Our symbiotic relationship is a force for unity

SA could experience an economic miracle second to none and become the wonderful country that we would all like it to be, if we recognise that our symbiotic relationship is a force for unity.

Since 1994, South Africans have fallen into two camps, one for the pessimists who tend to emphasise all the negative things happening in the country; and the other for the optimists who give inordinate prominence to the positive features.

Peculiarly, the optimists often demonise the pessimists. They dub white critics ‘racist’, or say they are ‘nostalgic for the apartheid past and should leave the country’. If the critics happen to be black, they are accused of being politically incorrect or of breaking ranks with their fellow blacks.

The ‘pessimists’ have a factual basis for their arguments. South Africa does suffer from high levels of crime and corruption. Laws and racially preferential policies doconstrain the private sector, make labour matters extremely difficult and negatively affect the economy.

These two camps cater for a vast array of opinion, but instead of only the confrontationary potential that exists to divide us, we should recognise that these opposing views and tendencies actually unite us and should be celebrated because they reinforce our evolving culture of democracy. Their co-existence is the very essence of democracy – assuming, of course, that we understand the concept of democracy, which, inter alia, is about freedom of expression, freedom of opinion and freedom of association.

Our constitution underpins all of these freedoms and should, therefore, always be respected by one and all as the supreme law of the country and never be tampered with to serve ephemeral and partisan interests. If we understand and accept this, then robust debate and vehement disagreement will be evidence of our shared commitment to democratic principles. Our symbiotic relationship will be a force for unity.

Why use the word symbiotic? Look to the much maligned “business enterprise” – formal or informal, big or small. It provides one of the most important and effective sites for unity and could do so much more to improve relationships if government policies did not impede its natural functioning.

Admittedly, businesses exist solely for the sake of making profits, to realise a return on investment. They are also at the forefront of all individual and personal struggles to achieve progressively expanding socio-economic aspirations. A successful enterprise delivers goods and services in a competitive environment on the basis of good value for money, and serves its customers to the best of its ability, irrespective of who those consumers are. It employs people of diverse social, cultural and racial backgrounds to add value to its enterprises. The people involved at all levels, from management to shop-floor, collaborate to promote its fortunes and, in the process, are drawn together. They interact at a personal level; they discuss and share anxieties and priorities and exchange advice about the most intimate of problems.

A business enterprise thus contributes to a natural social cohesion since there are few other sites where people who have grown up in very different circumstances, find it easy to divulge and discuss intimate details in an empathetic and supportive environment. Even incorrigible racists who go into business find themselves employing people they otherwise would not tolerate or consider given their racial preferences. They sell their goods and services to consumers, irrespective of their racial preferences, thus participating in this symbiotic relationship. If they do not, they will quickly go out of business.

When a business income statement and balance sheet does not reflect altruistic activities like those of larger enterprises that have “social responsibility” portfolios, we need to recognise that, in reality, the wider socio-economic needs of its employees are still being addressed.

We should build upon this unifying potential of the business environment and extend these symbiotic relationships far and wide. But, for us to do this, government has to come to the party. At the stroke of the statutory pen, government can reduce the plethora of policies that unnecessarily raise the cost, not only of doing business, but also of going into business. If government reduces the legislative barriers to entry, the socio-economic glue of business enterprises that connects us will increase and raise us above our individual and national challenges. We need to strive for the impersonal operation of the free market in which there is voluntary exchange, freedom of choice and the protection of private property.

To rail at the world for past injustices is an exercise in futility. Past injustices do not justify the implementation of racially discriminatory policies that have a punitive effect on any sector of the population, however well intentioned. They merely engender racial disharmony and undermine any progress towards a more cohesive rainbow nation. If we persist in racial discrimination, we are passing on a poisoned chalice to our children and our children’s children.

This country belongs as much to the optimists as it does to the pessimists. If we stop our pernicious, puerile and sometimes ad hominem mudslinging and accept our contradictory tendencies, our all-embracing democratic culture will emerge and grow and the people of South Africa will prosper.

Author: Temba A Nolutshungu is a director of the Free Market Foundation. This article, which is based on a paper presented by the author at a conference of the FW de Klerk Foundation, 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 / 1 March 2011

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