Picture: 123RF/EVERYTHING POSSIBLE
Picture: 123RF/EVERYTHING POSSIBLE

Structural reform is the new catchphrase, but what does it mean? It involves constructive changes to established public policy institutions that inhibit economic growth or human development. As SA starts its very necessary discussion about such reforms, it is vital that we not allow cosmetic or gradual changes to be made under the guise of true structural reform.

We require radical transformation, and this necessitates throwing away orthodox political thinking.

SA last experienced structural reform between 1990 and 1997, when the constitution was negotiated and adopted. This led to economic growth and the gradual but visible reduction of poverty. Unfortunately, this reform was undermined almost immediately with a series of legislative changes to labour relations that started picking away at the new structure in our political and economic environment.

To ensure SA comes out of the Covid-19 lockdown running towards economic growth and prosperity, it is imperative that civil society insists on real structural reform that puts us in a better position than the recession we had before the lockdown began.

What would this real structural reform look like?

Real structural reform means that instead of amending the constitution to remove the right to compensation upon expropriation, amending the bill of rights should be entirely out of the question. Instead, legislation should be enacted that secures private property rights against any political deprivation. The rights of owners, particularly those who toiled under apartheid and only recently acquired ownership over their property, should be re-entrenched. Political hooligans who talk of undermining property rights should be ostracised and ignored.

Real structural reform means getting serious about constitutionalism and the rule of law, which importance is understood by too few South Africans. One of the consequences is that calls for expropriation of land without compensation have been less controversial in SA than they would be, for instance, in the US or Hong Kong.

South Africans are too willing to let government do irresponsible things that affect their rights, as we also see with Covid-19 restrictions.

In the high-development, fast-paced economic reality of the 21st century, no society can afford to have a single, inflexible and cumbersome power utility

It is time for us to remember that the government is elected to serve the people, and get serious about limiting the scope and exercise of its power.

Real structural reform means legislation such as the Labour Relations Act, Basic Conditions of Employment Act, Employment Equity Act, the BEE laws and the recent National Minimum Wage Act, are repealed and replaced by a single statute taking inspiration from Hong Kong’s employment ordinance.

This new statute should codify the common law of labour and reject any government micro-management of employment relationships. The contractual agreement between employer and employee must be respected. This structural reform alone will represent a huge leap forward for the economy, which, at long last, will be allowed to breathe, and will result in unprecedented job creation and entrepreneurship.

Real structural reform means leaving Victorian attitudes in the 19th century. Sex work, and drug use and distribution, must be completely and unequivocally decriminalised. The constitution envisages exactly this in section 22, which recognises South Africans’ freedom to choose their own trades, occupations and professions. This provision has been ignored by government and the courts for too long.

This is not to say society should endorse sex work or the drug trade, but rather that we resist using the force of government against those with whom we disagree.

Real structural reform means finishing the job government started in the late 1990s by deregulating and decentralising electricity production, transmission, and distribution. Eskom is an apartheid dinosaur that is almost a century old. In the high-development, fast-paced economic reality of the 21st century, no society can afford to have a single, inflexible and cumbersome power utility.

There should be multiple, dynamic, independent power producers and distributors, which would mean that if one or some of them fail the whole economy does not fail with them.

Real structural reform means abandoning Otto von Bismarck’s centuries-old education template that has proven itself incompatible with our society. Sitting 50 children in a class and teaching them some useful but mostly irrelevant information and making them feel unworthy if they cannot memorise all of it is irrational. We should abandon antiquated notions of excellence. Not everyone has to go to university.

SA needs artisans and technicians — people willing to get their hands dirty. This is what propelled societies such as the US to global economic dominance. SA cannot leapfrog over the hard work directly to a white-collar, service-based society. We need more industries, factories and mines, and we need better, more efficient agriculture. For now we can do without more jurists and philosophers.

Real structural reform means getting serious about state capture and corruption. Stop appointing task forces and commissions of inquiry and start eliminating the very powers that corrupt officials use to enrich themselves. Remove provisions from legislation and regulations that enable unfettered discretion and pursue those that find a means via the prosecuting authority.

The term “state-owned enterprise” must also be completely expunged from SA’s lexicon.

An enterprise is fundamentally a private and entrepreneurial — not governmental — endeavour. Extravagant government companies serve only to benefit and enrich a small political elite. Governments should exist only to protect people’s liberty and property. The idea that government must be a market player has been repeatedly shown to be absurd and irresponsible, particularly in SA.

Real structural reform means bottom-up entrepreneurship and community-based solutions rather than top-down nanny statism. South Africans need to start trusting themselves and their fellows rather than endlessly looking for “leaders” and exclaiming “We are led!” We should not be led like sheep, but instead become leaders for ourselves, our families and our communities. Politicians are not our friends and should be handled with the requisite suspicion and scepticism.

Structural reform is possible and very necessary. But it requires a degree of seriousness. SA has been marching to the tune of socialist interventionism for too long. The time has come to embrace freedom and common sense as solutions to our most pressing problems.

• Martin van Staden is head of legal (policy and research) at the Free Market Foundation and author of ‘The Constitution and the Rule of Law: An Introduction. He writes in his personal capacity. 

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