This article was first published on BizNews on 17 February 2023
No country for envious men
There is something that is often missed about South Africans in the popular discourse – we are not envious people. This is easy to miss because South Africans so often vote for political parties that promote envy in the form of communism, Afrophobic nationalism, and apartheid in the past. All these philosophies relied on pointing to someone who was either doing better than you or had the potential to do so and holding them up as an example of something to be feared and kept down.
This worked, and still works, not because we don’t have the better angels of our nature but because we are also fearful. This fear is rational too; we have the highest unemployment rate in the world especially among the youth. We have various regulatory barriers for job seekers as well as entrepreneurs. It is natural to want to find someone to blame for why nothing you try to better yourself seems to work, why life seems to get harder and harder over time.
But South Africans also have something else, the thing that makes us feel proud that one of the wealthiest people in the world, Elon Musk, is South African. The thing that made so many support President Ramaphosa, even within the left-wing ANC, was because he was perceived as a successful businessman. The reason why Raymond Ackerman, Johann Rupert are all still respected even by those who believe in ‘White Monopoly Capital.’
South Africans generally aspire to and respect wealth; unfortunately this desire is sometimes used by the corrupt. For example, a popular deflection used by the corrupt is to claim that some unnamed dark forces don’t want the black child to succeed. This wouldn’t work as often as it does if South Africans saw wealth as inherently evil. The problem in South Africa is that a perception has been created that bar a few lucky individuals, wealth is largely inaccessible to black people no matter how much they may try to obtain it.
And who has created this impression? It should come as no surprise that the peddlers of envy themselves have created it by putting up so many barriers to entry in various markets including the labour market. They have created the impression that the state is the only way to get ahead. The way the narrative goes now, if you want to become wealthy there are only three paths: you were favoured by the government during apartheid because you were white, you are favoured by white people because they want to use you for some nefarious purpose, you are favoured by the current government.
If you have been convinced of this through your own life experience, then adopting a statist ideology makes all the sense in the world. Wealth is simply about aligning yourself with the right government or alternatively fighting for a favourable government to take power so that the government in question then allows you to acquire wealth. On your own you are powerless, and this is borne out by experience. From your attempt to start a business being shut down because you didn’t have a licence, to every time you were told that you could not be hired because you lacked an expensive qualification, even for the simplest jobs (not knowing that the company was trying to hedge against risks created by our labour laws), and every time you are asked to pay a bribe for anything.
The overwhelming impression created is that there are some people out there who are trying by all means to stop you from succeeding, and this is true. What is hard is figuring out exactly who those people are, it is easy enough for politicians to provide their own self-serving theories, but the people they slander cannot respond in a similar manner because they also face the same barriers you do and if they speak these will be used against them. It reminds me of a quote from George Orwell, “if you want to know who rules over you, look at who you are not allowed to criticise”. This is certainly true for any company regulated by the government due to the arbitrary nature of regulations. These can be interpreted in such a way that any company can be found doing something wrong at any time, and all companies are under some form of regulation or another.
So how do we break past this? How do we show people that there is a path to wealth for them that does not require selling their souls to any government? That their brilliant ideas and hard work can be enough under the right conditions? Perhaps it’s time to start ignoring these destructive laws and regulations, if it is true that our duty to each other is greater than the harm that may come to each person by falling foul of those who would do us all wrong. Only then could we show that this is no country for envious men.