Champions of Liberty – the FMF early years

Glimpses from the history of the Free Market Foundation (FMF) might assist in bringing the present into better perspective. How is it that the FMF came to be formed in the first place? And what led to a small group of free market and individual liberty radicals, joining forces with representatives of major companies and a variety of private sector organisations, to promote freedom for all in a country whose laws were biased in favour of a racial minority.

The catalytical event that led to the FMF occurred at a conference, supposedly on free enterprise, held in Johannesburg in early 1976. I travelled from Harrismith in the Free State to attend the event. Addresses from several speakers were not about promoting free enterprise but calling for greater government intervention. This caused me to protest to the Chairman. “I have paid good money and travelled a long way to attend this conference. It was advertised as being about free enterprise, but all I hear is calls for more and more intervention. I have wasted my time and I have wasted my money!” Across the room, a young man leaped to his feet, introduced himself as Leon Louw, and said, “I agree with the previous speaker, the presenters are not talking about free enterprise, they are talking about its opposite.”

How chance meetings have long-term consequences

During a break, Leon met with Eustace and told him about the Free Market Foundation (FMF) and invited him to join the organisation. He also suggested that Eustace participate in a meeting during the lunch break with Mr DWR Hertzog, the co-Chairman of the Rembrandt Group, who wished to meet with members of the FMF. The core members of the Foundation at the time were Ed Emary. Mike Lillard, Leon Louw, Fred Macaskill, Andre Spies and Marc Swanepoel.

Dirk Hertzog said of the young organisation, “I admire your enthusiasm but without the support of business and private sector organisations you will get nowhere, and I can help you do that.”

Restructuring the FMF into an entity with prominent backers

I was later to learn that with the full support of his business partner Anton Rupert and the involvement of Michael O’Dowd of Anglo American (encouraged by his Chairman Harry Oppenheimer) an Interim Council was set up under the Chairmanship of Dirk Hertzog with Leon Louw as Secretary (supported by Assocom).

The Inaugural Meeting of the reconstituted FMF was held at the Wanderers Club on 17 March 1977 at which the first Council was elected, SP du Toit Viljoen (President), LM Sher (Chairman), Leon Louw (Secretary/Executive Director). The Council had a unique structure, with separate nominations and voting for Business, Organisational and Individual representatives on the Council. Leon Louw and I are the only two members of that first Council still active in the Foundation. Terry Markman was co-opted onto the Council in November 1978 and is still active in the FMF. Businessman Bonne Posma, who was elected to the first Council, has been a long-time supporter of the Foundation.

The FMF attracted important participants to its first AGM and Conference held in the President Hotel, Johannesburg, on 10 August 1978, which was attended by more than 120 people, including many top business executives and other prominent people.

Role of the two business and intellectual giants of the early FMF

Dirk Hertzog had the innate wisdom to recognise the role that those young intellectual critics of economic policy directions in South Africa could play in countering the fascist tendencies that had crept into the thinking of South African politicians and their followers. He was a man of action and set his plan in motion without delay. Although he chaired the Interim Council, he stepped aside to pass the role to others. However, his guiding hand was visible throughout the early years. Five years after the formation of the Council he was still a Council member and could be found assisting the FMF to overcome a funding crisis and appointed Eustace Davie as Administrative Director to fill the role that he had previously carried out on a voluntary basis.

Michael O’Dowd became Chairman of the FMF in September 1978 and filled that position for decades. He was a truly remarkable and formidable intellectual. It was virtually impossible to raise an issue or a subject on which he had no knowledge. As Chairman of the Anglo American Chairman’s Fund, his own strict rules did not allow the Chairman’s Fund to assist the FMF financially. Any assistance from Anglo American had to come from sources approved by his chairman or colleagues.

The FMF and apartheid

The greatest concern of the FMF from the outset was without any doubt Apartheid and its conflict with individual liberty and economic freedom. This made for an uneasy relationship with the government of the day. The guidance of Dirk Hertzog and Michael O’Dowd in persuading us to concentrate on outcomes rather than recriminations was extremely important in dealing with issues of the day.  

This included our personal experiences. For instance, Eustace Davie was astonished when a friend of his, who held a high position in the National Party, warned that he was under surveillance by the Special Branch because “They think you are a Communist”. Eustace laughed and responded that he was a greater opponent of the Communists than they were! His friend’s response was, “They don’t understand the difference, please be careful, these people are dangerous, I know.” The chilling truth of his warning hit home when some of the prominent opponents of the government were assassinated.

Yet we worked closely with people across the entire spectrum of the South African population to put across the benefits of policies grounded on individual liberty and economic freedom for all, and we continue to do so.

Author: Eustace Davie is a Director of the Free Market Foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.          


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