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Anton Lubowski memorial lecture: Let’s not betray the ideals of those who fought for freedom


Lord Peter Hain is a former British Cabinet Minister and anti-apartheid campaigner whose memoir, ‘A Pretoria Boy: South Africa’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, is published by Jonathan Ball.

The South African state needs to be radically transformed. The answer lies in a smarter, interventionist, risk-taking, entrepreneurial state.

When I was asked by Anton Lubowski’s daughter Nadia to give this talk in his honour, my memory jerked back to the devastating news of his assassination by the apartheid security forces in September 1989, when she was a small girl and her father was still young, only in his thirties.

I thought not just of that cruelty of depriving Nadia of her Dad, and Namibia as well as South Africa of such a hugely talented figure and courageous man of principle. Not just that it occurred so painfully a matter of weeks before the release of Nelson Mandela’s mentor Walter Sisulu and fellow leadership comrades. Not only that Anton never witnessed or participated in the four-year transition process that saw the evil of apartheid — the most institutionalised system of racism that humanity has ever known — defeated.

That four-year process, by the way, from Mandela’s release to his being elected president, during which more people were killed by the apartheid state and its proxies than at any time during the previous four decades, and for which Anton’s brutal killing was in some ways a dress rehearsal.

But as Nadia herself has so eloquently said: “Anton Lubowski was not some lone heroic figure, a solitary freedom fighter who brought about change on his own. He offered his skills and his solidarity at a time when it was deeply needed.”  

And that was true also for many in the international anti-apartheid struggle, its victory which people now take for granted. It is taken for granted that Mandela and his fellow leaders walked free after spending the prime decades of their lives on Robben Island. But the struggle they led with Oliver Tambo — and in which Anton played a prominent and important role — was long and bitter, taking nearly one hundred years from the days when, under British colonial rule, the roots of apartheid were established.

The international anti-apartheid movement was for most of its life engaged in a bitter, hard fight. Militant protests — which I helped lead to stop whites-only Springbok rugby tours from 1969 to the early 1980s — provoked fierce anger, especially in Britain, New Zealand and Australia. Not for nothing was I branded in Britain “Hain the Pain”, or in South Africa, “Public Enemy Number One”.

Demands for trade, economic and arms sanctions were also fiercely resisted, yet their partial implementation eventually helped propel the white business community in the late 1980s to demand radical change of the apartheid government from which they had so long and so profitably benefited.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens across the world supported the fight for freedom. Courageous archbishops — such as Britain’s Trevor Huddleston, Ambrose Reeves and David Shepherd — led from both the pulpit and the street. Grannies boycotted South African oranges. British students forced Barclays Bank off their university campuses and then to withdraw from South Africa. Trade unionists worldwide offered solidarity. In the 1980s, the Black Caucus in the US Congress forced a change of policy against President Reagan’s wishes and a decisive implementation of loan sanctions.

And in response, prominent anti-apartheid activists like Anton were attacked. Inside South Africa, imprisonment, banning, torture and death were common. Leaders in exile were assassinated, like Dulcie September in Paris, Abraham Tiro in Botswana and Ruth First in Maputo. (Abraham and Ruth received letter bombs of the kind that killed others and was sent to my home in London in June 1972; fortunately mine had a technical fault and did not explode — a narrow escape which has always given Anton’s callous assassination additional resonance for me.)

Sadly, great causes, from slavery abolitionists to suffragettes and anti-apartheid campaigners, are invariably unpopular at the very time they most need support — only to be glorified, some even sanctified, once they have triumphed.

Mandela may have been feted in Washington and London after his release, but the majority in the British Parliament and the US Congress — and their governments of the day — opposed him and the ANC’s freedom struggle for almost the entire period he was imprisoned.  Margaret Thatcher was still denouncing him as a “terrorist” a couple of years before he became a global icon. 

We should never forget this. Nor the contribution of figures like Anton who made such a difference. Today South Africa is involved in another struggle — to free itself not just from the dwarfing millstone of apartheid, but from the cancer of corruption and cronyism that has betrayed the freedom struggle… betrayed the legacy of Anton too.  

And as we witness the ANC’s plunge from its heroic historic role to be mired in factional battles where the motive is too often not political but self-enrichment, it is easy to forget or become cynical about our history.

And, if the liberated countries across southern Africa, notably Zimbabwe, today seem tortured opposites of the bright futures for which Anton and many others fought, then we must strive to reclaim those values of morality, integrity, social justice and equal opportunities which inspired him and everyone involved in the freedom struggle.

