I make no secret of the fact that I have always been a capitalist, even when I had nothing. It’s not what you have or don’t have that makes you a capitalist; it’s a state of mind. You just know that you will prosper if you provide value for others.
I want you to imagine the way our country and the world could be rather than the way it is. We have to think of the generations that are going to follow us and do all we can to make the world a better place for them.
The road to real freedom
My understanding of freedom or lack of freedom is not based on theory. I learnt what freedom truly means through experience.
In my book, Black Like You, I describe the “white-by-night” curfews that applied to black people. Curfew usually fell between nine in the evening and five in the morning and black people were not allowed to be on the streets during those hours. The police patrolled the streets to make sure that the curfew was obeyed. If you have not experienced a curfew, you cannot imagine what such a lack of freedom of movement feels like. People would sometimes be compelled, perhaps by family needs or a crisis, to break the curfew and move around during the hours of night, risking the possibility of being thrown in prison.
Then we had the pass laws. These laws prevented people moving from the rural areas into the cities. The city areas where we were allowed to go were specified. During my early years in sales, I was restricted to operating in areas where I knew there was a friendly police presence.
We were forced to open our first factory in a so-called ‘black homeland’ because blacks were barred from operating businesses in so-called ‘white’ areas.
I mention these things, not to rake up the past, but to give young people of today an understanding of the freedom they enjoy, a freedom we did not have in those early days. We did not bemoan our fate, we simply found a way to get around, under, or over the difficulties that were placed in our path. I urge young people today to look around for opportunities. Don’t expect someone else to hand them to you on a plate. You have access to opportunities that past generations only dreamed of.
We, this current generation, must put in place laws and policies that foster economic and personal freedom. The supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law are among the Founding Provisions of our South African Constitution. It is our responsibility to ensure that the rule of law is respected and followed in the governance of this country. If we do so, more and more opportunities will open up for our young people.
Free to choose
Economist Milton Friedman wrote about being free to choose. Among the most important freedoms is being able to make our own choices about our own lives. That is the kind of freedom we all looked forward to with the end of apartheid. That is the kind of freedom we must have for the future.
Governments, when they want to shield us from the consequences of our own lifestyle decisions, interfere with our freedom. There is nothing wrong with politicians and government officials trying to persuade us to cut down on smoking or drinking liquor, or eating unhealthy foods, or whatever else they think might make us healthier – as long as they limit themselves to persuasion. When they introduce laws to try and change people’s peaceful habits, that is when it becomes a problem. If you are not allowed, because of interference from government, to adopt habits that could be bad for your health, or to make decisions that other people consider unwise, you no longer have freedom of choice.
Jobs for All
We have 7.9 million unemployed people in this country, including the people who have given up looking for work. How can this be possible? If somebody wants to work, there will be someone who will employ them, as long as the employer can earn more from the output of the worker than it costs to employ them. No one can afford to employ people who cost more than the value they produce.
What this situation tells us is that our labour laws and regulations are a barrier to employment. According to the 2013 African Competitiveness Report published by the World Bank, the two most problematic factors for doing business in South Africa are an inadequately educated workforce and restrictive labour regulations. Despite the proof offered us by these reports and the more obvious large number of unemployed people in the country, we are constantly being told that the labour laws are not restrictive, or, in other words, that the labour laws play no role in causing unemployment.
We see reports in the press and on TV about people losing their jobs because bargaining council agreements have been extended to non-participating small firms. Is this not evidence that these agreements make the labour laws more restrictive and put people out of jobs? Other reports tell us that minimum wages are being raised and even state that more people will lose their jobs because the employers can’t afford to pay the higher wages. The workers whose jobs are on the line are not asked whether they would prefer: to keep their jobs at the lower wage rather than lose them. That should surely be their decision to make, not somebody else’s.
Once again, it’s the question of freedom of choice that is at the root of the problem. If employees and the unemployed were allowed to make up their own minds as to what wages and employment conditions they are happy with, there would not be the huge unemployment problem we now have.
In March, the FMF filed a constitutional challenge in the Gauteng North High Court to Section 32 of the Labour Relations Act. This clause allows collective agreements on wages and conditions to be extended to employers who were not party to the negotiations. It is a significant factor in preventing job creation, especially among small and medium enterprises, and has been shown to be a significant factor in causing job losses. This action has been taken in the interests of the unemployed people of South Africa, especially the 88 per cent of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 who don’t have jobs.
Making our children and grandchildren proud
What will make our children and grandchildren proud is if the citizens of this country systematically tackle the problems and sort them out. If average incomes are high because of a healthy and growing economy, unemployment and poverty are minimal, education is top quality, there is freedom of choice, everyone has become colour-blind, business is innovative and world-class, the courts are efficient, the criminals have reformed, co-operation is the order of the day, everyone is safe and happy, all our expats are returning home, and South Africa is generally considered to be the best place in the world. That would make our children and their children proud.
Author Herman Mashaba is the chairman of the Free Market Foundation and this article is based on his address to the Annual General Meeting of the 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.