State of the nation – a business leader’s view

‘If we want the children to escape another cycle of hunger, we need the farming sector to be safe, happy and profitable.’ – Johann Rupert
Issue date : 05 December 2008

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‘If we want the children to escape another cycle of hunger, we need the farming sector to be safe, happy and profitable.’ – Johann Rupert

in the last couple of YEARS IT’S become clear that government doesn’t listen when commercial farmers tell it about the problems they and the country face. Their complaints about the lack of land reform, crime and government incompetence fall on deaf ears or are dismissed as racist propaganda. S outh African businesspeople generally try not to comment about these issues because they try to win government’s favour. When First National Bank decided some time ago to start a campaign against crime, government pressure via business leaders resulted in the bank withdrawing the campaign. Only two businessmen were not happy with the decision, Jannie Mouton and Johan Rupert.

Lack of progress
Johan Rupert recently gave a memorial speech at the University of Pretoria and didn’t hesitate to spell out that our progress during the past 16 years was less than spectacular and in many instances, even lagged behind other African countries. outh life expectancy at birth decreased by 12 years to just over 50 years from 1990 to 2006. The only countries worse off than us are the SADC countries. average life expectancy at birth for Africa has remained constant at 51 years over the same 16 years. We have “progressed” to the African standard in 16 years! outh infant mortality rates have deteriorated by five years from 45 to 51 infant deaths per 1 000 live births (1990 to 2006). From 2000 to 2006, the figure deteriorated by a further 6% to 56 deaths per 1 000 – putting us at the 188th place in the world. In 1990, we had 774 cases of tuberculosis per 100 000 and 998 in 2006. HIV prevalence increased from 16,9% to 18,1% in adults aged 15 to 49 between 2001 and 2007.

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We now officially have the third-highest HIV prevalence in the world, beaten only by Swaziland, Botswana and Lesotho, although the Zimbabwean figure of 15% is probably wrong. A ccording to Johann Rupert, sound economic principles, sound sociopolitical policies and a policy that encourages technological development are needed. Sound economic principles include unlimited and free transferability of property, protection of private property, ownership incentives for capital formation, strong and convertible currencies and a flexible labour market. H e regards our economic policies as generally sound, but our labour markets are not as free as the markets of our competitors.

Our sociopolitical policies are also not on the same level. Citizens are not safe in their own country. democracy is threatened by those who threaten to resort to violence if they don’t get their way. We have the right to freedom of speech, but only as long as we refrain from criticising government. Meanwhile there is a lack of honesty and transparency in government. Rupert singled out land reform as an area where government policy has resulted in confusion and has discouraged new black and white commercial farmers from investing in land. Once claimants get land, they are left to fend for themselves without any support and with dire results. F armers are being murdered and their property rights are not secure. agriculture minister will have to realise that she is also the minister of food security and self-sufficiency. Rupert says he hopes that she will change her attitude towards the already beleaguered agricultural sector. His comments correspond with what agricultural leaders have been saying for years.

Unfortunately, if one looks at recent statements by government officials, nothing has changed. cting chief land claims commissioner Blessing Mphela recently blamed free-market principles for the slow progress of land reform. The recently elected Agri SA president, Johannes Möller, implored the ANC and government to choose their words carefully when talking about property rights after the ruling alliance’s economic council rejected the willing-buyer, willing-seller principle. T he same economic council also asked for the reinstatement of control boards and apparently government is (again) studying the possibility of a strategic grain reserve to help keep food prices under control. All these actions attack the pillars of the free-market system and if accepted, will put us on the back foot economically.

The way forward for agriculture
Government officials and politicians will have to refrain from making popular political statements. The free-market system and property rights are the cornerstones of all successful countries. We can choose to become a successful country or we can choose to go the African way into poverty and misery. The choice lies with government officials and the leading alliance’s politicians. Let us keep on explaining to them how important the free-market system is – in time they may come to realise it themselves. Dr Koos Coetzee is an agricultural economist at the MPO. All opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect MPO policy. |fw