In that cause, a priority today should be to persuade the world that there is an alternative to the suffocating embrace of global neoliberalism infecting every country, from South Africa to Namibia, from Britain to the US, from China to Russia, from India to Brazil.  Each has different state and economic formations, but they share a neoliberal imperative. 

By neoliberal, I mean the set of beliefs that has driven government priorities across the globe for the past four decades. 

An ideology that favours so-called free market forces wherever possible and tolerates government regulation only where absolutely necessary, whatever the consequences for social justice, resulting in grotesquely widening inequality.  

A system that seeks to shrink the size of the state by slashing the budgets that public services depend upon, and which pay for the pensions, child benefits and social security entitlements that cut poverty, encourage greater equality and promote social justice.  

For disciples of neoliberalism, severely squeezing the budgets that form the foundation for the kind of civilised society that Anton Lubowski strived for has been a permanent and paramount consideration. By a civilised society, I mean one in which, as citizens, we all share the same rights and responsibilities, we all have a community in common, and we all depend on the promotion of the public good in order to create equal opportunities whatever our race, class, gender, sexuality, disability or religion.

Squeezed budgets have been the dominant feature of Britain’s neoliberal government policy since the Tories got back into office in 2010, and for the next 10 years took some £150-billion of spending power out of the UK economy, 80% of it in the form of public spending cuts — proportionately bigger cuts than any in the rich world. 

That decade of savage cuts is the reason why 20,000 police jobs disappeared and why the National Health Service in England faced Covid-19 short of 10,000 doctors and 40,000 nurses, and with over 100,000 unfilled vacancies for adult social care workers. 

It’s why Britain has only 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 of population, against six in France and eight in Germany. It’s what “shrinking the role of the state” means in practice and why social justice and equality of opportunity remains well out of reach in neoliberal Britain today. 

The Tories claimed that only this austerity made possible the huge borrowing that lay behind the big bucks that they spent to keep the UK economy alive during the war against Covid-19, with the economy facing its worst peacetime predicament for 300 years, and British business on life support from the government for 18 months.  

Even die-hard neoliberal purists — who for long had screamed “magic money tree” at those like me advocating more, not less, public investment — accepted that without massive state intervention and dramatic increases in public spending, we might have been overwhelmed by Covid-19 and experienced economic meltdown. 

They accepted that borrowing heavily in order to spend record sums on support for business, for families and for the NHS and social care was the right thing to do — the very opposite of the neoliberalism they had so fervently preached. Yet there are still free-market fundamentalists and right-wing ideologues now calling on Britain’s finance minister to rein back, to return to austerity. 

They claim that, with national debt now running at nearly 100% of national income, Britain cannot afford to borrow more to pay for more public spending. But Britain’s national debt was over double current levels — nearly 250% of national income — after World War 2, and a Labour government then managed to create a welfare state, a national health service and a fast-growing, fully employed economy which built millions of publicly funded houses. Today also we have record low interest rates enabling UK government borrowing to be easily financed.

At this year’s G7 meeting, President Cyril Ramaphosa protested that South Africa refused to choose between the US and China as models to follow. He found China’s ugly authoritarianism and America’s grotesque inequality repulsive but, being a pragmatist, he relished the prospect of partnering both. An echo perhaps of the Glasgow Labour MP from the 1930s, Jimmy Maxton, who asked, “If you can’t ride two horses at the same time, what are you doing in the circus of politics?”   

But South Africa today is one of the most unequal societies in the world — apartheid’s monumental racial divide still remaining alongside a widening economic divide under the ANC.   

Although there is fervent debate on how to achieve essential economic transformation, that ambition cannot be achieved in isolation because South Africa is not insulated from the globalisation and financialisation that has swept the world in parallel with the advance of neoliberalism since 1980. Nor can it succeed without tackling corruption at the same time: the “radical economic transformation” faction is about self-enrichment for a chosen few, not greater equality for all. 

In my view, South Africa should not have to choose between a neoliberal “small state” and its current corruptly bloated state.

To succeed, South African progressives of the left and centre-left need to redefine their stance on the state, not least as a credible alternative to the neoliberal “small state”, which will otherwise continue to sweep the board. 

To retain taxpayer support, the state needs to be efficient, effective, honest and responsive to public demand, not swollen, hopeless, corrupt and indifferent to citizens’ needs — as the South African state has become in ways that have surely left Nelson Mandela turning in his grave. 

