Lessons we can learn from Elon Musk to untangle the land snafu

The latest call for land expropriation without compensation should go way beyond smart marketing, or “smarketing”, by the ANC and EFF around this flashpoint.

Everyone is very worked up about this call, but what does it actually mean?

No one knows, no one has any details and that is why Parliament is establishing a committee to start working out the who, what, when, where and how.

There is an alarming lack of factual detail about this crucial issue.

The media is full of wildly differing inputs, from the 4% registered ownership of land by black people, the government owning vast areas of land and not passing on title to the people and the banks having R180bn exposure to land as collateral, to land audits that never add up and land costs that are never explained.

A small farm bought for R3m in 2007 on a 15-year bond, for example, requires a payment of about R37,000 a month to the banks — and this excludes development costs, purchase of livestock, seed, machinery or staff salaries.

The time has come to drill down into the figures and facts and ensure that land reform, which has failed dismally so far, is properly managed to ensure food and economic security and greater justice for all. Too much land smarketing has gone on for too many years, for the sake of electioneering rather than positive resolution.

The absurdity of it all is that while citizens are still in the dark about the details and action plans about the literal land they live on, SpaceX billionaire Elon Musk is smarketing another form of land expropriation on Mars. On February 6, he successfully launched his Falcon Heavy rocket, the world’s most powerful rocket in 45 years, sporting an electric-red Tesla Roadster on its nose as it races towards Mars at 69,287 km/h.

Mannequin driver Starman is seated in the Tesla, checking out the stars.

The idea is to see whether Falcon Heavy can become the new long-haul removal rocket for future settlers on Mars.

Many people are not happy about this. Some scientists are saying that if Musk’s motor show hits Mars, it could contaminate the biota there. This would change the indigenous nature of the planet forever and we would never know what was originally there. This raises the pressing question: what gives one individual the right to monopolise another planet simply because he has the technology to do so? Is this an act of brave new brilliance or is this the kind of colonialism that got us into the earthly mess we’re in, with an uncertain future that should worry us all?

Is this a publicity stunt or will this benefit humankind?

The same questions should be asked of the land debate. Who will benefit and how? How do we set about this so that the debates, decisions and actions are productive and constructive? At this time in SA and the planet’s life, all citizens and companies should query their motive and purpose. They should ask: what and why are we doing what we do and how can we do it better?

Musk has 18.9-million followers on Twitter and an incredible responsibility to do things better and for the right reasons. So far, he has certainly demonstrated his intent through his renewable energy commitment as a responsible custodian of the planet.

He has set an inspiring precedent of what is possible and beneficial for us all.

At the same time he believes we are all living in a simulated computer game powered by artificial intelligence, indistinguishable from reality. The question of what is real has foxed philosophers since the beginning of thought but the advancement of computers, artificial intelligence and virtual reality has taken this to a new level.

Some find this frightening, yet it also suggests a world of infinite possibility, where it is literally possible that if you can imagine the future you can create it.

It’s the sci-fi turbo-boost of “you are what you imagine”.

The problem is this is a world apart from what people need here on Earth, in SA. People need to feel real soil between their toes or real walls around their property, however land is interpreted. In this regard, the Musks of the world are on another planet with his space transport company waiting in the wings. The question is, even if people could book a berth and head off to Mars now, would we not be repeating the same mistakes we have made here, where the rich and powerful inherit the solar system?

German bank Nord Landesbank analyst Frank Schwope says we all need to take a sober step back: “You have to ask yourself what will happen first: that Elon Musk will fly to Mars with SpaceX, or that he will finally operate Tesla in the black.”

Schwope is not an advocate of extreme bets on the future, but he’s also not an inventor or revolutionary, which Musk is.

Musk’s single-minded determination can be interpreted as ruthless ambition or obsessive power-mongering; the same can be said of certain members of SA’s political parties. The difference is that the Musks of the world get things done. He has put in the hard work in all his companies and drilled down into the details. In doing so, he is able to convince more people that what he sets out to do is realistic and achievable and he surrounds himself with people who are able to take his vision forward.

When he recruits people, he says he looks for people with a positive attitude and strong work ethic who get the work done. Which is precisely what SA needs in its land committee and Parliament: positive, proactive people who can astutely drill down into the details and offer practical solutions for SA, instead of detail-devoid smarketing.

First published in Business Day on Wednesday, 7 March 2018.