The sci­ence of de­coloni­sa­tion

How do we build a pros­per­ous de­colonised Africa? One so­lu­tion is to fo­cus less on land re­form and more on sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - Ed­i­to­rial@fin­ Jo­han Fourie is as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in eco­nomics at Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity.

ire­cently at­tended an aca­demic con­fer­ence at the Univer­sity of the Free State on the topic “De­col­o­niz­ing Africa”. Much of the de­bate was, un­der­stand­ably, about the past: the lin­ger­ing ef­fects of the (At­lantic) slave trade, Euro­pean coloni­sa­tion that in­cluded the im­po­si­tion of largely ar­ti­fi­cial bor­ders, and post-colo­nial fail­ures of in­de­pen­dent Africa. At the fi­nal key­note, by the Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria’s Pro­fes­sor Alois Mlambo, the dis­cus­sion turned to the fu­ture. How do we build a pros­per­ous, de­colonised Africa?

One un­escapably emo­tive topic is land re­form. Ex­pro­pri­a­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion of land in South Africa is the root, many agreed, of the se­vere lev­els of in­equal­ity that plague the re­gion. But cor­rect­ing this past in­jus­tice was not easy; in the au­di­ence were sev­eral Zim­bab­wean schol­ars quite crit­i­cal of that coun­try’s land re­form pro­gramme. One stu­dent told me the story of his grand­fa­ther, a for­mer farm worker on a white farm turned suc­cess­ful tobacco farmer af­ter land re­form, only to lose his land be­cause he was con­sid­ered “too suc­cess­ful” by the rul­ing Zanu-PF party. The farm is now dor­mant.

Get­ting land re­form right is fraught with dif­fi­culty. Not ev­ery­one that suf­fered land ex­pro­pri­a­tion wants to re­turn to farm­ing. By far the largest num­ber of suc­cess­ful land claimants in SA chooses cash over land – this is of­ten ig­nored by politi­cians and com­men­ta­tors when sim­ply tak­ing the hectares trans­ferred as mea­sure of land re­form suc­cess.

When re­cip­i­ents do choose land, they of­ten strug­gle to sup­port them­selves be­cause of the small size of land al­lo­cated, lack of cap­i­tal in­vest­ment, or lack of tech­ni­cal or man­age­ment skills.

There are also po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences: since land re­cip­i­ents, like those in Zim­babwe, of­ten do not re­ceive ti­tle deed to land, they could be­come en­snared by the po­lit­i­cal party that gave them the land.

Of course, some form of wealth re­dis­tri­bu­tion is im­per­a­tive. But whereas land (and the min­er­als it con­tained) was clearly the most pro­duc­tive re­source when it was ex­pro­pri­ated in the 19th cen­tury (and the rea­son it was ex­pro­pri­ated), a valid ques­tion is whether it still is the most pro­duc­tive. Of course, peo­ple value land not only for its eco­nomic uses: there is a myr­iad of his­toric, cul­tural and re­li­gious rea­sons why the land of your an­ces­tors is trea­sured.

But as a re­dis­tribu­tive pol­icy aimed at cre­at­ing a more eq­ui­table so­ci­ety, is land re­form the best way to cre­ate pros­per­ity for those who suf­fered his­tor­i­cal in­jus­tice?

Think of the fastest-grow­ing com­pa­nies glob­ally, like Airbnb: it is the world’s largest ac­com­mo­da­tion ser­vice, with­out own­ing any prop­erty! For Airbnb and the myr­iad other uni­corns that have cre­ated in­cred­i­ble wealth for their founders and share­hold­ers, it is not land or phys­i­cal prop­erty that cre­ates wealth, but sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. Mlambo re­marked that In­dia and China, both with a his­tory of coloni­sa­tion, are not grow­ing at above 5% be­cause they have re­dis­tributed land. They have pros­pered be­cause they em­braced sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy.

Con­sider this: in the 2015/16 aca­demic year, 328 547 Chi­nese stu­dents stud­ied in the United States; only 1 813 South African stu­dents did. (Ac­count­ing for pop­u­la­tion size, seven times more Chi­nese than South African stu­dents study in the US.) Take South Korea, a coun­try with roughly the same pop­u­la­tion as SA: 61 007 South Kore­ans trav­elled to study in the US in 2015/16, 33 times more than SA.

How would a re­dis­tri­bu­tion pol­icy look that takes sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy se­ri­ously? I don’t have the an­swers, but here are some sug­ges­tions. Most of us would agree that ed­u­ca­tion is key, but the South African ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem has not made much progress in the last decade and it is un­likely to do so in the next.

Re­dis­tri­bu­tion must start at the first year of life. Pub­licly funded but pri­vately run nurs­eries will re­move the gap be­tween the rich and poor that has al­ready emerged when kids ar­rive at school. For pri­mary and se­condary ed­u­ca­tion, a voucher sys­tem that in­cen­tivises pri­vate schools for the poor is an op­tion. At ter­tiary level, we need more and bet­ter-funded uni­ver­si­ties, no­tably in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. (It would help to send more of our smartest stu­dents abroad to study at the fron­tiers of sci­ence.) Visas for and re­cruit­ment of skilled im­mi­grants can boost re­search and en­trepreneur­ship. There are many more pos­si­bil­i­ties for trans­form­ing so­ci­ety, from im­prov­ing free WiFi ac­cess to in­vest­ing in re­new­able en­er­gies.

If Zim­babwe has taught us any­thing, it is that pol­i­tics may tri­umph over eco­nomic logic. Land re­form in Zim­babwe was not an eco­nomic strat­egy in as much as it was a strat­egy to keep the rul­ing party in power. It has had se­vere eco­nomic con­se­quences, as any­one vis­it­ing Zim­babwe today can at­test.

The rad­i­cal eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tions of our age – just in my life­time, the Chi­nese have man­aged to re­duce the share of peo­ple liv­ing in ab­so­lute poverty from 88% to less than 2% – have not come from re­dis­tribut­ing an un­pro­duc­tive 21st cen­tury re­source. It has in­stead been the re­sult of in­vest­ments in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy. Any at­tempt to re­dis­tribute with the pur­pose of build­ing a more pros­per­ous so­ci­ety should take this as the point of de­par­ture.

Ex­pro­pri­a­tion and dis­pos­ses­sion of land in South Africa is the root, many agreed, of the se­vere lev­els of in­equal­ity that plague

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