From the comments, on South Africa

by on March 5, 2018 at 1:01 am in Economics, Law, Political Science | Permalink

I think the chances of a populist land grab in South Africa (never very high) have actually gone down over the past few months. Look at the ANC’s actions during its 24 years in power, not its rhetoric. Many bad policies for sure, but never anything close to radically populist, of the sort that would seriously scare the financial markets. Destruction of the (well entrenched and sophisticated) property rights system would certainly do that. So it’s unlikely to happen.

The only time there seemed to be a risk of edging in that direction was when Zuma and his faction started seriously losing support (2016-17). They responded by ratcheting up the populist and racist rhetoric (“white monopoly capital” etc), but ultimately it didn’t work. They lost, and power in the ANC has shifted back to the more market friendly centrists, typified by Ramaphosa.

That’s why I think the risks have gone down (since Zuma was ousted), despite the recent parliamentary vote to “expropriate without compensation”. The sound bite plays well to a certain audience, as other commenters have noted, but I agree it’s mostly just signaling. When you look at the details it’s not as scary as it sounds.

Firstly, they didn’t vote to do it, they voted to set up a committee to investigate doing it, subject to various caveats and constraints, e.g. must increase agricultural production and improve food security; there must be public and expert consultation; appropriate mechanisms, etc. It seems extremely unlikely that the ANC’s intention is to summarily expropriate all land without compensation, nor does it say that in the parliamentary motion or in any ANC policy statement (that is indeed the EFF’s position, but they have less than 10% electoral support). Far more likely is we’ll end up with some sort of watered down constitutional amendment that allows expropriation without compensation in certain defined and limited circumstances, but overall system of property rights remains intact for vast majority of land and other assets.

By the way, I suspect the most outsiders seriously underestimate the strength of South Africa’s constitution and supporting institutions. They have stood remarkably firm over the past few years in the face of concerted attempts by Zuma and his cronies to undermine them. Compared, for example, to a country like Turkey, whose constitution, judiciary, media and civil society have been crushed in the space of a few years by a similarly venal and power-deluded single politician.

That is from Greg.

1 JCC March 5, 2018 at 2:19 am

Indeed. South African institutions are world class and streets ahead of what you see in other African nations.


2 bmcburney March 5, 2018 at 7:38 am

Is better than “other African Nations” the test? Everything will be okay as long as South Africa has stronger institutions than the Congo? At least Greg believes (mistakenly, in my view, but somewhat reasonably) that South Africa has strong institutions than pre-Erodgan Turkey.


3 JCC March 5, 2018 at 10:11 am

Their institutions are better than most South and Central America nations, and I’m not talking about Venezuela.


4 GoneWithTheWind March 5, 2018 at 9:57 am

If you think this is only about a land grab you are missing the story. This is about racism and genocide. South Africa is poised to make the Armenian genocide look like a school yard fight.


5 Ricardo March 5, 2018 at 4:50 pm

There is an old English expression that may apply here: “he couldn’t organize a piss-up in a beer tent.”


6 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 10:24 am

Infrastructure built by whom? Asked and answered.


7 athEIst March 5, 2018 at 8:38 pm

But not for long!

Zimbabwe was ok for a while after it stopped being Rhodesia. Now every Zimbabweite is a trillionaire.


8 Art Deco March 5, 2018 at 3:14 am

“Compared, for example, to a country like Turkey, whose constitution, judiciary, media and civil society have been crushed in the space of a few years by a similarly venal and power-deluded single politician.”

Sorry. In what sense has the move towards restoration of the historical and rightful greatness and glory of the followers of Osman a “crushing of civil society”?


9 bmcburney March 5, 2018 at 6:00 am

I am not sure I see the distinction which Greg is attempting to draw between Erdogan’s Turkey of today and the South Africa of tomorrow. In South Africa, the anti-White racists are already explicitly engaged in a “move towards restoration of the historical and rightful greatness and glory of [fill in the blank].” In 1994, Erdogan merely read a poem in public.


10 bmcburney March 5, 2018 at 6:05 am

Crushing Turkey’s secular “constitution, judiciary, media and civil society” and “restoration of the historical and rightful greatness and glory of the followers of Osman” are pretty much the same thing.


11 msgkings March 5, 2018 at 9:03 am

I’m lonely today.


12 So Much For Subtlety March 5, 2018 at 1:43 pm

Come on over, big boy!


13 Art Deco March 5, 2018 at 1:44 pm

Hey, are you two-timing me??!?


14 Thomas Sewell March 5, 2018 at 3:32 am

I’m looking forward to the opportunity to see some black folks purchase land and then lease it back to the previous owners on 99 year renewable leases.


15 bmcburney March 5, 2018 at 6:09 am

Yeah, that worked out great for everyone in Zimbabwe.


