Stories and Protecting Freedom

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The current struggle being waged presently and shaping our future is that between landless black people(this includes black people who own land) and colonial settler whites (this includes white people who moved here 10 years ago), black people have no land – actual title deeds notwithstanding – while white people own all productive land (don’t fret about the former homelands and the high-quality dead-capital being hoarded by politicians and traditional leaders) and use it to maintain their position of wealth and privilege. This has resulted in the dire poverty rates among black people while white people tend to be better off.

The last line is certainly true, it is easily observed from the statistical evidence. So there’s no denying that we have a problem here but in order to understand what the possible solutions are, we need to be critical of the story we tell ourselves about the cause(s) of the problem, it is possible to tell an appealing and plausible-sounding story and still be wrong. A respectably-dressed young/old man/woman might have told you the story of social saving through MMM, told you of the spectacular returns that your donation to others seeking the same thing would make you rich, this story was true for the early adopters but wrong for those who came later.

You might also have a neighbour or have seen something in the media about a person buying a national lottery ticket and winning millions of rands for themselves. This story might inspire you to buy your own ticket and if you are reading this, I can confidently guarantee that you will not win millions of rand in the next lotto draw.

Stories are great, they give us a sense of order among the complexity we inhabit, stories can be and most are wrong. This is because it is much easier to collect and create stories than to gather evidence from a messy world and try to make sense of something that may require understanding something human civilisation is a thousand years away from or will never understand. It is just easier and probably better for our sanity to invent a story and pretend it is true.

Coming back to our grand narrative, the one that is shaping our future, why do it’s adherents persist even though it is countered by evidence from history and economics? In South Africa: The Solution, Leon Louw, and Frances Kendall make the point that apartheid was a system of full-blown socialism for blacks and greater economic freedom for whites. In this story land matters too but it is not the only relevant factor, it matters because land ownership was denied to black people in many of the areas they had been forcefully settled in and thus property rights denied. It also matters because land was expropriated from black people without compensation, as was the case with some white people owning land in areas designated for black people.

It wasn’t just land though, everything from the freedom of movement and the right to work was restricted for black people. There were very many restrictions on everyone but to black people apartheid reserved it’s greatest capacity to control, there was no equality before the law for blacks, you could not long hold on to something that the government’s ideology demanded.

The story we started off with has very many holes, one of which is the fact that virtually all South Africans are descended from settlers, it’s just a question of the mode of transport: walking or by boat. Imagine if in 200 years time future South Africans demand all property be given to the descendants of those who travelled via uber as opposed to those who chose the Gautrain. That’s how ridiculous the settler concept is when applied to everyone who just happens to be white.

It is true that apartheid and the white supremacist colonial governments waged a war on black people but we ought to question the extent to which government actions are attributable to ordinary citizens of a country. Are you responsible for Life Esidimeni and Marikana because the government did it? Are you responsible for the arms deal? Are you responsible for state capture?

Of course, some of you are responsible for these things if you have voted for a government that does these things, in the same way, some white people are responsible for the apartheid government since they voted for it. We also know that there are people who oppose the current government and their policies, an even greater number is indifferent about these policies and simply focuses on living their lives as best they can, these two groups of people do not share the blame for the government’s crimes and this is true for the people living under past racist regimes.

It is not a simple narrative but human beings are a part of nature and are as complex as nature, there’s a saying attributed to statistician George Box “ All models are wrong but some are useful.” and I believe this applies to the narratives we construct about individuals and the society they create. It is this humility that should convince anyone to defer to the individual in figuring out for themselves how to live and navigate this natural complexity.

Therefore, the story I tell myself about what went wrong and how to fix it is likely missing certain details even though it explains the socio-economic, temporal situation more completely than the other simpler narrative of land. I can show you evidence of how free markets lead to prosperity and propose methods for dealing with the injustices perpetrated against individuals in the past but the really important thing is to not create injustices now. Of course, ignoring past injustice is also an injustice, therefore we should get serious about restitution instead of arbitrary measures that dispossess people who might or might not be guilty of anything.

Individual freedom is how we ensure that we have a society that no longer manufactures injustice regardless of what story we tell ourselves, as long as everyone else is free to tell themselves a different story should they so wish and act accordingly. I do not hold universal truths but I have a nugget of obvious, common-sense knowledge: leave life to individuals, do not coerce, let all of us figure out our own roles in this common story of existence.

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