South Africa was gripped by tragedy this week as forest fires burned one of our celebrated seaside resort-towns to the ground. The picturesque Knysna, a popular holiday and retirement destination which I had visited twice in my life, is now a shadow of its former self, after the most devastating storm the region has experienced in decades exacerbated forest fires with gale force winds.
The Knysna tragedy, which led to some 10,000 residents having to be evacuated, has displaced an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 people and damaged potentially billions’ worth in property. A bittersweet statistic, only 5 people (6 if you count the unborn), a volunteer firefighter and a toddler included, died. At the time of writing this article, the tragedy has not yet concluded, with many fires still scattered around town.
Right before the town fire started, South Africa entered a technical recession. Gwede Mantashe, the Secretary General of the African National Congress, the ruling political party, followed a long tradition by promptly blaming South Africa’s private sector for our economic hardships. According to News24, Mantashe also blamed the press media, bizarrely:
“The privately-owned media sector is publishing negative stories about President Jacob Zuma, regardless of the effect this is having on the economy, he said.”
Not only does government continue to place the blame for its destruction of the economy on the private sector (i.e. the remaining vestiges of the free market), but it is also blaming the private sector for reacting to what government is doing. President Zuma has been a one-man wrecking ball for our economy since he irresponsibly fired former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene and then also fired his successor, Pravin Gordhan, for seemingly no good reason. Mantashe would have the press media not report on such conduct, because it is the reporting, not the President’s conduct, which is apparently destructive to the economy.
Such bizarre logic is common throughout South Africa’s political class.
I attended two events recently about intellectual property where government was well represented. At the most recent of the two a director in one of our government departments, with their thick Afrikaner accent (this is not something you see every day), was defending and praising government’s initiatives for creating a conductive environment for innovation. They even, without realizing the strong libertarian presence in the audience, told listeners “and it’s your tax money that’s paying for these good things!” Naturally, we also had to hear about how the private sector was not investing enough and had to show more interest in government’s ‘Transformation’ project.
But all this scapegoating does not change the facts on the ground.
In Knysna, the logistics company DHL, the behemoth grocery chains Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers, the airline kulula.com, volunteer fire brigades, and a host of private charities went out of their way to provide relief and assistance. Free food, free transportation, free accommodation. Government, of course, played a substantial role in the humanitarian effort, but the private sector was there almost immediately. Where then is the malicious unwillingness of the private sector to ‘give back’ to the community?
When government makes this allegation, it is wise to take a bird’s eye view of the situation before reacting.
For intellectual property matters, it is quite clear why the private sector is disengaging. Government is now in the process of fast-tracking (i.e. it only gave the public 30 days to comment) the Copyright Amendment Bill through Parliament, which, among other things, compels academic journals to make their content available for free; places ‘scholarship, teaching and education’ under fair dealing, meaning schools can simply reprint works for free if they deem it too expensive to acquire the usage rights; and gives universities the right to copy textbooks and give them to students if those books are not “reasonably priced.”
This is not a conducive environment for the private sector, and if South Africa experiences a dip in the production of intellectual works, it should not surprise government or the left in civil society.
Gwede Mantashe claims that government has been doing well in its management of the mining industry, despite the fact that the South African mining industry has been all but destroyed when we missed the mining boom. If government has its way, all mines will be nationalized a la Venezuela. Why, then, does the private sector not invest?
In Knysna the private sector proved it is willing to help South Africa in its gravest times of need, for, indeed, the private sector consists of ordinary South Africans who live here. Government and the political class portrays the private sector as something distinct from ‘the people’, which is social manipulation at its finest. The free market provides, and if government would stand out of the way, this fact can manifest itself much more clearly.
Featured image: Jacaranda FM / Photo supplied.
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