mao was not discouraged by this initial production shock. No, he doubled down. This initial process of land dispossession set the stage for the Great Leap Forward movement of 1958, which led to the worst famine in human history that killed an estimated 30 million people.

China’s process of collectivization should be the example that Mpofu and the EFF leadership study. If they want more evidence of how collectivization collapses an economy, they need look no further than Tanzania’s Ujamaa and Operation Vijiji, a much understudied but enlightening experience. Or ask our Zimbabwean neighbours about their land reform programme. As Tawanda Chingozha, a PhD student in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, shows using sophisticated satellite imaging technology, Zimbabwe’s land reform programme caused a significant reduction in both the quantity and quality of crops harvested, and not only on formerly white commercial farms. The empirical evidence against state-owned land ownership is unequivocal.

Land is an emotive issue because the memories of dispossession, forced removals, and apartheid segregation remain vivid for many. Others are simply unhappy with the slow process of economic progress in the last decade, and see in land a source of safety and security.

But if land is expropriated and private property removed, the hope of economic progress will be nothing more than a mirage. We have smart people in South Africa. Surely we can find a way of redress that actually empowers people – and won’t replicate our disastrous past policies that subjugated the poorest to a life of poverty on the periphery of progress?

*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 26 April edition of finweek.