16 athEIst March 5, 2018 at 8:42 pm

It did! Now every Z-ite is a trillionaire


17 msgkings March 5, 2018 at 8:58 pm

A joke so good you had to post it twice!


18 bmcburney March 5, 2018 at 6:36 am

Only a connoisseur of human misery looks forward to these things. Obviously, we are not talking about “the opportunity to see some black folks purchase land”, the black folks are going to take the land and kill anyone who resists. In fact, once the process starts it is difficult to stop at only expropriating land. If White South Africans are not entitled to ownership of land, why should they be allowed to keep anything they “own”? Why should they be allowed to live?

Leases are also property rights. A society which demonstrates a willingness to seize property without compensation will find it difficult to find others willing to buy or lease (same thing) the same property they have just expropriated from the prior owners (until they are able to convince the buyers they will never do it again).


19 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 10:31 am

If they could purchase the land there would be no need for the government to seize it. But if you think that’s a good idea, let’s have the Indians seize your land and rent it back to you. Deal?


20 So Much For Subtlety March 5, 2018 at 3:39 am

They responded by ratcheting up the populist and racist rhetoric (“white monopoly capital” etc), but ultimately it didn’t work. They lost, and power in the ANC has shifted back to the more market friendly centrists, typified by Ramaphosa.

So the kleptocrats are beating the democrats? The problem is that the “populists” (that is, the people offering the voters what they actually want) are popular. That is why they use the rhetoric. The idea that the voters can be fooled forever is unlikely to work out.

However the real problem is Zimbabwe’s example. As long as Mugabe won elections, he was happy to fleece the Whites as opposed to skin them alive. But when he started losing elections, he was happy to burn the entire country down in order to stay in power. There is not the slightest bit of evidence that the South African Communist Party’s United Front group is any different.

White South Africans are dead men walking.


21 dearieme March 5, 2018 at 6:14 am

The flood of white American retirees settling in Cape Town suggests you are wrong.


22 Anonymous March 5, 2018 at 6:16 am

What are retirees, if not dead men walking?


23 JonFraz March 6, 2018 at 4:10 pm

well, in that respect we are all corpses in waiting.


24 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 10:32 am

Huh? Not happening.


25 So Much For Subtlety March 5, 2018 at 5:59 pm

Every American I have heard of who retired to South Africa was Black. What is the evidence for this flood?

Especially as South Africa is one of the worst countries in the world to retire to. Seriously. It ranks something like 129th in the world.


26 Adam March 5, 2018 at 6:18 am

Populists offer people what they think they want when they don’t think very long about something. It’s an effective way of getting votes, but people also notice results. If countries where the leaders do the right thing prosper over countries where people get what they want on every issue, people eventually notice.


27 Careless March 5, 2018 at 12:36 pm

Really? Because this is a country that actually borders Zimbabwe, and they don’t seem to have noticed.


28 Jeff R March 5, 2018 at 10:30 am

Not quite sure that level of pessimism is warranted, but I think the important point here is that the political equilibrium can change rapidly. The question is how stable the current one is.


29 JonFraz March 6, 2018 at 4:10 pm

here are far more white South Africaners than there were white Zimbabweans. They are and remain a force to reckoned with politically– and economically.


30 Richard Berger March 5, 2018 at 6:51 am

I went back and read Greg’s comment and was unable to find where he identifies himself as a white South African farmer. No skin in the game, I’m guessing.


31 Bob March 5, 2018 at 10:39 am



32 Stuart March 5, 2018 at 11:03 am

Can you be more specific? Like let’s say he’s not a white south african farmer, is that the end of the matter? Would being a white south african be acceptable? White south african land owner? White south african with farmer friends?

Anyway, you’ve read his comment twice now, do you have anything to add or do you consider your Taleb reference to be sufficient?


33 John March 6, 2018 at 1:20 am

To Richard and Bob I agree with skin in the game as being a useful measure a bit like the man in the arena who dares greatly. I suspect that Greg has some SITG as I do as a white male South African living in Johannesburg running a small business. So no I am not an SA farmer, but I do know SA farmers in real life and do business with them. I also own property and a business as well as being a South African voter. What is your SITG? Do you want to hear the opinions of those with SITG or just make your own?


34 Roger Sweeny March 5, 2018 at 8:19 am

I get it. The fact that it happened in Turkey means it can’t happen in South Africa.


35 DanC March 5, 2018 at 8:22 am

Greg’s view may be correct. But the Arab spring was viewed as unlikely by many. Bottom line, investing in South Africa is risky. These comments about ignoring property rights would make me more nervous.

Playing to the mob frequently gets out of hand. First comes the rhetoric, then comes the action, then comes the potential slaughter. White South Africans haven’t stopped taking security measures, have they?


