Captives of Government vs. Individual Freedom

During the build-up and after the transition to democracy in 1994, many South Africans were excited about the promise of being free from apartheid and having the liberty to determine and define their own futures. Eighteen years into democracy, what answers will we give to the question: Are South Africans free, independent and taking charge of their lives?

Last week’s Human Rights Day celebration was a mix of activity. While many gathered in Soweto to listen to President Zuma’s speech, others gathered in Sharpeville to commemorate those who lost their lives in 1960. But not everyone was celebrating. Elsewhere in the country, there was a wave of community protest because the government has failed to deliver on its promise of basic human rights. The only way for the people to give vent to their frustration was to take to the streets on what should have been a day of celebration.

While the ANC government has made a valid point that the Human Rights Day is not only about Sharpeville, it has yet to pacify the protesters on the subject of its lack of service delivery.

Is the ANC government going to keep on promising things it cannot deliver? Rather, it is time for its leaders to acknowledge the fact that promises do not result in intended outcomes. When is it going to deliver to the people the housing, electricity, water and basic sanitation, etc, it promised them in 1994?

The Department of Human Settlement which replaced the former Department of Housing has a mandate to ensure that the government’s housing policy is implemented. The Zuma Administration has emphasised the need for human settlement paid by government as it expands the housing expenditure of the previous administrations. The government holds the view that many protests are based on the fact that people either do not have houses or lack services that were promised by politicians. It is now that we see how these promises have created a society that is dependent on spoon feeding by government. And before matters escalate even further, the unintended consequences of this dependence on government incentives and the erosion of the normal societal values of self-empowerment and ubuntu need to be properly assessed.

Government and Private sector housing construction, 1997/98 – 2010/11
Government and Private sector housing construction
Source: Stats SA

Following the inception of the RDP housing policy and project, since 1996 government housing development expenditure has increased beyond expectation. Of all new residential housing units built in South Africa since 1997, government has contributed an average of 78% of these new houses. Government’s constant increasing of its budgetary allocation to housing has instilled a dependence by many South Africans on government houses. It has also resulted in increased corruption within government. The awarding of some housing tenders has been irregular. Building inspectors have neglected to check the quality of houses with the result that many have needed extra attention and costly repairs, sometimes even before construction is complete. Despite government’s increased role in providing houses the backlog remains disturbingly high. This is illustrated in the figure 2 below.

Annual housing backlog figures, 1996/97 – 2008/09
Annual housing backlog figures
Source: Department of Housing, 2010

Making people believe that they have to depend on the government for housing gives them the incentive to sit back and do nothing. It reduces their will to be self-sufficient and accept personal responsibility for their lives.

It is true, of course, that some people are so destitute that they need the support and help of others in order to survive, but this help does not, necessarily, have to come from government. South Africans, black and white, have traditionally taken care of one another through families, churches, community organisations, etc. This role has now been progressively eroded by increased government intervention.

It is also true that many South Africans were disadvantaged in the past by the apartheid government and thus, today, are as yet unable to fully realise their potential. Government must recognise, though, that by introducing more and continuing to supply dependency incentives in the way that it has done to blacks since 1994, it will keep many people captive and make even more people dependent on government, stopping them from using their own initiative to improve their lives. In the interests of each and every South African, people need to be free from government’s apron strings if they are ever to realise their potential and the self-fulfilment that will enable them to lead more rewarding, and satisfying lives. Eighteen years into the transition to democracy – it is high time for government to be bold and say to all the people of South Africa – you have to be free to prosper and to be what you really want to be.

Government has core functions to perform and these do not include interfering in every aspect of the peoples’ lives. The biggest lesson to be learnt from last week’s Human Rights Day protests is that South Africans, including the poor, are sick and tired of government’s empty promises – especially in matters that do not truly fall within government’s ambit.

AUTHOR Vivian Atud is an economist with 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.

FMF Feature Article / 27 March 2012

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