Opinionista Ivo Vegter 11 March 2014

If Malema isn’t Pol Pot, is he still dangerous?

In last week’s column, I recalled that “agrarian reform”, as advocated by Julius Malema, evoked a phrase associated with Cambodia’s murderous tyrant, Pol Pot. The comments raised a pertinent question. Was I saying Malema is a genocidal maniac? If not, would this change anything? Do the people even want land?

The parallel drawn last week between Julius Malema and Pol Pot is very powerful if one supposes that all so-called agrarian reform leads to genocide. It isn’t much less powerful if it does so only sometimes.

But what if it doesn’t? Is Malema fighting for something South Africans actually want?

Let’s start with his intent. Assuming it is benign may be hard, given his well-documented tendency to flaunt his power and wealth. The phalanx of heavily-armed bodyguards surrounding the bearer of the Breitling watch led one newspaper to ask with whom he is at war. Another noted his unsubtle threat to the white Afrikaner organisation that brought charges of hate speech against him over the song “Shoot the Boer”. He reportedly told them they would end up like the Inkatha Freedom Party marchers who were massacred in 1994 outside Shell House, as Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters was known then.

Such ostentation and violent rhetoric does not suggest the psychology one associates with a benevolent leader of the people.

But, to be fair to Malema, when he said South Africa could learn from Zimbabwe on the question of land reform, he did add that the lesson should not extend to “the initial violent method of attacking white people or attacking each other”.

So, let’s suppose he merely seeks the equal redistribution of land amongst people. As his manifesto says, “we believe that it is only through a socialist transformation programme, that we will end the suffering of our people.”

Expropriation without compensation is seldom a peaceful affair. Entire countries have gone up in flames of revolutionary zeal directed at property owners. But even if it were, as he says he wants, will it achieve this goal?

A few immediate counter-examples come to mind. The most obvious is one he raised himself: Zimbabwe. An economist in Harare, Vince Musewe, addressed an open letter to him on this subject. Allow me to quote it at some length.

“If stinking uncollected rubbish dumps, lack of clean running water and a dilapidating infrastructure inspire you Julius, then I suppose you should relocate to Harare. I have a perfect spot for you where you can, once again, get inspired using pit latrines as some of you do now in a developed South Africa. I understand that this is also the case in Limpopo, where some infrastructure is in bad shape even after some black owned companies were paid to do the work to repair it. I am sure you are aware of that.”

Ouch. And Musewe is not done: “You no doubt will also be inspired by our agricultural revolution (as you would call it), where now we cannot even feed ourselves and must import maize from Zambia. Yes Julius we in Zimbabwe now ‘own’ those farms but they are useless and lying idle. Julius, in Zimbabwe, we even own closed factories and shops, we own our own airline which is grounded, we own all our state enterprises that are facing closure because of mismanagement, we own steel mills, power stations, railways, mines; hell you name it Julius and we own it. But all that we own is either underutilised, in a state of disrepair or being driven to the ground through corruption or mismanagement. That’s inspirational Julius, isn’t it?”

In Venezuela, the Bolivarian revolution rose to new heights under its late president Hugo Chávez. Said Malema, in mourning his death last year: “Despite massive resistance from rented imperialist puppets, President Hugo Chávez was able to lead Venezuela into an era where the wealth of Venezuela, particularly oil, was returned to the ownership of the people as a whole.”

Splendid, is it not? Except of course that the people, cowed under violent repression, are starving. It’s been like that for many years. Amid shortages of basic foods and consumer goods, the government has gone into the toilet paper business, and told the people, who have taken to the streets, that they eat too much. Echoing Zimbabwe’s collapse, the official inflation rate is a chart-topping 56%, while the unofficial rate that includes the booming black market is six times higher.

Ironically, Malema’s desire for agrarian reform, in which a land-owning peasant class would happily produce prosperity for themselves, sounds much like the ideal of many environmentalists and development aid workers. Like wishful social engineers of earlier generations, they advocate that refugees of urbanisation and industrialisation live in bucolic idyll, producing enough for their own consumption, with perhaps a little left over for the Sunday market. Among wealthy elites and academic dreamers, it is known as the “back to the land” movement, and it is, apparently, back in vogue. Among Africa’s poor, they call it subsistence farming, and they think it progressive.

