Precolonial Africa Respected Private Property: Say No To Expropriation

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Written by: Zakhele Mthembu

It has long been argued that Africans are ‘naturally’ socialist. Even leftists wear that label with pride. They use the feudal, and not socialist, relations of some parts of pre-colonial Africa as an example and a justification for their ideological programmes. But this is a blatant mischaracterisation of history. The notion of the inherently communal nature of Africans is simply an attempt by socialists to sell their theory to African people as being some kind of reclamation of African identity in economics, and a rejection of the ‘evil’ free market system.

The notion of Africans as having no private property system prior to contact with peoples from other continents is flimsy and it falls apart the minute you interrogate it. A simple illustration of this is in cattle; that foundational commodity of African communities that did not or had not established trading channels with other parts of Africa or the world.

Cattle in pre-colonial Southern Nguni Africa, to be specific, is the illustration of Lockean private property having arisen out of the exertion of human labour on what is found strewn in nature. One family or individual could not lay claim to the cattle of another individual or family. The non-human thing was owned by whomever reared said cattle for whatever end. Family A had no authority and rightly so, to go and slaughter the cattle of Family B without their consent or to satisfy their own needs.

This simple example illustrates that there was a private property system that was implied, if not explicitly conceptualised.

Although Family B did not create the matter that makes up the cow, by exerting their labour and mental capacities on the cow, they became the private owners of the cattle and thus the African socialist’s argument crumbles.

Nguni Africa is a singular example among a myriad of African kingdoms that had private property systems to some degree. Kingdoms like Mapungubwe that had established trade channels from the east coast of Africa were more prosperous and had established classes which presuppose an element of private property.

From the premise of personal ownership necessarily arises the concept of private property, with it being established by the self-owning individual converting what occurs naturally into a consumer good or something that will be of use or value to humanity. This ‘conversion’ is the exertion of mental or physical energy upon something that occurs naturally in the world, upon such exertion the article that is created then becomes the private property of whomever exerted physical or mental energy to turn that natural occurrence into a product that will be desirable to human beings.

This rationale applies equally to land, a naturally-occurring thing but upon cultivation becomes a productive entity that produces food or another product, belongs to whomever cultivated the natural occurrence, converting it from what occurs naturally into a product that is desirable to human beings (e.g. a farm).

Given the colonial history of Africa and most particularly South Africa, this very same issue happens to be one of hot contention. The Constitution, through section 25, recognizes this right to private property but it is under attack from a government and populace that seek to amend it, virtually eroding all protection of private property rights.

Private property is the most salient of all rights and one of the defining factors of liberty.

Uncultivated land or land which has had no mental or physical human labour exerted on it is the property of no one according to this logic. As much as it pains my libertarian heart to say this: The state should ‘expropriate’ this dormant land and distribute it to the people and thereby give the landless a title deed. A deed is simply a legal document that stipulates exclusive ownership rights instead of having them lease it from the state. The Expropriation Bill seems to hint at doing exactly this, and as much as I abhor the state handling precarious matters such as property, the issue happens to be an emotive one for the South African population and therefore needs to be addressed. Rather it be handled in a manner that will see private property rights of productive land being protected, lest we have another Zimbabwe.

Private property rights happen to be the foundational elements of creating the economic freedom that politicians like talking about. By protecting individual liberty as well as private property, the individual is free to accumulate capital without hindrance from the state. The individual is free to be a wage labourer with a steady income or an entrepreneur with the risk of no steady income but the reward of huge profits when the business is finally successful.

Private property and individual liberty, which creates free markets since individuals have the liberty to associate and trade with whomever they deem fit, are the fundamentals of creating prosperity for any society. Historically and even contemporarily the most prosperous nations happen to be the ones that respect both the liberty of the individual and their right to private property. The United States of America happens to be the richest nation in history due to it being founded upon these ideals and at least not eroding them as much as other governments in the course of its existence.

Collective ownership is merely a theoretical and thus utopian ideal, as in reality and as communist or socialist nations have proven, classes still persist in collective ownership regimes, with the distinction being the rulers and the ruled as there will still be somebody or an institution that distribute and manage the collectively-owned property. They are virtually the owners, but they have not exerted their labor or spent their capital. They acquired the property through the sophistry they sold people in the lead up to them being voted into positions of power. This is no valid way to accumulate wealth, whether in the name of collective ownership or not.

Expropriation without compensation is antithetical to the natural right of the individual to own property privately. Due to the racially-motivated nature of this policy in South Africa, the black population might think that they will be exempt from it, but as any rational individual can deduce, it sets a dangerous precedent. This power will permit the state to take away any private property without compensation, including that of black people. Therefore, no one will be exempt from the terror of the state once the precedent is established and made into legislation.

Offering no compensation for property which had capital investment done on it, on property which was converted from a barren field into a productive asset is theft, since no property owner will ever consent to being alienated from their property without a contract of sale. Expropriation, evil as it is may be, is easier to accept with some form of compensation that acknowledges the work that was done on productive land over the years.

Wise men know not to rejoice at the abuse of other men by the state, for they know if they are capable of doing so to others, it won’t be long enough before the same fate befalls them.

The justification for socialism — that free markets are ‘un-African’ — is simply untrue. African people are not inherently socialist. Kemet, the height of African civilization, is the birthplace of individual liberty through the papyrus of the Eloquent Peasant with kingdoms like Aksum having classes and even a monetary system which presupposes exchange of some sort which implied the private ownership of goods and services in some regard.

The liberty of all people, as well as the protection of their property rights, is what we should be working toward reinforcing, not demolishing.

Former socialist nations are further reinforcing said ideals and seeing growth/prosperity whilst my beloved nation is contemplating eroding said ideals, in pursuit of false equality or ‘economic freedom’. Economic freedom is the free market system whereby individuals have the freedom to trade with whomever; the freedom to be an entrepreneur or worker.

The freedom to seek employment elsewhere when you feel like quitting your current job, the freedom to spend your capital or save it so it accumulates; the free market system is the very definition of economic freedom and yet the term has been expropriated by Marxists in South Africa. The restrictors of freedom ironically claim the mantle.

Africans should be the leaders in liberty — us more than any people have experienced the consequences of restricted individual liberty through the countless coups, wars and colonization that we have experienced. Therefore we should be the most ardent defenders of liberty, lest we perpetually suffer a similar fate over and over again.

* Zakhele Mthembu is studying towards an LLB at Wits University. He is a proponent of individual liberty and free market economics. Zakhele is a firm believer in the constrained potential of the African continent which can only be realized through liberty.

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