Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|December 13, 2021|4 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor's Desk

"Don’t put a rat in the sewer"

Surely millions of entrepreneurs across  South Africa breathed a sigh of relief in the last week as a vote in Parliament knocked back plans to take land without paying compensation.

Opposition parties voted against amending the Constitution of South Africa – one of the most liberal in the world – to allow the government to take land when they need it and give the owner nothing in return.

The political will driving this wants to  correct the imbalance behind the so-called “original sin” when it comes to land in Africa – that is, land being taken with the barrel of a gun by settlers. In most countries where this happened, black Africans were herded onto the worst land – as if they were fauna –and left to get on with it without money for tools – let along compensation. These Africans were left to sell their labour cheaply back, in the fields or the mines, to the new owners of the land.

“We were foreigners in our own country!” one of my fellow journalists in South Africa told me, “It was a case of I have found something in your land, now you are my slave.”

That is one, could be seen as extreme, point of view.

The other view is that any threat of the expropriation of land without compensation that hangs over the plans of an entrepreneur is bad for business by any stretch of the imagination. No matterhow bad the government’s need, that loss of land creates a big hole in your balance sheet.

To make matters worse, foreign investors view the threat of expropriation – no matter the continent – as an orchard owner views an incoming cloud of locusts. Political risk is always high up the list of hazards forany investors worth their salt – that is the big risk that can blow away your house of cards not matter how careful your financial preparation has been.

I saw the havoc caused in Zimbabwe by the clumsy redistribution of land that descended into a violent grab. Even before the worst of this grab – the exercise of putting government and bureaucrats in charge of apportioning land showed itself to be nonsense.

In 1997, letters of designation were sent to by a committee to commercial farmers giving them a deadline to leave the land.

To wit, days later I interviewed a middle aged black Zimbabwean days later on his farm. He had made money in finance and had invested in his childhood dream of becoming a farmer. On the day of the designation, a letter arrived telling the new farmer that his land was to be taken for redistribution among the black majority. I can tell you he was angrier than his white neighbours who had the same letter .

“I am a black Zimbabwean!” he blazed,” Where else can they put me?”

Sure, the government officials realised they had made a mistake, but I recall it took a long time for the decision to be reversed .

I always say- government mistakes are a bit like getting  a rat into a sewer. It not a problem getting it in , but it is  very difficult and messy to get it out again.