It isn’t. It is regressive. Every developed country has spent the centuries since the Middle Ages escaping the back-breaking labour of farming.

Producing just enough to survive used to take most of the family, children included, 12 hours a day all week long. Rich economies are characterised by a sharp decline in the number of people employed in producing the country’s food needs, freeing up labour for manufacturing and services, and liberating children to be educated. It was not by idealising rural peasantry, but by deploying modern technology and capital investment that Norman Borlaug “saved more human lives than any other”.

One shouldn’t entirely dismiss the notion of rural subsistence farming, of course. It is a step up from having nothing. A paper in the Review of Agrarian Studies observes that in South Africa, “the acquisition of land has improved, in some cases vastly, the socio-economic conditions of beneficiaries … [with] limited [or] no support from the state.”

If rising prices signal scarcity, which they usually do, there remains demand for food to be satisfied, which makes a viable and vibrant agricultural sector important for development.

However, idealising subsistence farming among a peasant class as a desirable goal is to idealise under-development. A more informed reflection on history would recognise that the so-called “state of nature” is far from idyllic.

As  Thomas Hobbes described it : “In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Of course, when offered a plot of land for free by the government, most people will gratefully accept it, and reward the giver with a loyal vote. Having never owned more capital than a second-hand car, I’d be sorely tempted to accept such largesse myself. But then, having been tempted by the metaphorical Satan, I’d steel my resolve and turn my back on evil. It wouldn’t be right to accept something expropriated from another, and I couldn’t let personal benefit compromise either my democratic duty to my country, or my journalistic integrity. But I’m just eye-wateringly ethical that way. Most people would be weaker, and understandably so.

That they’d rather have the land than have nothing is a trite observation, however. The real question is whether they’d prefer the land over realistic alternatives. Earning a living is important for everyone. Learning to farm is not trivial, and many other skills are in low demand in rural areas.

Let’s see what actual land restitution claimants choose, when faced with the option of owning some land of their very own. If Malema is right, they’d grab the opportunity with both hands.

But they don’t.

The South African Institute for Race Relations did an extensive survey of South Africa’s economy a few years ago. One of its authors, researcher Kerwin Lebone, told me that according to the most recent report of the Commission on Restitution of Land Rights, 92% of all land claims were settled by payment of financial compensation. Most successful land claimants evidently prefer a cash payout and an opportunity to find work in the city, to a rural life as a farmer.

In general, claimants were willing to settle for less in cash than the value of the land they had a claim to, in recognition that some money now is preferable to taking a gamble on a farm for tomorrow. After all, it is a risky bet. Troy Lund wrote in the Financial Mail, and the Minister of Rural Development, Gugile Nkwinti, has confirmed, that some 90% of land transferred to black ownership by restitution and redistribution, is no longer productive. Farming is hard.

So nine out of ten people, when offered a choice between land and cash, reject the call of the land. And of those who don’t, nine out of ten fail. That leaves 1% of the people who both choose land and successfully farm it.

Evidently, the “agrarian reform” that Julius Malema proposes isn’t what the people want. Nor is it good for the people, or the country as a whole.

This raises an interesting question about his supporters. If they don’t really want land, unless it is free and there isn’t a modest cash alternative, what exactly do they want when they claim transformation is urgently needed?

They do not propose policies that would generate prosperity for the poor, and we have established before that by “economic freedom” they really mean its effect, “economic prosperity”. If so, is it possible that all they really want is their own chance to feed at the cronyist trough, as their leader allegedly did? Is their criticism of corruption just motivated by a desire for a reserved first class seat on the gravy train?

Beyond some hazy notion of restorative justice, I can’t really think of a concrete alternative explanation. “Agrarian reform” would leave the country starving and impoverished, as economic theory predicts, history proves, and people’s real-life choices confirm. Where’s the justice in that?

Even if Malema’s motives are pure as the driven snow, he’d still be dangerous. DM



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