Minister of Trade, Industry, and Competition, Ebrahim Patel, is widely known to be South Africa’s premier proponent of central economic planning, imposing asinine 5-year industry plans reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s great leaps backward. Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, is seemingly spending much time in Minister Patel’s company. Perhaps she paid him many an illegal visit during lockdown whilst ordinary civilians were unconstitutionally placed under house arrest and killed for drinking beer on their own property.
When Ndabeni-Abrahams isn’t focused on forcefully gaining a monopoly on small courier packages for the South African Post Office, or whatever’s left of it, she seems to spend her remaining time zoomed in on Netflix. Her latest attempt to impose local content quotas on Netflix has absolutely no justification no matter which way you spin it.
For the ostensibly omniscient but undoubtedly entitled Minister, the fact that Netflix doesn’t broadcast enough of her preferred content is unacceptable, and must be changed by any means necessary. Netflix must be coerced into broadcasting what the Minister decides is appropriate and worthy of being broadcast. How dare South African consumers think they should have the power to determine what is broadcast and what isn’t based on what they’re willing to voluntarily patronise?
Shola Sanni, the director of public policy for Sub-Saharan Africa at Netflix, has pointed out that if the 30% local content requirement were to be imposed, it will force Netflix to reduce the size of its library in South Africa, a library which has been recognised as providing some of the best value for money as far as Netflix subscriptions go.
Any economist or public policy wonk with an iota of intelligence could have pointed this out from the start, so the fact that a senior executive at Netflix had to make explicit to government what is clear to the sane and reasonable is indicative of a very sad state affairs where government Ministers are more obsessed with unworkable and inhumane political ideologies rooted in narcissistic control over every facet of life, rather than focusing on policies that realise the constitutional values of human dignity and freedom.
Clearly, the Minister’s policy has no utilitarian justification outside of her own delusional socialist realm. However, I would be remiss if I were to focus only on the consequentialist side of this moral debate. The morality of actions are not solely determined by whether they bring about good consequences or not.
We as citizens need to start placing serious pressure on public institutions to give exponentially more consideration to concerns of principle when it comes to determining what the State’s role ought to be within society. Good ends do not necessarily justify nefarious means, and I would venture as far as to say that ends never justify means unless otherwise proven. Our threshold with respect to tolerating coercion has fallen to unacceptably low levels.
What Netflix decides to include in and exclude from its library is a matter between them and their subscribers. Those who might be discontent with Netflix’s offerings have the utmost right to simply refuse to patronise them. Netflix’s local competitor, Showmax, already provides a plethora of local content to choose from. If you feel the need to take a trip down local nostalgia lane, all 18 seasons of Egoli are right there to binge watch.
It is not the State’s rightful place to artificially determine the winners and losers in society through bureaucratic, coercive diktat. Ministers should not have the power to circumvent the will of the people in the marketplace when it comes to determining what is produced, where it is produced, and by whom, regardless of whether they might do so more efficaciously, something which is highly unlikely if not an outright impossibility.
Another aspect of this illiberal crusade by the Minister and her apparatchiks, one that is sadly overlooked, is the inherent xenophobia of local content requirements. The entire idea that government must distinguish between “local” and “foreign” goods and services is inherently incongruent with the ideals of individual liberty. It presupposes that those who find themselves within the Republic’s borders have a stronger moral claim with respect to the level of support their labour deserves, relative to foreigners. I doubt any cadre within Cabinet can justify such a strong claim, although Fikile Mbalula might try.
The bottom line is that Minister Ndabeni-Abrahams’ pathological attempt to centralise economic power in line with the ruling kleptocracy’s ideals of radical economic destruction will have the exact opposite outcome she wants. Alas, even if some good did come from it, it is not the Minister’s place to force her preferences, or anyone else’s for that matter, onto society. The delusional ends do not justify the authoritarian means.