President Cyril Ramaphosa and Prime Minister Theresa May are so very alike. Peas in a pod, really.
Not physically, of course, with Ramaphosa shaded black and May coloured white. Also, as best one knows in these gender-fluid times, the president presents conventionally as a heterosexual male, while the prime minister presents as the female equivalent.
No, I’m referring to the plight that the two are in. Both head countries that are engaged in protracted acts of national suicide. Both are obligated against their better judgement to facilitate these perverse acts of self-destruction.
The United Kingdom’s act of hara-kiri is Brexit. South Africa’s self-immolation is Expropriation Without Compensation (EWC).
There are undoubtedly many reasons for the people of the United Kingdom to be dissatisfied with the European Union. One can start with stifling bureaucracy and range through a litany of woes, eventually to tally the loss of national sovereignty.
Ditto, SA. One doesn’t need to rack one’s brain to understand the anger and discontent over land ownership. There’s an entire spectrum of reasons, from the manifest historical injustice of the indigenes being stripped of land, to the practical imperative for them now to share in fruits of land ownership.
Both, then, are nations with challenging problems. Both are mistakenly opting for enticingly simple solutions that will, in fact, impose crippling costs, down the line.
Take, as one important example, the UK’s place in the global knowledge economy. One of the few competitive advantages that the UK has, is its hard-won position as a leading international hub in the creation of knowledge through research, innovation and teaching.
UK universities attract large numbers of EU academic staff, with a clear correlation between excellence and EU input. In the self-selected Russell Group – the 24 UK universities producing the very best research, teaching and learning – a quarter of academics are from Europe, rising to around a third in key subjects like economics, mathematics, physics and chemical engineering.
The UK also receives proportionally more research money, amounting to billions of pounds, through the EU’s competitive funding system, than it pays in. After Brexit, that will no longer be the case.
But never mind the esoteric creation of knowledge, however important it may be in underpinning the growth of other economic sectors. Let’s just look at education as retail, since tertiary education is the UK’s fifth biggest export earner.
Last year, nearly 135,000 EU students studied at UK universities, with the highest numbers in the elite Russell Group. Post-Brexit this is estimated to drop by as much as 60%.
In SA, similarly, the populist, “easy” solution is actually very challenging. EWC will cause incalculable damage in the long run and is already having an enervating effect on the economy – long-term foreign investment is drying up, the currency is sagging, and the only new employment comes from state entities.
Over a longer timeframe, EWC will destroy food production, shut down foreign investment except of the exploitative Chinese barter kind, and accelerate the exit of financial and human capital.
And SA is even more vulnerable to the flight of human capital than the UK. In this country, a minuscule 1% of individual taxpayers, comprising the people most affected by EWC, pay 61% of income tax.
Ramaphosa and May are alike, also, in that paradoxically the are implementing policies and processes that they are ideologically opposed to. Both are hostages to populist insurrections.
May, who supported remaining in the EU, is the hapless victim of a referendum that her Conservative Party agreed to only because it was confident that the Remain vote would triumph. Ramaphosa, who opposed EWC at the conference where it was narrowly endorsed as African National Congress policy, is the first victim of a poisoned chalice concocted by the Zuma faction that he ostensibly defeated.
Being politicians, they put on as good a face as possible. They are both engaged in damage limitation – trying to salvage as much as they can from a situation that they know is potentially ruinous.
On being asked where she stands now, May’s coy standard response is that “The British people voted for Brexit and I think it is incumbent on their politicians to deliver on [their] decision.”
Ramaphosa’s standard line is equally unconvincing. He claims that he is now, post-ANC conference, totally in favour of EWC, as long as it doesn’t endanger food security, undermine constitutional rights, and doesn’t end up in Zimbabwe-style chaos.
Theirs is a tricky balancing of duty and national interest. As politicians, they must carry out party policies, as democratically endorsed by the electorate. However, as national leaders – charged with ensuring country’s greater good – they may eventually face a situation where fudging no longer works. What then?
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