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Let it never be said of Cyril Ramaphosa that he is a proud man. Speaking to the United Nations’ 76th General Assembly, he begged the rich world for money and concessions, including reparations for slavery.
Cyril Ramaphosa is not one to take responsibility for the economic doldrums in which South Africa finds itself. And to be fair, he does not expect other leaders of poor countries to take responsibility for their own predicament, either. Luckily, he is not too proud to go begging.
Our glorious leader blames all our present woes on slavery, on vaccine apartheid, on racism and on climate change, none of which is Africa’s fault, and all of which, he reckons, justify African claims on the wealth of richer countries.
‘It is a great concern that the global community has not sustained the principles of solidarity and cooperation in securing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines,’ he intoned in his somnolent drone. ‘It is an indictment on humanity that more than 82% of the world’s vaccine doses have been acquired by wealthy countries, while less than 1% has gone to low-income countries.’
His attempt to indict ‘humanity’ is a gross misattribution of blame.
Let’s consider why there are vaccines to begin with. They were developed by sophisticated institutions established in countries who followed the principles of free enterprise and free trade to develop their people. Governments put up hundreds of billions of dollars and euros, contributed by taxpayers, to fund vaccine pre-orders from multiple potential manufacturers. Some of those manufacturers were successful, and fulfilled the pre-orders. Many others were not, and produced nothing.
By what right does anyone in a foreign country lay claim to vaccines on an equal basis with the people who built the pharmaceutical companies, paid their taxes, and risked their money to spur rapid development of vaccines?
‘We urge all member states to support a proposal for a temporary waiver on certain provisions of the agreement on trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights,’ Ramaphosa said, ‘to allow more countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, to produce Covid-19 vaccines.’
For a start, intellectual property rights are protected for a reason. The people who invested time, effort and money to develop that property have a right to the commercial benefit of their inventions.
For Ramaphosa to stand on a world stage and demand that they be expropriated is the very essence of communism: from each according to their ability, and to each according to their need. It is nothing less than slavery, to expect global pharmaceutical companies to give away their patents without compensation.
Besides, what difference would it make? South Africa routinely has shortages of many drugs, most of them long out of patent.
Just yesterday, I couldn’t get headache tablets at the chemist. Turns out there’s a major shortage of generic paracetamol in South Africa. It is one of the cheapest drugs in the world, unencumbered by any patents, but the healthcare system overseen by the South African government cannot keep hospitals and pharmacies supplied with the most commonly used analgesic on the planet.
The reason for that is simple, of course, and it’s not Panado apartheid. The reason is excessive government intervention in the pharmaceutical market, brutal price controls, and over-reliance on central planning.
Why should we expect the legal right to manufacture sophisticated vaccines to lead to a flood of inexpensive jabs for local use and for distribution to low-income countries? Ramaphosa cannot even keep local hospitals supplied with water.
Ramaphosa is quite right when he says: ‘Unless we address this as a matter of urgency, the pandemic will last much longer, and new mutations of the virus will emerge, and spread.’
Some companies have already waived their rights on their vaccines, some are distributing them to poor countries at cost, and it would be really nice if more of them did so. However, Ramaphosa has no right to call for ‘fair and equitable distribution of vaccines’. That South Africa was not in a position to develop its own vaccine is a direct result of the government’s failure to maintain a vibrant, productive economy with a world-class education system and deep capital reserves.
The same goes for the rest of the world. All of these poor countries’ governments persist with corruption, maladministration, socialism and conflict, and then wonder why they are always charity cases.
Ramaphosa, instead of heaping gratitude upon the G20 and the IMF for coming up with a $650 billion aid plan for low-income countries to buy vaccines, fund public health and pay down debt, curtly says it isn’t enough, and then proceeds to tell the UN how and where to allocate it. Quite some gall, that.
No speech is complete without a bit of fluff about climate change, and again, it’s the same old story: ‘poor countries are particularly vulnerable’.
Yes, that’s true. But that’s not a reason for rich countries to send money to poor countries. That’s throwing good money after bad.
It is a reason for poor countries to get their act together, root out corruption, establish sound institutions, and free their economies, so they too will be less vulnerable to every bout of bad weather that hits them.
But Ramaphosa wasn’t done. Far from it.
‘Slavery was one of the darkest periods in the history of humankind, and a crime of unparalleled barbarity,’ he intoned. ‘Its legacy persists in the Americas, in the Caribbean, in Europe, the Middle East and in Africa itself.’
‘Millions of descendants of Africans who were sold into slavery remain trapped in lives of underdevelopment, disadvantage, discrimination and poverty,’ he says, as if all that underdevelopment and poverty has only one cause, and that’s Western barbarity.
‘South Africa calls on the United Nations to put the issue of reparations for victims of the slave trade on its agenda. We support the adoption of special measures, including affirmative action, and targeted financial assistance, as restitution to communities whose ancestors were sold into slavery.’
Let’s get some perspective. Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807. The last-ever slave ship to the United States, the Clotilda, sailed into Alabama in 1859, and slavery was abolished in 1865, more than 150 years ago. The last known surviving slave in America, who was two when she was brought to the US on the Clotilda, was Matilda McCrear. She died in 1940, more than 80 years ago.
