Opinionista Ivo Vegter 2 July 2013

The long walk to serfdom

Perhaps the seminal book that a South African emerging from under the corrosive cloud of Apartheid could read was Nelson Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. As we collectively reflect on the beloved symbol of our nationhood, on his life and meaning, one deeply troubling question remains: Is freedom finally ours?

To listen to John Kane-Berman deliver a critique of the National Development Plan (NDP) is a profoundly unsettling experience. It causes one to question whether the ANC government, instead of leading a glorious march to freedom for the majority, is establishing feudal power relations that turn citizens into serfs and victims of oppression into wards of the state.

Kane-Berman is the CEO of the SA Institute of Race Relations, and while many people have selected parts of the NDP as evidence for or against it, the Institute’s report is comprehensive, and promises to provide much grist for the commentary mill.

One wit in the audience called the NDP a “remarkable document in that everybody has endorsed it but nobody has read it”, a line which they attributed to the irascible, passionate businessman and National Planning Commission member, Bobby Godsell.

It is a cute quip, but it is not entirely true. The part about not having read it is plausible, given the near 500-page length of the document.

The part about endorsing it, however, is not. Some have quoted it to support their claims that the NDP honestly admits the government’s many present shortcomings and the country’s many economic failures (it does). Others quote it to show that it sets bold and laudable goals (it does, although fanciful might be a more appropriate adjective). The business sector in particular, whose members understandably do not want to appear opposed to developmental goals, or alienate the ruling party, have indeed endorsed the NDP in this piecemeal, selective fashion.

Conversely, however, some major players have rejected the NDP, citing clauses that contradict the long-established goals of the National Democratic Revolution, the foundational socialist principles of liberation authored by the SA Communist Party in the 1960s and endorsed by the ANC at every party congress since its first adoption in 1969. Critics within the Tripartite Alliance, most notably the union federation Cosatu, have rejected the NDP. After all, as the SACP said in 2006, “a national democratic revolution with a capitalist orientation ceases to be an NDR.”

It is a complex document, and a full reading of both the NDP and the Institute’s critique is highly recommended. Its criticisms include that it recognises many reasons why the government has failed to carry its heavy burdens but proposes no measures to lighten the burden, and instead proposes to burden it with even more intervention, regulation and obligations. They include that the NDP acknowledges the gravity of South Africa’s unemployment crisis and lack of economic vitality, but fails to propose the radical liberalisation measures that are the only way to turn these around. They include that the NDP talks of the importance of entrepreneurship and small business, but fails to set private enterprise free, preferring instead to “harness” market forces for its own social objectives.

In this column, however, I want to focus on the aspect of Kane-Berman’s exposition that troubled me most deeply at this time of national introspection about the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Kane-Berman highlighted the deliberate policy of government not to bestow on liberated citizens free-hold ownership of their assets, but to make them tenants or wards of the state.

I’ve mentioned this problem before with regard to housing. The limitations on renting out, selling, or not occupying a house granted to a recipient in terms of the RDP programme effectively make that house “dead capital”. The so-called “owner” is so only in name. They are unable to use it as collateral for a business loan, or rent it out to move to where employment can be found, for fear of losing their house.

Kane-Berman points out that the same principle is at work for emerging black farmers who receive agricultural land. Some land is purchased and owned by the state. Worse, the NDP envisages that a total of 20% of agricultural land be expropriated in lieu of compensation amounting to only half the value of the land. The state, as owner, then “[gives] land reform beneficiaries rent-free probation for two or three years, after which, if they prove capable of farming, they will move to long-term leases of about 40 years.”

This means that new black farmers who begin their farming careers at the age of 25, can expect to own nothing at all by the time they reach retirement age. Not owning capital, most will be unable to raise finance for expansion, should they prove successful, meaning that the vast majority will be no better than peasant serfs, in bondage to the land they occupy by the grace of the state.

Beneficiaries of such programmes are not free-hold owners, which may explain why legislation talks euphemistically of “security of tenure”, rather than “ownership”. The security conferred is exactly what medieval serfs enjoyed on the lands of their liege lords: continue to serve them faithfully, in labour and taxes, and your little house and plot were secured by the lord’s knights of the nobility. Leave, to become a merchant or to swear fealty to a rival lord, and you lose everything for which you have worked.

This may explain why, when offered the choice, nine out of ten recipients of land reform rulings prefer to take cash in lieu of land. It turns out that people want to be free wage-earners, instead of peasants in bondage to their government. As Kane-Berman pointed out, “We want small farmers to get bigger, not create a new peasant class.”

A similar dynamic is at work in the NDP goal of increasing employment in civil service, state-owned entities and labour-intensive public works project. “These are all bribes that they threaten will fall away if voters abandon the ANC,” said Kane-Berman.

When your job, your social security, your education, your healthcare and your occupancy of a modest house or small farm all depend on the whims of the ruling class, will you choose to be a dutiful citizen? Will you consent to your serfdom by voting loyally for the source of your patronage? Surely, most will. The risk of disloyalty is too great.

But are you free? Only in the very limited sense that the identity of your liege lord has changed. “The regulation and dirigisme of today are no different from Apartheid,” declared Kane-Berman, echoing a sentiment I expressed six years ago almost to the day, in the late, lamented print edition of Maverick magazine.

“The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes,” wrote Thomas Paine, the 18th-century political theorist, revolutionary and advocate of liberty. That seems to be an apt way to describe the causes of equitable land redistribution, housing development, socialised education and healthcare, government grants, state-led growth, labour-intensive public works tenders, and civil service employment.

The causes indeed appear noble – and often are well-intended – but the means by which they are implemented are fundamentally tyrannical. They do not confer freedom, but instead entrench patronage and dependency on the state.

It also happens to be an effective means of locking in a majority vote, since voters who depend on the ANC for their meagre living are unlikely to reject it and risk losing what little the state has deemed fit to grant them. What they have won by virtue of the liberation struggle is not theirs to own, but only theirs to occupy or use at the pleasure of the bureaucrats of the ruling party.

Mandela, faced with what he fully expected would be a death sentence at the hands of the oppressor in 1964, spoke these words, immortalised in The Long Walk to Freedom: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He has, indeed, lived for it. He has sacrificed more to it than we had any right to demand. For this, our nation is deeply grateful.

We do, indeed, enjoy a democratic society, and this is no small victory, given the awful tyranny of the racist oppression that went before it. But another, equally famous quotation – though its true author, John Philpot Curran, a Catholic Irish lawyer, politician and abolitionist, is more obscure – runs: “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

Now that Madiba’s life draws to a close, we face the question: has his ideal been achieved? Did his long walk lead us to freedom, or did lack of vigilance on our part condemn us to a new serfdom? DM


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