A message of hope for South Africa

South Africans are engulfed in a state of gloom. They need a message of hope – a signal that will lift their spirits and restore their faith in the future of their country.

Post-1994 there was a state of general euphoria. Everyone was proud that the country’s politicians had at last decided to be sensible. Racism had been eliminated as a guiding factor in governance. Authoritarian government, which is its inescapable bedfellow, had been outlawed by a Constitution with a Bill of Rights. The economy started growing again after a long period of stagnation.

Golden years followed, when South Africa, after decades of extreme bitterness, appeared to be set for a time of calm, peaceful, vigorous progress – an era of high economic growth that would allow the nation’s undoubted business genius to flourish and rapidly erase poverty. Even the voices of the collectivist ideologues, whose ideology feeds on poverty and misery, became muted and largely ignored. There was hope; South Africa was on a path to greatness. Our President had given us a glimpse of what wisdom and a sense of humour can do to heal the wounds of past stupidities.

Righting past wrongs
In the intervening years, “righting the wrongs of the past” on a voluntary basis has become little more than government-directed racial preferences that, contrary to the protections contained in the Bill of Rights, has been incorporated in legislation. Additional regulation has interfered increasingly in the ownership rights and management of businesses. Water and mineral rights were nationalised and a flood of ostensibly pro-consumer legislation has steadily eroded the rights of owners and managers of firms and imposed costly compliance burdens on the economy with little or no benefit for the consumer. The only beneficiaries have been armies of new bureaucrats created by this new legislation.

While the nation has been victim to one of the highest crime rates in the world, citizens have been given the impression that the government is not making adequate efforts to contain and reduce the scourge. Curtailing crimes against persons and their property, along with the maintenance of well-functioning courts of law that provide expeditious justice, are core functions of the state under any democratic government. A climate of fear has been allowed to develop, in which no one feels safe in their homes, businesses, or cars.

Attacks on the Constitution
More recently, nothing has had as detrimental effect on the country and its citizens as the utterances of members of the ruling party who have moved from extolling the virtues of the Constitution as “one of the best in the world” to attacking its very purpose, which is to place limitations on government, not to facilitate it. The institutions and checks and balances that the party’s own far-sighted constitutional experts helped put in place were intended to protect future generations of South Africans from power-hungry politicians who want no limits placed on their actions.

Zimbabwe has demonstrated the devastating consequences of the usurpation of power by a single individual or party; the destruction of a country’s Constitution and its democratic institutions. South Africans of all races and persuasions have cause to be disturbed by attacks on their own Constitution by members of their own government.

What’s to be done?
Fortunately, restoring the faith of South Africans in the future of the country should not be difficult. People respond rapidly to the direction of change. For instance, while Eskom’s electricity blackouts engendered feelings of hopelessness and despair, the apparent permanent restoration of supply has quickly returned people to equilibrium. Similarly, vigorous and frequent defence of the country’s Constitution and democratic institutions by senior politicians, particularly of the ruling party, would quickly reverse the current unease felt by most South Africans. Such defence must include an insistence that government departments and officials closely follow the requirements of the Constitution, both in the formulation and application of legislation.

Restoring the Constitution to its rightful place in ordering the lives of the citizens of the country would make a positive contribution towards their perspective regarding their future and that of their children. Governments can come and go, but a sound Constitution and the institutions of state that it governs, is a beacon that guides those governments in the manner in which citizens should be treated. Whilst the Constitution rules over government, the people are safe. When government rules over the Constitution, the people are in danger. Constitutions keep people and their property safe, even when their worst enemies are in control of government. Had the current Constitution been in place in 1910, apartheid and all its attendant evils would not have been possible.

A high growth path for South Africa’s economy
Placing South Africa’s economy on a high growth path should also not be difficult. Whatever collectivist ideologues and development statists might have to say about the matter, the evidence shows clearly that countries with the greatest economic freedom, or more importantly those that are moving towards greater economic freedom have the highest growth rates.

If South Africa truly wants to have growth rates equivalent to the best in the world there is only one direction it can go, that is, towards greater economic freedom. Greater economic freedom provides not only higher economic growth rates but higher incomes for the poor; higher life expectancies; lower rates of infant mortality; improved water supplies; less corruption; a better environment; and greater civil liberties. The per capita incomes of the poorest 10 per cent in the most economically free countries is more than 8 times greater at $7,334 (R56,800) than the per capita incomes at $905 (R7,000) of the people in the least economically free countries.

Greater economic freedom for South Africa
South Africa will become more economically free if it chooses to:

  • Improve the legal structure, policing, and security of property rights, respect the independence of the judiciary, and drastically reduce crime;
  • Abolish exchange controls and increase the stability of the rand by improved control over the money supply, which will rapidly reduce inflation, encourage foreign investment, and facilitate trade;
  • Increase the demand for labour by reducing compliance costs, restore the contractual rights of the unemployed, and lift the regulation of minimum wages to avoid pricing the unskilled out of the market;
  • Reduce administrative requirements and bureaucratic costs to improve the “ease of doing business”;
  • Reduce the size of government by reducing government consumption expenditure as a percentage of total consumption, dispose of public enterprises, open up the respective areas of the economy to competition, and reduce top marginal and payroll taxes; and
  • Channel all BBBEE through the budget, utilising the sale of state assets and taxes to take corrective action, and stop the current random and disruptive interference in the operation of businesses.

    If our government takes this purposeful action to improve the political and economic environment in South Africa, the gloom and doom will disappear as rapidly as it did when the electricity came back on. People will once again look forward eagerly to a bright future.

    Right now, South Africa needs to be given a powerful message of hope by its government – a government that has both the capacity and duty to do so.

    Author: Dr BC Benfield is the Chairman of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation. (Adapted from Dr Benfield’s address to the Annual General Meeting of the Foundation on 28 August 2008).

    FMF Policy Bulletin / 24 November 2009
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