Moralism in land debate hampers economic growth - News24

13 April 2018 - How much is enough? What do we need? When do our wants and ambitions become morally untenable? What is fair and equitable to all concerned? Can acquisition be justified against the backdrop of severe deprivation and extreme inequalities?

By Terence Corrigan 

At the now not-much-remembered, invitation-only conference around land reform – the National Forum for Dialogue on Land, Heritage and Human Rights – mining and minerals minister Gwede Mantashe made much of the need to defeat greed. Land expropriation, he said, needed to be targeted at people who were acquiring too much land.

"When a person is greedy and takes every piece of land for himself," Mantashe declared, "that person should be the first for expropriation, because he doesn't need land."

The practical gist of Mantashe's remarks was probably a signal about limitations on land ownership or land ceilings, at times as prospective government policy. That is a substantive policy question, though one Mantashe does very little to advance with evidence or argument. But the manner in which it was framed puts some ethical questions on the table.

How much is enough? What do we need? When do our wants and ambitions become morally untenable? What is fair and equitable to all concerned? Can acquisition be justified against the backdrop of severe deprivation and extreme inequalities?

These are profound considerations, and against the background of the past few years they have a particular resonance. The basis for decrying it – as we should – is not only the malfeasance that has taken place, but what it says about the moral corrosion of our society.

Land ownership is of course not the only context in which these concerns have been raised. Thinking on corporate governance is increasingly attempting to accommodate ethical concerns and 'corporate citizenship'. Executive pay has been another, prominent, theme. Brand Pretorius, then chairman of Absa bank's remuneration committee, remarked in 2014 that salaries paid to executives "is not just a business issue anymore. It has become a really important and sensitive social issue."

On the other hand, growth – whether in business, responsibilities or one's pay cheque – is the prime incentive for any economic activity. It is in the nature of business success that enterprises grow, and that entrepreneurs acquire. In the case of land, it is well-documented that market pressures are forcing farms to consolidate to stay competitive.

Are the land acquirers who so offend Mantashe trying to stack the deck against their competitors – or are they visionary businesspeople dreaming of seeing their produce in stores from Blikkiesdorp to Beijing?

There is a reasonable discussion to be had on these matters, but not a simple one.

Indeed, moralism can be quite damaging to rational policy debate. Few things would be as valuable to South Africa's economic future as developing a vigorous small business economy. On this, almost everyone agrees. But 'small business' is too often taken up by people with little experience in the actual running of a business as a moral avatar – the acceptable face of capitalism and the solution to economic exclusion – rather than as the competitive operations that they need to be.

Business environment specialists SBP remarks: "Small businesses are not charities, welfare measures or systems to generate employment for its own sake." What social benefits there are "are a happy by-product of healthy small businesses seeking opportunities in a market, not their inherent objective".

"Small businesses' potential to grow – indeed to function at all – is no different from that of their larger counterparts insofar as economic decisions must be based on economic incentives. Imbuing small businesses with excessive moral or ideological significance is counterproductive. Small business is business, first and foremost."

But if greed and selfishness is a pathology that needs to be shamed and combated, it is surely one that might profitably be applied outside the economy – perhaps in the field in which Mantashe works – in politics and government.

If greed is to be measured by acquisitiveness, it is hard to imagine a field in which it finds a more full-bodied expression than politics. It is rare to hear a politician suggesting that his or her own party holds too much power. Oh yes, there may be sage words about "checks and balances" and the need to find "inclusive solutions", but the idea that one's party receives too many votes, holds an unhealthy number of parliamentary seats, forms majorities in a distressingly large proportion of provinces and municipalities… very rare indeed.

In a competitive, multi-party system, monopoly and monopsony is pretty much what politicians wish for. In South Africa, with an electoral system that fixates on political parties, there is little incentive to think in any other terms.

Mantashe's own party, long dominant in South Africa, has certainly not attempted to break this pattern. It has shown little enthusiasm for a revised electoral system that might engender more give and take. More to the point, its leaders have repeatedly voiced the goal of expanding its footprint. In the run-up to the second post-liberation election, in 1999, despite holding a comfortable majority nationally, and despite holding seven of the nine provinces, its stated goal was an "overwhelming" or "two-thirds majority", which would allow it to govern "unfettered by constraints".

Over subsequent years, it consciously sought to expand this – and successfully came in at just under 70% of the vote in 2004. It also readily absorbed representatives from other parties (and in the case of the New National Party, whole parties). In the City of Cape Town, it even used councillor defections – the disreputable 'floor crossing' – to take control of the city. 

By Mantashe's reasoning, it is unclear why it should have wanted – or needed – all of this. And, for the record, it is difficult to imagine any of the opposition parties piously failing to take advantage in this way, had things aligned more favourably for themselves.

But one could argue that limits on the greed of politicians and political parties are more important than they are in respect of business and business people. The expansion of one's business interests may translate into the ability to wield power over others; the expansion of political power is by definition geared to doing so. Accumulated political power can be extraordinarily venal.

As a country we need to ask questions about the abuses of power and resources. We need to insert ethical questions into our policy thinking – while guarding against ill-thought-out assumptions. It would be fruitless to demand limits on permissible representation, or for parties to voluntarily stand down when opportunities for growth and power present themselves. Not dissimilarly, a moralised, evidence-free condemnation of business growth is counterproductive for the economic take-off South Africa desperately needs.

*Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. 

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