When reflecting recently on the state of the UK economy, S&P Global Ratings chief European economist Jean-Michel Six likened the optimistic post-Brexit-vote economic commentary to a person jumping out of a 50-storey building and, halfway down, exclaiming: “So far, so good!”
The UK economy, Six avers, is currently experiencing the best of both worlds: greater export competitiveness as a result of Brexit-induced pound weakness and unfettered access to the single European Union market. Only once the Brexit negotiations are in full swing will the economic realities become clearer.
For South Africa, this ‘so far, so good’ allegory applies likewise to the seemingly benign effects of the prevailing populist rhetoric about land reform and higher education. There have been few, if any, obvious downsides for those recklessly engaging in such rhetoric.
The Fees Must Fall movement has won major financial concessions and, having tasted the fruits of success, appears to be preparing to go for fee-free broke, no matter the counterarguments, or the social and economic consequences. Indeed, why should consensus building hold any attraction, when being entirely uncompromising and rhetorical has proved so effective?
In the highly emotive area of land reform, meanwhile, the populist rhetoric has become increasingly full-throated. To be sure, expropria- tion without compensation has been a long-held aspiration for some of the smaller political parties. However, the Economic Freedom Fighters has succeeded in putting the issue firmly onto the contemporary policy agenda. And, more recently, sections of the African National Congress (ANC) have moved to co-opt the rhetoric, seemingly as part of a battle for ascendency in the factional politics of the day.
Disconcertingly, the agenda has been packaged as an attack on the Constitution, which the populists dismiss, in parts, as a disagreeable compromise. The property clause, specifically, is held up as the main impediment to land redistribution, notwithstanding the forceful assertion by retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke that the Constitution does not protect property, but rather protects an owner against arbitrary deprivation. “The property clause permits expropriation of land by a law of general application, provided it is for a public purpose or in the public interest,” Moseneke has argued.
Likewise, Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, who has called on South Africans to reject populism and embrace consensus building, has described the call for Constitutional changes as a “red herring”. The problem lies, instead, in execution: “If we could just implement most of the things that are in the Constitution, we would be far advanced as a country.”
ANC economic transformation committee chairperson Enoch Godongwana, who describes Section 25 of the Constitution as offering a “progressive, redistributive framework”, has made a similar point. In a City Press opinion piece, Godongwana says good governance and true radical economic transformation should not succumb to “populist slogans”.
Should South Africa remove Section 25, there is even the risk that the country would relinquish its sovereignty over the land question, with such disputes potentially being decided by foreign-based arbitration bodies.
Put differently, while populism is defying gravity for now, the floor remains as hard as ever, and is also getting closer.