It simply isn’t sustainable for 70% of tax revenues to go on funding public sector wages and servicing the national debt. South Africa’s citizens, black and white, will not tolerate continued inflation-busting pay rises for public sector workers while the state’s productivity and delivery collapses, private sector workers suffer real-wage declines and economic growth is stagnant to negative. 

The South African state needs to be radically transformed. There are around 900 state-owned enterprises — most of them inefficient, many bankrupt and leeching on the taxpayer, who should be funding other things such as better education, health, housing, infrastructure and scientific research. 

But a neoliberal, small state is not the answer either in the modern age — if it ever was. In the most successful economies, the state plays a vital role, not simply by providing high-quality public services, but by encouraging economic growth, in part by actively promoting innovation. 

A smarter, interventionist, risk-taking, entrepreneurial state is therefore the answer. My iPhone’s technology was not invented by Apple: the internet, GPS, touch-screen display and Siri voice-activated facility all originated from American state-funded research and development programmes. But a private, risk-taking entrepreneurial company such as Apple was needed to bring them to the market in a way that the state could never have done. 

And of course an active, entrepreneurial state needs to be well financed, which also means ending the low-tax obsessions of neoliberalists.

I am not sure what Anton would have made of my case today, but I hope that you feel it falls appropriately in his shadow as we salute his memory. DM


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  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    My Lord Hain – a good essay with laudable and lofty intent. You deal with the issues facing us succinctly. Your concluding proposal of “A smarter, interventionist, risk-taking, entrepreneurial state is therefore the answer” and “an active, entrepreneurial state needs to be well financed, which also means ending the low-tax obsessions of neoliberalists” is at least on paper achievable.

    But then we get to reality. South Africa is NOT a neo-liberlalist low-tax environment – au contraire, we have toll roads, wealth, consumption, death, property, fuel and income taxes. Combined with that is the looming threat of dispossession of property without compensation – and we all know how well that went in Zimbabwe.

    We have technology – for example, our medical research capacity is unrivalled on this continent, as is our mining technology and fuel extraction technology. But then, those are all driven by neo-liberal capitalists I guess so they don’t count.

    Yet we stand here today with a collapsed education system (except for private schooling), distressed medical care system (except for the private healthcare market), failed aviation industry (except for private operators) … the list goes on and on and on … and you still argue for an anti neo-liberal stance of even greater state intervention and higher taxes?

    That to me is astonishing. Perhaps you can help “un-astonish” us and point to a fellow African state around here that has prospered founded on such a model as yours?

  • Stephen T says:

    “the state needs to be efficient, effective, honest”
    How is any state going to be these things when every example in history of a large interventionist state has resulted in the exact opposite? Please, Peter Hain, show us where a large, bloated welfare state has led to an economic utopia. Until then I will disagree and consider your ideas to be pie-in-the-sky fantasies that are hopelessly disconnected from reality.

    As for the article in general, two omissions stand out.

    1. The insinuation that Apartheid was the only cause of inequality in SA
    If this was so, we would have seen a gradual turnaround by now. Instead we see the opposite. This tells me that there is something else entirely that must be causing inequality that is unrelated to the struggle, perhaps even unrelated to political policy entirely. Could it be, perhaps, an exploding population?… The numbers don’t lie.

    2. Entrepreneurship and the welfare state can coexist
    It stands to reason that to encourage entrepreneurship, taxation must be low. On the other hand the welfare state requires taxation to be high, and as an added bonus, also discourages entrepreneurship because it creates dependency. These two things seem to be completely incompatible. Is see nothing in this article that suggests novel thinking in this regard. Just the same old Lefty inability to see the incongruence of having your cake and eating it.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    It seems Peter Hain is still living in his imagined World where all is fundamentally able to be corrected, and that all it needs is a little “nudge” from the inestimable Lord Hain. Wake up and smell the roses Peter; as it was under the old Nationalist Government, so it has continued with the ANC; “big Government, nationalised industries from Transnet, Eskom, SAA, through Water Boards et al – all gross failures …. and you still haven’t learnt? You still believe in more? All that foster and grow in these environments are the parasitic ginger protests-groups that you still feel comfortable with.

  • Charles Parr says:

    Mmmmm the art of being a politician, how to talk complete shiza and have the audience asking for more. More handouts, more freebies, more of all these free resources. Let’s put out our hands.

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