An example of private property helping the poor
I finished listening to an old EconTalk podcast, during my commute this morning. Russ Roberts was talking to Karol Boudreaux about her fieldwork on property rights and economic reforms in Rwanda and South Africa. They spent the first half of the conversation talking about Rwandan reforms and the second half talking about South African reforms. I was most fascinated by the South African portion. (It starts at about 30 minutes into the podcast.)
Karol talked about Langa township in South Africa. It was established as a place for blacks to live, but they weren't given any rights to the properties whatsoever. They had to get permission from the city government even to paint or repair their homes. By 1994, the government had started to turn over ownership to the people who lived in the homes.
I was thrilled to hear the story of Sheila, a very entrepreneurial woman in Langa township. (Her story starts about 39 minutes into the podcast.) Sheila had been a domestic helper in Capetown when she saw a receipt for two glasses of wine and a plate of cheese. She was stunned to see that that sold for more than she got paid in a month. She knew she was worth more than that. So, she decided to prove it.
After a few false starts, she hit on the right business plan. Tourists had been driving through Langa Township for years, to see the results of apartheid. But they never got out of their tourist buses. Sheila decided to give them an opportunity to start getting out. She opened up a restaurant in her house (after she'd received the title to it). She now serves meals to tourists, while telling them the story of her life and her experiences under apartheid. Her restaurant is well known for "authentic" South African food. It's primarily advertised through word of mouth and bloggers (how great is that?). The restaurant doesn't just support Sheila. She also employs five other people to keep things humming along.
Does South Africa have more economic freedom than the U.S.? In some ways, it does. Try opening a restaurant out of your home and see how long it lasts before the local authorities shut it down. But, in South Africa, Sheila was able to use her home to create a living for herself, create income for others, create something for tourists to see and do, and educate many people along the way. And it all happened because she had the economic freedom to use her property in the way she saw fit. Her tourist guests use their freedom to eat where they see fit and her desire to keep her restaurant's reputation protects her customers as they eat.
Sheila's story is a perfect example of the win-win results that come from letting people make their own economic decisions and bear both the profits and losses that they generate. It's also an example of how far you can go if you decide to change your circumstances instead of complaining about them.