Liberal values are central to open, prospering societies – their erosion is what defines tyrannies - Daily Maverick

Aug 01, 2019
1 August 2019 - We can call each other names until kingdom come, but the poorest South Africans, still labouring under burdens they did not choose and which current policy will assuredly sustain, will not thank us for it.

Michael Morris

Earlier this week, Ismail Lagardien wrote that Helen Zille’s appointment as Senior Policy Fellow at the Institute for Race Relations meant she was joining a ‘global alt-right intellectual community’. His ‘analysis’ is faulty.

The real pity about Ismail Lagardien’s critique, There is much more to Helen Zille’s shift to the right (Daily Maverick, 30 July 2019) is that, for all its appearance of being a dazzling analysis, it contains so few ideas – lots of digs, little depth.

It can seem virtuous – which is only really self-reflecting – to contrive by race labelling and transparent sleight of hand to deface ideas you don’t support, and revel in anticipated applause.

Yet, the evidence of any real argument in Lagardien’s “dear reader” primer on who’s bad, who’s really bad – and how, if you squint just a tad, they sort of merge into a blurry image of menace – is doubtful, as the substance is nearly invisibly thin.

Thus, in response to Helen Zille’s saying that “(w)e must defeat the racial nationalist and neo-Marxist ideas that threaten the future of every South African” and that “the IRR provides a platform for all concerned South Africans to contribute to this battle of ideas by doing three things — namely: uniting the middle; protecting property rights; and promoting individual freedoms,” Lagardien is content to offer the following dismissal:

“It all sounds terribly harmless, if anodyne, especially the ‘middle’ part, the ‘property rights’ part, and that bit about ‘individual freedoms’. This fixation with atomistic individualism is one of liberalism’s worst aspects, but let us leave that, at least for now. [That is actually where he leaves it.]

“Zille reproduces tired myths about ‘neo-Marxist’ ideas, and presents us with that boogieman of ‘racial nationalist’ tendencies.

“These are bog-standard scare tactics and the general piffle that holds together the loose affiliation of right-wingers, mainly in Western Europe, who present themselves as ‘rationalists’ or ‘race-realists’, as defenders of Western Civilisation, and at the extremes (which it would be unfair to label Zille), the likes of white supremacist Richard Spencer and any number of others who would insist that it was European colonisation and white supremacy that gave the world everything that is good and great.”

Well, it’s a roller coaster ride, and, as one would expect, the effect is dizzying – but that’s about it.

What, though, are the real issues of substance?

The erosion of liberal principles is what defines tyrannies – countries people can’t wait to get out of, though are often not allowed to. When they do or can, they always head for societies that do uphold liberal principles. This is no surprise; you can’t fake freedom, and freedom is something that’s judged every second by every person as a measure of his or her well-being, dignity, opportunity, safety and likelihood of living a life not unduly impinged on by anyone else, and particularly by the typically unchallengeable and obscure figures of the State.

It is probably necessary to point out – though it shouldn’t be – that nirvana is not available on the globe; liberalism does not, or even promise to, guarantee a fixed and everlasting heaven on earth. What it does promise, and indeed deliver into the hands of people (you and me, not “them”), are the instruments of choice.

People want them because they tend to provide the well-being, dignity, opportunity, safety and likelihood of living without being unduly impinged on. To borrow from novelist Kingsley Amis (actually referring to spelling, but crisply summing up effective socio-political arrangements that serve most people best most of the time): “There must be a lot to be said for what comes naturally to nearly everyone nearly all of the time.”

The “nearly” in this sentence is salutary. Some instruments of choice are limited, some are hard to use, and some, often for many, may be beyond reach.

And this is the nub of liberalism in South Africa in 2019, and where the IRR and Helen Zille stand firmly – and, needless to say, unapologetically – aligned.

Unremarkably, most South Africans want the same things – the tried-and-tested benefits of freedom in a society of indivisible interests. But South Africans are not as free as they could be; for too many, their freedoms are limited and, thus, so too their sense of common interest. What’s more, the freedom of all South Africans is under threat. One of the most salient threats – what Lagardien tosses off as “the ‘property rights’ part” – is the government’s continuing drive towards expropriation without compensation.

Some urban, comfortably middle-class South Africans tend to think of expropriation without compensation as something for a minority of khaki-clad farmers to stomach and get over. But they are deluded.

Writing in a submission to Parliament earlier in 2019, my senior colleague at the IRR, head of policy research Dr Anthea Jeffery, drew on years of research by Canada’s Fraser Institute to demonstrate the “practical importance of individual property rights and limited state ownership and control”. Jeffery wrote:

“The Fraser Institute’s research shows that the countries which do the best in upholding private property rights and limiting state power are the ‘most free’, in the economic sense. They are also by far the most prosperous. Moreover, the poorest 10% of people in the most free countries have a much higher standard of living than their counterparts in the ‘least free’ countries, where state ownership of land and assets is pervasive and private property rights are tenuous at best.

