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You are here: Home/News/Article/The AGOA-chicken import debate 'is much bigger than it seems'

The AGOA-chicken import debate 'is much bigger than it seems'

The AGOA-chicken import debate 'is much bigger than it seems'
Published date:
Friday, 13 November 2015

President Jacob Zuma has come in for some sharp criticism for his statement that he serves the ANC first and foremost, over and above the country.

The criticism is justified; his oath of office legally binds him to serve the country first and only.

Notionally, the constitution is blind to political affiliation, though of course we all know politics is where all the important choices are made.

Actually, Zuma’s categorisation is not just a personal view; it’s common in the ANC. You can see examples everywhere, not least in Zuma’s other defining statement: that the ANC will rule until Jesus comes. It’s not just the supreme self-belief, it’s the righteous underpin. The religious analogy is apposite, since the idea of the ANC being more important than the country is akin to the religious notion of a chosen people.

The idea of the chosen party is the result of an amalgamation of the different ideologies that guide the ANC. There is a bit of communism there, since communists believe that anyone who does not agree with them is suffering a delusion of “false consciousness”. The religious aspect is also present, as I have mentioned. And the third element stems, I would guess, from traditionalism and the sanctity of the tribe. All of these undercurrent strands were hardened, perhaps calcified, during the struggle period, when bonds of affiliation really did matter.

There is one other ideological strand that fits into this picture: mercantilism.

Mercantilism, simply put, considers economic prosperity to be the result of trade profit. Because mercantilists believe that all trade is essentially a zero-sum game, the way to boost your economy is to erect great barriers, either physical or legal, to “protect” the industries of the realm. It’s no accident that mercantilism predominated during European absolutism between the 16th and 18th centuries.

Mercantilism threw the states of Europe into frantic bouts of shipbuilding, then specialist trade ports and ultimately colonialism, all in a frantic effort to get one over on each other. The result was nations divided, and ultimately massive wars as the game of nations gradually got out of hand.

Mercantilism has an insidious logic. After all, when two people engage in trade, surely one or the other is getting the better deal? So why not skew the balance to favour your side?

Adam Smith’s fabulous contribution to economics was exploding all these ideas. By understanding the systemic benefits to both parties to an exchange, Smith kicked economics onto a new path. His ideas were later expanded, proven, interrogated and finally, in the later part of the 20th century, adopted widely.

Yet mercantilism persists in remnant forms. It fits into the ANC’s ideological framework, because it’s allied to the idea of an absolutist party and state.

For those who think this is all inconsequential political mush, you only have to follow the debate about, of all things, chickens, to see mercantilism flying its flag today. In brief, the US, in an act of exemplary generosity, handed SA free access to its markets for close to 20 years. Recently, partly because SA’s trade balance with the US is tipped steeply in SA’s favour, it has sought some minor concessions, involving said chickens.

It’s tempting to believe that trade & industry minister Rob Davies, being a communist, would be against free trade, but in this case, I understand he is actually working hard to save the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Presumably, he is sensitive to the Agoa advantages SA gets in other industries.

The department of agriculture is in fact the sticking point, because it believes that small chicken farmers would lose out if SA allowed US chicken imports. So it has nixed trade & industry’s agreement by imposing bogus health regulations on US chicken.

And as for the idea that trade is inherently valuable, perish the thought.

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