DA leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: ALON SKUY
DA leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: ALON SKUY

I have just returned from a conference in Italy that looked at lessons from Asia that might be applicable to Africa’s economic turnaround. Given the vastly different trajectories experienced by countries like Malaysia and Singapore to that of most African nations in recent decades, it would be short-sighted of us not to borrow from their playbook.

I know the ANC loves to cite the growth of our GDP since 1994 — just under double in real terms — as proof that they’re doing something right. But this is a poor marker, first because the apartheid government should not be our benchmark, but more importantly because our growth pales in comparison to our peers, particularly the Asian nations. The truth is we are in decline, while they have streaked ahead. We need to understand why if we want to change our trajectory.

In future pieces I’d like to explore some of the other sectors of our economy, but here I will focus on agriculture. Not only because it is such a crucial part of our own economy but because it is in agriculture where many of the Asian turnaround stories began. If we want to maximise the job-creating potential of this sector — particularly for our many low-skilled workers — there are a number of things we could do.

First, we need a government that is agile in the way it responds to challenges. The government has a crucial role to play in assisting agriculture, but often its own regulations get in the way. For example, look at how the auditor-general has given the Western Cape agriculture department a qualified audit because it made forward payments to farmers to assist them in planting, harvesting and processing, in the tough conditions of the drought.

Granted, some provinces might abuse such a system of advance payment, as we saw in the case of the Gupta dairy farm scam in the Free State, but in the Western Cape it kept farmers on their feet. If all you want is a clean audit, in terms of the current regulations you can end up harming agriculture.

Second, farming has to become a more diverse space, and a viable enterprise for aspiring black farmers. Wherever I have travelled in SA white farmers have echoed this sentiment. We need an accelerated land-reform programme, but this does not mean destroying property rights by changing the constitution to allow for expropriation, because that would almost certainly lead to a farming collapse and a rise in poverty. A dedicated redress start-up capital fund — what I call a “jobs and justice fund” — could go a long way towards helping black farmers break into the sector.

Third, we need to rethink the way we trade in agricultural produce, both in terms of our intra-trade with our southern African neighbours and our ability to trade in global markets. Though trade between African countries has expanded significantly since the turn of the century, it still commands a small proportion of our overall trade. Such intra-African trade is often more resilient than trade with other regions of the globe, and we are sitting with huge untapped markets right on our doorstep.

However, to make this work we need to invest heavily in the infrastructure that enables such trade. We need to get our ports working properly, we need to be able to process goods through Beitbridge far quicker, and we need good roads and rail to connect us. You can change tariffs and trade agreements all you like, but none of that will help if you can’t move the goods.

When it comes to trading with the world we must think of how we can get the best leverage. In all honesty, SA is too small a nation, both in terms of our population and our GDP, to play a significant role or to reap real benefits from the Brics membership. We should be looking instead towards the establishment of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-type grouping of nations here in Southern Africa, both in terms of enhancing trade among ourselves and to act as a bigger African trade body with the world.

Last, but arguably most importantly, we need leaders who can look beyond their own narrow interests or the interests of their party, and put SA first. We need leaders who are prepared to rethink outdated labour legislation, and to rethink bad populist policy like expropriation without compensation and the national minimum wage. We need leaders who will practise trade diplomacy rather than quiet diplomacy.

SA is a country with huge potential in agriculture. Our most fertile land in the east of the country remains largely underused. But it is in our people where the real potential lies. The recent court victory of David Rakgase, where the DA helped him secure the right to own the land he has been farming successfully for almost two decades, is just one example. There will be many more David Rakgases.

With the right support from the government, agriculture could spearhead our economic turnaround and place us on the road to real inclusive prosperity.

• Maimane is DA leader.