36 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 10:28 am

No, it isn’t correct. The idea that they would take the trouble to start the process of amending the constitution just for the sake of appearances is laughable.


37 Stuart March 5, 2018 at 10:49 am

As laughable as there being a provision in the original constitution for below market compensation and that never being implemented in the 20 years since? Why did they include that?


38 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 11:16 am

In fact they have “purchased” land in the last 24 years. None of it has been put to good account. Now they want to demand it for free, an arrangement otherwise known as theft. The simplest explanation is that they intend to do exactly what they say. Not that they are playing complicated games.


39 Sam Haysom March 5, 2018 at 9:35 am

The people that assure the frogs that the temperature of the water isn’t rising don’t do it because they like frogs they do it because they like frog legs.


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41 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 10:19 am

More self-delusion and whistling past the graveyard.

White capital tried to buy off Ramaphosa, gifting him shares in “black empowerment” schemes. Of course, nothing in the “black empowerment” ruse forbids one form using *the same black* for “empowerment”. So now Ramaphosa has something like $450 million dollars in personal wealth ( No, he didn’t earn it. But it didn’t work. He is capital-friendly in the sense that Putin is capital-friendly. He wants your capital.

Now he is coming for the land, which has tremendous symbolic significance. If you think the way to prosperity is through political power, that’s what you do. How long this takes is uncertain. It may take years. But it will happen. Agriculture will be destroyed. The multiplier effects as the steady stream of white emigration expands to a torrent will be catastrophic.


42 Russian Twitter Bot March 5, 2018 at 10:30 am

Just say white south Africans deserve it and be done with it like the univisions Root website. They are intellectually honest and outwardly proud at least. I respect that forthrightness.

Instead you sit around publishing apologetics why these politicans voting for land grabs don’t really mean land grabs or saying kill the boer really means equal rights. You would never write these disgusting apologetics if it was whites attacking blacks or Jews or muslims or any other minority group. It’s a lesson, no matter how bad it gets, no matter how much violence or terror you are subjected to, the media will spin it into 1) it’s not really happening 2) well if it is you deserve it for one billion years of collective oppression.


43 Stuart March 5, 2018 at 10:45 am

A lot of commenters are determined that South Africa is on the bring of genocidal calamity but nobody has actually argued for that position or attempted to rebutt anything Greg has written.

Why aren’t the financial markets alarmed? Genocide sounds alarming. Why did Zuma get dumped as president (and his prefered successor is not his replacement) just as that faction was starting to veer in a more populist direction in favour of someone who has not shown many signs of racist populism (and who actually did the negotiating at the end of apartheid which did not lead to genocide when serious bloodshed was a real possibility)?

Not to get too Cowenian or anything, but do these commentators simply get a kick out indulging in negative mood affiliation? Negativity can give the illusion of gravitas. But unless you actually have some sort of argument or evidence, it is just an illusion.


44 Careless March 5, 2018 at 2:27 pm

Sure the third largest party in the country, which didn’t even exist two election cycles ago, is openly genocidal, and has dragged every party in the country but one to their land-grab scheme, but who cares?


45 Johan Mompara March 5, 2018 at 11:07 am

Ah yes. Pay no attention to the sound of the whetstone. Those pangas are only being sharpened so that they shine and glitter in the sun. And they’re good for trimming fingernails.


46 Engineer March 5, 2018 at 12:55 pm

If you were the fiduciary for a trust fund (i.e. you are making the decision, it matters, you will have to live with the result, and you care), would you approve a 20 year loan to an otherwise fully qualified white South African farmer to buy farmland today? If you would, what rate of return would you require?


47 Paul March 5, 2018 at 3:13 pm

When Mugabe took over nobody believed that he would really do what he said, either.


48 Paul March 5, 2018 at 3:17 pm

By the way my favorite blogger in China is serpentza (Winston). He is a young man from South Africa.
He recently wrote to his Patreon supporters that his parents who bought a little farm in the countryside to provide income in their retirement – they cannot even visit it because it is too dangerous. Law and order has completely broken down.
His take, not mine, and he has skin in the game.


49 Massimo Heitor March 5, 2018 at 6:59 pm

OK, it’s not as scary as it sounds… The rhetoric is disturbing at least. The publicized version of history, is that the whites were evil villains and the blacks as innocent victims. This itself is white-bashing racism. Every tribe in human history, is based on some apartheid-style preference for their in-group over the out-group. The tribes of Africa, like the Zulu, preferenced themselves over rival tribes. The Japanese preference themselves over outsiders. Sure, and the white tribes of Africa preferenced themselves over others like every other tribe in human history. And ultimately, it was the white cities of South Africa that blacks flocked to and reluctantly welcomed them. A segregated nation like Japan just had more successful apartheid and blocked entry of large numbers of blacks.

I’m not making a new point, but I’d like to see Tyler Cowen address this.


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