An exercise in persuading South Africans that a much better economic way is open to them

June 30th, 2017 by Brian Kantor

My book Get SA Growing (Jonathan Ball 2017) hopes to persuade South Africans that there is a clear and highly realistic way out of our poverty trap. And that is to let all our people exercise much more freedom to help themselves improve their economic circumstances. Or in other words for the economy to rely much more on highly competitive market forces, to determine output, incomes, jobs and wages. There is overwhelming support from economic history, especially from the recent immense poverty reduction achievements of many Asian economies, of how it is possible, using the power of the market place, to lift billions of people out of absolute poverty.

South Africa could be playing much more helpfully to its objective strengths – and that is the competence and competiveness of established businesses and new entrants to business to effectively deliver goods and services and employment and incomes. And are highly capable of doing much more for their stakeholders. Not only for their owners, but for their numerically much more important customers and employees.  And their owners, often pension and retirement funds who manage most of our savings, are rapidly becoming as racially representative of the work-force. Something ignored so opportunistically by the politics of empowerment.

The book tries to build trust in and respect for market forces by examining and explaining what goes on in our economy and how and why it could be better organized for the benefit of nearly all of us- and especially the many desperate poor. It is written by an economist for my fellow South Africans who share my frustration with our economic failure.

We should have more respect for the rights of individuals to make their own decisions and bear the consequences of them. And we should not allow adults who have the power to elect their government to be treated as if they were children in need of close supervision- an assumption often convenient for politicians and the officials who direct government spending on their behalf. Private providers of goods and services, now supplied by government agencies, would treat people much more as valued customers rather than as supplicants.

Privatization of the delivery of benefits – currently funded by the taxpayer – would produce much better results- especially in education – where the spending and tax burden is a heavy one and the outcomes so disappointing. The extra skills that would command employment and higher incomes are simply not emerging nearly well enough. Radical reforms are required that would make public schools and hospitals private ones. And convert public enterprises into more efficient private ones that would not convert losses and poor operating procedures into ever increasing public debts. Privatization could be used to pay off the expensive public debt.

A much greater reliance on and encouragement for the free play of market forces is called for in South Africa Much less should be expected from well-meaning national development plans or from even honestly governed state owned corporations to deliver the essential jobs and goods and services. Perhaps even more dangerous to the well- being of all South Africans would be to provide even greater opportunity for doing government business, funded by taxpayers, on highly favourable (non-competitive) terms with the politically well-connected few. The newly promulgated Mining Charter is an exercise in extreme crony-capitalism that will undermine the future of mining in SA and its ability to create incomes, jobs and tax revenues.

Faster economic growth would be truly transformational.  Building on the strengths we have- on our skilled human capital that is globally competitive – and so very vulnerable to emigration – and on the proven ability to raise financial capital from global markets when the prospects are favourable – faster growth would greatly stimulate the upward mobility of an increasingly skilled black South Africans. The upper reaches of the economy could soon become as racially transformed as have the ranks of the middle income classes. And the very poor and less skilled (now mostly not working) would benefit greatly from increased competition for their increasingly valuable and scarce services. Forcing transformation of the leaders of the SA economy would have the opposite effect. It would mean further economic stagnation and increased resentment of higher income South Africans.

The hope is that the book will make it more likely that the economic future of South Africa will be decided in a less racially charged way- with more reliance on meritocratic market forces. South Africa in fact undertakes an extraordinary degree of redistributing earned incomes, unequal because the valuable skills that command high incomes are so unequally distributed. That is unusual amounts of income is currently taken from the very well off to fund government expenditure – judged by the practices of other economies with comparable incomes per head. But economic stagnation has now severely limited the capacity to help the poor. More of the higher incomes that come with growth can then be redistributed to the least advantaged -hopefully with much more help from private suppliers of the benefits provided.  Growth and redistribution is very possible for South Africa- should we change our ways and grow faster – as the book hopes to persuade South Africans to do.