Source: Business Day

MICHAEL MORRIS: Industry’s success follows despite indebted government’s move to take assets that belong to others

Optimism is probably South Africans’ most ironic quality — and an asset you would imagine it would be foolish to take for granted.

If optimism hardly makes sense given the socioeconomic crisis SA confronts due to policies and managerial incompetence that deepen rather than address joblessness, the energy crisis, deficiencies in education, low economic growth, declining municipal services, capital flight and vulnerability to crime, you would have thought policymakers would at least pay some attention to what does work and why.

After all, these are the only things that stimulate hope, that persuade people that persisting, despite the odds, is worthwhile. Which is why, the most striking 19 words in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s deflating address on October 15 on what the government imagines is an economic recovery plan were the following: “Our agricultural sector has continued to grow, with a bumper maize harvest and the expansion of many high-value crops.”

One has to wonder how the president and his advisers make sense of data of this kind. Not with any insight, is surely the only possible answer, considering that just four days earlier the executive announced the gazetting of the new expropriation law with as much verve as the president himself boasted of the country’s farming prowess.

This draft legislation is the biggest single threat to farming success, investment in agriculture (particularly by those bumper-crop farmers themselves), the stability of banking and the real estate market, and, beyond that, to investment in anything else.

The government prattles on about ‘food security’, but thousands in the private agricultural and food distribution sectors actually make it possible

John Kane-Berman, former IRR CEO

However you look at it, the idea of a weak, deeply indebted state widening its own powers to take assets that belong to others — instead, for instance, of helping farmers sustain bumper maize harvests or hasten the expansion of high-value crops — is a red flag all round.

The finest metaphor is the photograph from Senekal of an ANC-supporting protester holding a tatty placard that read: “Gaan Australia”. Ramaphosa has said the government wants South Africans to pull together. Well, as my senior colleague, John Kane-Berman, wrote recently: “How do they think what’s left of the economy survives except by people working together to create and buy and sell things despite all the obstacles placed in their way by Mr Ramaphosa and his government and party ever since they came to power? Perhaps they have not noticed. Perhaps they have never stopped to think how a mine or a factory or a restaurant or a bank or a supermarket or even a spaza shop operates.”

He mentions agriculture in particular. “Farmers are denigrated, their farms threatened with confiscation, murders on farms airbrushed away, lockdown regulations used in efforts to thwart their own security arrangements, and supplies of diesel interrupted by thievery — yet farmers and farmworkers have just brought in the second biggest maize crop in the country’s history. The government prattles on about ‘food security’, but thousands in the private agricultural and food distribution sectors actually make it possible.”

Writing elsewhere last week, presidency official Saul Musker did his best to muster enthusiasm for his boss’s “plan”. Admitting that “[it] is hard not to be cynical or impatient”, he argued that there remained “reason for hope, and cause to persevere”. The “best way” for the government to regain public trust and convince the cynics, he said, “is to demonstrate its capacity to implement a few things well”.

That not only lowers the bar to the ground, it misdiagnoses the condition. Public cynicism and impatience are not the problem; the government’s wilful erosion of our optimism is.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).