Is South Africa digging its own grave?

By Jonathan Power

Is South Africa going to tumble from the sky like some out-of-control
aeroplane? It is beginning to look like it. Ex-president, Nelson
Mandela, who sacrificed a good part of his life in jail to liberate
it, must be wondering, and doubtless is full of grief. What is worse
for South Africa is that it happens concurrently with the rest of
black Africa’s economic take-off. Present forecasts suggest that
Nigeria in a few years’ time will overtake South Africa to be
sub-Sahara’s largest economy.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a great non-violent freedom fighter, summed
it up well: “The gravy train stopped at the station just long enough
for the whites to get off and the black elite to clamber on.”

The black elite, or much of it, has been favoured – by being given
fast-track promotion (which in many cases was the right thing to do),
but also by being offered shares and stock in companies at knock down
prices, by being taken onto company boards, by favourable bank loans
to buy companies and by priority in government projects and, most
undermining of all, by sweetheart deals.

This elite show too little concern for the masses who often live in
urban squalor or in impoverished villages. The promised advance in
education, health clinics and so on has not been realized, although on
housing the government has made some noticeable progress. Pay levels
have barely kept up with the rising cost of living. Economic growth
creeps along. Unemployment among youth is extraordinarily high. It is
no surprise the mine workers continue their strikes.

Little spoken about is the crisis in land ownership. Without land
reform as a priority the 40% who live in the countryside have little
chance of improvement unless they move to the overloaded towns where
perhaps there is at least a job if they scramble hard enough.

It was lack of the much promised land reform in Zimbabwe that started
the economic decline there. Only after 20 years of peasant failure did
the government get round to it – and then in the most counterproductive
way- confiscating prosperous white-owned farms which made the country
self-sufficient in food and then settling blacks on their land but
without any back up with teachers of modern farming methods,
easy-to-get cheap credit, improved seeds and fertiliser. The
haemorrhage of the exodus was not stemmed and the towns are
overloaded. The villagers were deprived of their best and brightest.
Zimbabwe is now an economic basket case.

Land reform is the best way of reducing the tide of migrants and of
bringing adequate incomes to half the population as well as cutting
down the expensive imports of food.

As in Zimbabwe the South African leadership made big promises but they
are unfulfilled. Not surprisingly there are agitators demanding the
South African government seize white land and ignore the carefully
worded compromises made in the negotiations that preceded the end of
white rule- whereby white farmers could voluntarily be bought out by
the government at market prices.

In South Africa only 8% of the land has been redistributed, compared
with the 30% promised by the end of five years of black rule.

The government has under-funded land reform. The Land Redistribution
Commission has had to place a moratorium on buying land because it has
run out of money. The government has failed to aid the beneficiaries
of land reform by offering cheap credit and skill training in modern
farming techniques. Farmers are not being given basic irrigation and
sufficient electricity supplies. Besides, the idea of giving a whole
white farm to a black “community” à la Soviet Union has not worked.
What are needed are more independent small-holders. The World Bank has
shown from its world-wide research that such farms produce more per
acre than big farms.

Meanwhile the great inequality of land owning persists – whites own 75%
of the land while constituting less than 10% of the population. The
black bourgeoisie, especially well-to-do government hierarchy members,
as in Zimbabwe, are buying out white farmers.

Where will it end? Where will the gathering urban unrest and rural
discontent lead to?

President Jacob Zuma does not appear to recognize the dangers ahead.
During the miners’ strike he has made only anodyne remarks. His idea
of rural development appears to be limited to building a large scale
compound for himself in his home village. There is little sign that
resources are being re-directed either to the urban slums or to
agricultural development. An unnecessary defence budget has been
grossly enlarged, creaming off funds needed for rural and urban slum
development, despite the country having no external enemies and no
likelihood of any. But arms purchases did provide backhanders for
powerful ANC government members including, it has been alleged, the
president himself.

Is South Africa digging its own grave? That is the question.

Copyright © Jonathan Power 2012

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