“Between 1990 and 2010, for example, the annual average growth rate in GDP per head in the least free countries was a mere 1.6%. By contrast, the most free countries clocked up an average growth of 3.6%, or more than double. As a result, the least free countries had GDP per head of $5,200 in 2010, while the most free recorded almost $38,000 – almost seven times as much. The least free showed life expectancy at 62 years in 2010, the most free at 80. So people in the richest countries – the ones where private property rights are upheld and respected – live almost 20 years longer than those in the poorest countries. Moreover, average income per head for the poorest 10% of the population in the least free countries in 2010 was $1,200, whereas in the most free it was nearly $12,000 – almost 10 times as much.”

Liberal values, suffice it to say, are central to the daily life of open, prospering societies. And there is no reason why South Africa should be denied that promise.

Writing elsewhere this week, I singled out some details from the heaps of research by the IRR which, set against the Fraser Institute’s findings, tell us a lot about South Africa’s existential condition, as much as the IRR’s, and Helen Zille’s, motivation for engaging in the battle of ideas on behalf of liberal principles.

Consider, for instance, the Quality of Life Index developed by the Centre for Risk Analysis at the IRR in 2017 to benchmark progress in improving South Africans’ quality of life against 10 key indicators (measured on a score of zero to 10). They are the National Senior Certificate (NSC)/matric pass rate; unemployment (based on the expanded definition); monthly expenditure levels of R10,000 or more; household tenure status (houses owned but not yet paid off to a bank); household access to piped water; access to electricity for cooking; access to a basic sanitation facility; irregular or no waste removal; medical aid coverage; and the murder rate.

The results, I wrote, show that white South Africans have the highest standard of living, with a final index score of 8.0 (excluding the murder rate) or, including the murder rate, 7.8 – both of which are far above the national averages. Whites had the best outcomes in the matric pass rate; unemployment; expenditure exceeding R10,000 per month; mortgaged houses; waste removal; medical aid coverage and access to basic sanitation. Black people had the worst outcomes on all indicators.

I cited IRR research showing that while millions more enjoy access to education today than in 1994, the effects of dysfunctional public schooling include the fact that just under half of children who enrol in Grade 1 will make it to Grade 12; just 28% of people aged 20 or older have completed high school; and that the black higher education participation rate is just 15.6% while that for Indian and white people (aged 20–24) is 49.3% and 52.8%.

I cited IRR calculations showing that of South Africa’s nearly 10 million unemployed people, more than eight million are black, and that the unemployment rate for black people is between four to five times higher than that of white people.

None of the negative results, here, is the consequence of choices by the poorest South Africans; they are consequences of, among other things, race-based empowerment that has failed for 25 years; counterproductive labour legislation; race-based cadre deployment that has crippled public services, and – most recently – threats to property rights (undermining the investment which is the only source today of the relief we need in higher growth rates and more job creation).

We can call each other names until kingdom come, but the poorest South Africans, still labouring under burdens they did not choose and which current policy will assuredly sustain, will not thank us for it.

Finally, a word on colonialism. It has entered into social media lore that Helen Zille defended the ravages of colonialism (the “structural damage” of Lagardien’s and others’ phrasing). She didn’t.

To associate Zille’s tweet about some limited consequences of colonialism with the “structural damage” of the colonial era – highlighting that damage is, of course, faultless – is a bit like talking of the structural damage of Brahmagupta’s revolutionary conception of zero, or of carpenter John Harrison’s crafting of his breakthrough marine chronometer.

To deny that some good or useful things – hymns, calculus, soccer, viticulture, shweshwe fabric, Islam (in southern Africa) – came with the devastating load is to fail to grapple seriously with history, which is an almost always discomforting and untidy enterprise.

Would anyone seriously claim that celebrating the gains of post-1994 democracy in South Africa was tantamount to defending the multibillion-rand State Capture project whose primary victims have been the poorest, most recently liberated citizens?

It’s not likely. But, even if these things are conjoined, they must be separated out – if, that is, one means to be taken seriously. DM

Michael Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

Support the IRR

If you want to see a free, non-racial, and prosperous South Africa, we’re on your side.

If you believe that our country can overcome its challenges with the right policies and decisions, we’re on your side.

Join our growing movement of like-minded, freedom-loving South Africans today and help us make a real difference.

© 2023 South African Institute of Race Relations | CMS Website by Juizi