Business Day column: Pro-market miracle is not out of our reach

OUR government is serious about turning us into one of the world’s richest countries. When our communist Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, counter-intuitively assures investors that "we’re open for business", he means it. He places advertisements targeting the big league. In the British Airways inflight magazine, he trumpets our virtues under the seductive heading Discover the Opportunity. Our culture "is changing in this prosperous forward-looking nation", he says. We now have "… a mind-set and a national passion to create the world’s best business environment". Our progress is "not only measured by impressive economic figures or new buildings, new investor legislation diversifies our open economy".

When I noticed an obviously serious investor from Kuwait flag the advertisement on a flight to Las Vegas, I asked why. "We have money. We’re looking for places to invest. We’ve created thousands of factories and mines and millions of jobs in investor-friendly countries. SA is the next economic miracle."

He was lying, of course. He will never invest in SA. He is not even from Kuwait. Nor is he rich. In fact, he does not exist. Although my fictional character is not from Kuwait, the advertisement is. It could have been a true story with a happy South African ending, but it is Kuwait’s happy reality. Nine million unemployed South Africans are doomed to anti-employment policies and the world’s highest sustained unemployment rate. Instead of emulating Kuwait and other pro-market "miracles", we are doggedly impoverished.

Black and white South Africans will continue scrapping over the distribution of poverty.

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Our communist minister against (not for) trade and industry will never implement seductive policies or run seductive advertisements. He will never reverse the tsunami of antibusiness laws, taxes and policies. He will ensure that we remain closed for business.

Or will he? Never trust a communist. His Chinese comrades created the freest, most capitalistic economies in six "special economic zones" (SEZs), adding "free ports", "open cities" and "technical hubs". SEZs explain their spectacular prosperity. Davies was so impressed by what the comrades did that he deployed cadres to copy them. They enjoyed the journey to the future in China, but returned to perpetuate the past in SA. Neither he nor they grasped what makes special zones special. They literally think they have the right name. So, they are renaming our calamitous industrial development zones (IDZs) SEZs. Unlike China, which started with six very special zones, our whimsical planners are sprinkling putative SEZs into every province.

But you never know. Our communist might emulate Nike’s slogan and "Just Do It" (JDI). You can, Mr Minister, create JDI SEZs. You can take your country and SEZs seriously by making them genuinely "offshore" and liberating them from the stifling taxes and controls to which you subject the rest of the country. You can divert billions of dollars from Kuwait and other JDI SEZs.

The first Kuwait-like advertisement I saw was 50 years ago, also in an inflight magazine. It proclaimed the virtues of an obscure desert town, Dubai. Where is that, why do they think anyone will invest in a desolate outpost? I wondered. Like Hong Kong and Singapore before, and India and China since, Dubai taught those willing to learn that all it takes is economic freedom.

Like China, Dubai is undemocratic and violates "fundamental rights". India’s pro-market reforms grapple, as ours would, with populist democracy. Prosperity can occur under most political systems, including ours. The world’s most democratic country, Switzerland, used economic freedom to turn landlocked, mountainous, resourceless "cantons" into the greatest success.

The world’s experience proves that you, honourable minister, can do it. Just Do it!

• Louw is executive director of the Free Market Foundation

This article was first published in Business Day on 20 July 2016


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