Economic freedom in our lifetime

12th October 2011 By: Aubrey Matshiqi

A few months ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu proposed that white people should pay a wealth tax because they benefitted from apartheid. Identifying those who must pay this tax is, I think, an impossible task given the fact that finding people who benefitted from apartheid is as difficult as finding people who used to vote for the National Party during this dark period in our history.

Be that as it may, the Archbishop’s controversial proposal came hot on the heels of demands for ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’ by the African national Congress (ANC) Youth League and its president, Julius Malema.

While debates about the ‘white tax’ and the nationalisation of mines were raging, AfriForum (an organisation that was formed to deliver white people from the yoke of liberation), the ANC and Malema were doing battle at the Equality Court in the “Dubul’ ibhunu” (Shoot the boer) hate speech matter. That the definition of hate speech in the Equality Act borders on the ridiculous is something I will deal with when I am in a better mood.

What is important for now is my contention that the ‘Tutu tax’, the demand for economic freedom in our lifetime, and the hate speech saga are related. They are all about the fact that almost twenty years into our post-apartheid democratic order, South Africa is still far from becoming the rainbow nation and non-racial society of our dreams. While there is no shortage of black and white people who are prepared to sit next to each other at international rugby, cricket and soccer matches, I suspect there is growing unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the degree to which the material conditions of black people have changed since 1994. It seems there is growing consensus among those who do not suffer from a surplus of dishonesty that the 1994 democratic breakthrough has, so far, delivered much more on the procedural front than it has on the substantive.

In other words, the political settlement that brought an end to apartheid has delivered political freedom to black people but this has not been accompanied by economic freedom.

Because political power without economic power makes very little sense, it is tempting for some to think that black people were sold a dummy at the negotiation table. Instead of obsessing about the merits of the specific economic remedies that have been suggested by Tutu and Malema, we should spend more time on the reasons behind these proposals.

First, there seems to be a suggestion that very little has changed with regard to the material conditions of black people since the advent of democracy in 1994.

Second, and this is the part we do not want to hear, there has been very little reciprocation from those who benefitted from the affirmative action policies of the apartheid regime. I think what people found disappointing about the Archbishop is what they see as a convergence of goals between him and one they regard as the devil incarnate.

The fact that the ANC has decided to charge Malema with bringing the ruling party into more disrepute than it has caused to itself, there are those who seem to think that the ANC will do them the favour of eliminating the nemesis of ‘right-thinking’ South Africans and ‘intelligent’ blacks. What they forget is the difference between subjective policy preferences and objective reality. Our policy preferences are a function of subjective interests and choices while inequality, poverty and unemployment are objective realities that we cannot change by attacking Tutu and Malema.

Another thing to remember is that some of the opportunism we see in the race and economic discourse is that of those who think the solution is to demonise Tutu and Malema, and the other is that of those for whom poor blacks are nothing but an instrument for the advancement of dubious political agendas, and both are febrile in how they speak their ‘truth’.

All I know, is that there can be no reconciliation in this country unless we alter the material conditions of those who were socially, politically and economically marginalised by apartheid. What the forget-the-past-and-get-on-with-it brigade must realise is that they are being extremely insensitive and naive because it is not going to be possible for black people to ‘get on with it’ until they become the beneficiaries of full and inclusive citizenship.

We can accuse people of suffering from the entitlement syndrome all we like, and this may even make some of us sleep better, but this does not take away the fact that lack of economic opportunity, not a sense of entitlement, is the objective reality that poses the primary threat to our future.

What we have achieved by ‘working hard’ will be taken from us if we do not cure ourselves of the deficit of honesty about our economic realities.