Is the genie now out of the bottle?

Terence Corrigan | Aug 16, 2019
The ancient tale’s salutary lesson for South Africa today is that a determined pushback against a destructive idea – even one with enormous power behind it – is possible.

Like most of the world’s great works of literature, One Thousand and One Nights – or, in some versions, Arabian Nights – has left us with more than wonderful stories. It has ingrained itself into the fabric of language. To it, English owes the phrase ‘the genie is out of the bottle’.

The story concerns a fisherman who cast his net and reeled in a jar, in which a very frustrated genie (a djinn or an ifrit, to be precise) has been held for hundreds of years. It emerged angry, vowing to kill its liberator.

Hence the idiom. One action produces large, unexpected and generally unwelcome consequences. Things assume a momentum of their own. It is a lesson reflected in many cultural contexts, as in certain tellings of the Golem legend of Jewish folklore, Frankenstein’s Monster or the machines of the Terminator movies.

Last week saw the introduction of the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill. This has to be the most ambitious government project undertaken since democracy, arguably dwarfing even the creation of the country’s welfare grant system.

And so it is of equally great concern that its costing and intended funding remain opaque. Steeply increased taxes are a certainty, but for an entity that – in financial terms – some are predicting will dwarf Eskom, it’s far from clear that this will be sufficient. Other ‘solutions’ might be sought.

In this respect, the comments of Dr Tebogo Letlape, president of the Health Professions Council of South Africa, were worth noting. The solution, as a starting point, would be to expropriate the reserves of medical schemes. This should, he said, be done with no apologies, and simply by passing a law that shifted these funds into the NHI.

Dr Letlape has not in the past been a supporter of private medical insurance. In 2017, he said that it stood in the way of the NHI and should be abolished. ‘Medical aid’, he was quoted as saying, ‘is a crime against humanity. It is an atrocity.’

Indeed, private healthcare has been a focus of the ideological ire of many within government and the ruling party over the years.

Interestingly, the proposed solution echoes another plan that has gained momentum in official thinking. This is expropriation without compensation (EWC).

Inherent to EWC is the expansion of the state authority to override the rights of those subject to it – in other words, for the State to seize property without the corresponding obligation to pay for it. An appealing option (on ideological grounds) to a political movement that had never been fully committed to property rights, and a tempting one to those who might see in state intrusion opportunities for personal wealth and patronage.

Besides, EWC would play seamlessly into a politically useful narrative. The inadequacies of land reform could be reduced to the resistance of unreconstructed farmers who sabotaged the process through excessive price demands (in times of stress, having a political enemy can be very useful). EWC would free the hand of a benevolent State to overcome this and to reclaim the nation’s patrimony.

And since it was introduced (nominally) as a policy measure to accelerate land reform, a number of observers reassured themselves and the country that this was essentially a problem for landholders, above all for farmers.

This was never a safe bet. Quite the contrary, in fact. EWC has been introduced into our politics as a bogus cure-all solution. It will not be confined to land.

Over the years, we’ve seen glimpses of this, in mining policy or proposed legislation on the security industry. Prescribed assets for pension funds have also been mooted. Bolstered by a constitutional amendment and the considerable ideological euphoria that some of the country’s political elite have shown for this course of action, we can probably expect more of it in future. Dr Letlape’s comments demonstrate how its logic is likely to be applied elsewhere; the expropriation of medical funds may find a sympathetic hearing.

The genie is well out of the bottle, released recklessly for political ends. And, like the genie in the tale, it poses a very grave threat. It would expand the discretion of a compromised state and undermine investment. It already has.

But perhaps it is important to recount the rest of the story. Playing on the genie’s pride, the fisherman inveigled it into returning to the jar. When the genie eventually relented, it promised to reward the fisherman and was freed. It showed the fisherman a pond filled with brightly coloured fish and advised him to offer them to the Sultan. The fisherman did so, setting in motion a train of events that earned the Sultan’s thanks and brought honour and wealth to his family.

It is a salutary lesson for South Africa today. It is a reminder that a determined and strategic pushback against a destructive idea – even one with enormous power behind it – is possible. The genie can be put back in the bottle, provided we recognise the danger it poses, act against it, and do not merely plead for its mercy.

 

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations.

 

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