There are no victims of the trans-Atlantic slave trade left alive, nor any of their close descendants. Nor are any of the perpetrators of slavery still around.
There is a simplistic belief that Western prosperity was built on the backs of African slaves, but that is easily disproven. In fact, Western prosperity really took off around the time the slave trade was abolished. The reasons included that the industrial revolution, which never depended on slavery, began to dominate agriculture as a source of economic growth, as well as the death of mercantilist government control over trade, freeing up markets, which resulted in vibrant economic growth.
Besides, very few fortunes made during the age of slavery persist today. In fact, having a family fortune behind you is a poor predictor of success. A majority of fortunes amassed through the hard work of one generation in a family are lost by the second generation, and nine out of ten fortunes don’t make it past the third generation.
There is nobody left alive to compensate for the Atlantic slave trade, and there is nobody left alive who can reasonably be held responsible for such compensation.
Why does Ramaphosa not demand reparations from African rulers whose ancestors raided rival tribes to kidnap people to sell into slavery for profit? Or the descendants of West-African slave-trading families who established marriage bonds with European slave traders to secure their profitable syndicates?
The single biggest destination, by far, for African slaves was not Europe, or North America, or even the Caribbean. The single biggest destination was Brazil, which became independent in 1825, but was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888. Is Ramaphosa proposing to demand reparations from Brazil, too?
While the West ended slavery 150 to 200 years ago, slavery does persist in many countries. Countries with more than a million people held in bondage today include India, our good buddies China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan and North Korea. Slavery remains common throughout Africa, too. Here’s a map, coloured by the prevalence of slavery:
Why does Ramaphosa not rail against these countries? Why does he not demand that their slaves be freed, and reparations paid? Continued slavery today does a great deal more harm than the supposed legacy of slavery that happened almost two centuries ago.
To follow Ramaphosa’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, to ‘correct the wrongs of the past’ is simply a matter of funneling money from the rich world to Africa. But the rich world has been doing that for well over half a century. Vast amounts in development aid are given to poor countries every year, where it ends up getting stolen, misused, and making not one iota of difference to the vitality of their economies.
Some even argue that it hurt them, and that is not implausible. After all, with a few billion dollars in cash you can paper over many a governance failure, and you can stimulate an entire patronage network of graft and corruption.
The problem of poverty is not a lack of money. It is a lack of wealth creation. Poverty cannot be solved by giving poor countries money. Poor countries can fix themselves by adopting economic policies that encourage wealth creation.
With friends like these
As is usual on the international stage, South Africa has to brag about the kinds of friends it keeps. This time, Ramaphosa thankfully left Iran, Venezuela and North Korea off the list, and mentioned Western Sahara, the Palestinians, Zimbabwe, and our very good friends the Cubans.
Cuba. One of the very few remaining countries that epitomise the approach to economics that has kept Africa in darkness for so long. Cuban ideology is why Africa remains poor. It is why Africa cannot develop its own vaccines. It is why Africa is always humiliating itself by turning up at the UN or the World Economic Forum with a begging bowl, trying to guilt-trip rich nations into bailing them out once more.
Ironically, Cuba also benefited greatly from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Why does Ramaphosa not demand reparations from Cuba?
Is it perhaps true that what happened a hundred or two hundred years ago is entirely irrelevant to prosperity and growth today? After all, Cuba was booming – albeit corrupt – until Fidel Castro took over and imposed communism at the barrel of a gun.
Even more ironically, Ramaphosa himself participated in the Cuban slave trade in the last few years. The South African government paid lavish amounts to recruit Cuban doctors, but their remuneration was not paid to the doctors. Instead, it was sent to the Cuban government, which kept the majority of the money for itself.
Long before South Africa shipped Cuban doctors over to help with the pandemic, they told the world they were treated like slaves. Again and again, the trade in Cuban doctors has been described as slavery.
Why does Ramaphosa not offer reparations to the Cuban slave doctors he so mercilessly exploited? Is it not ‘a crime of unparalleled barbarity’ when he does it?
South Africa is in dire straits. Its state-owned enterprises are in ruins. Its civil service is rotten to the core with corruption. Economic growth is something we can only read about in text books. Economic freedom is something we can only imagine.
Ramaphosa’s party, the ANC, has reduced South Africa to beggar status. Now he is humiliating the country, and Africa, on the world stage, blaming the consequences of their misrule on racism and centuries-old injustices.
Perhaps he can bring enough donations back to pay his party’s staff, buy a few election t-shirts, and fill the pockets of the party’s treasurer with cash to buy votes. He might as well misspend it, since it will do the country’s economy no good either way.
‘We are called upon by history to redouble our efforts to build a world that is free of racism, to right the wrongs of the past, and to restore the human dignity of all,’ he said.
Who can argue with that? Unfortunately, he undermined the dignity of African countries by painting them as hopeless beggars dependent on the charity and goodwill of the rich world.
Nothing but a radical liberation of the markets can resuscitate the economy and build the prosperity we need to stand on our own feet, as the proud equals of rich nations. Ramaphosa and the ANC are headed in the opposite direction. Solemnly berating rich countries and begging them for money will not change that.
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