Vavi is wrong about the Freedom Charter and here’s why
In a Sunday Independent opinion column, Cosatu’s former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi attempts to tell South Africa that the Freedom Charter of 1955 is still a relevant document in 2015, and that we should “work together” to realize the dream promised.
As you may know, the country, and especially the ANC, celebrated the 60th anniversary of the controversial charter on Friday, 26 June. The Charter was adopted in Kliptown, Soweto on 26 June 1955 by the anti-Apartheid Congress Alliance, and enshrined several values for a prospective nonracial, nonsexist South Africa. During the anniversary celebrations, President Jacob Zuma even went as far as to declare that the Freedom Charter was the governing party’s bible – much to the well placed shock of the Institute of Race Relations‘ Anthea Jeffrey. It seems that the interim Constitution (1993), which was drafted by a more significant representative assembly of South Africa’s people, and the later final Constitution (1996), adopted by our first democratic Parliament, are of less importance to the African National Congress than South Africa’s own version of the Communist Manifesto.
As I have written before at African Students For Liberty, the Freedom Charter is a terrible, terrible document. It is laden with flowery communist rhetoric which provide a convenient mask for the authoritarian regime which would come about to implement its provisions. Ironic then that it is called the Freedom Charter, and is to this day considered to be a manifesto for freedom, with the ANC event referring to it in a recent advertisement as a vehicle for liberty. Its near complete disregard for property rights – the deprivation of which is what made the black majority of South Africa poor during Apartheid (from its relatively rich and prosperous state in the nineteenth century) in the first place – and its misplaced trust in a future totally bona fide government make for scary reading.
It is no surprise then that I must disagree with Zwelinzima Vavi’s encouragement for us to realize the ‘promises’ made in the Charter. The nature of this communist dream is immediately apparent from the following statement:
“It gave us a stunning vision of a totally new kind of society, in which everyone shared in the country’s wealth and was treated equally and fairly.”
A stunning vision indeed. One might even think it’s fantastic, or to avoid confusion, fantasy-esque. That is, impossible, much like communism and socialism have proven to be. The Freedom Charter made promises that no individual, institution or society can realize. Rather than guaranteeing the liberty of each person to better his own lot or the lot of those around him, the Charter told him that he will be given stuff, for free. Rather than explaining how the fantastic idea of national ownership of land, and state control of industry and the economy can work in real life, the drafters of the Charter opted to be inspiring, poetic and instill hope among the people. In the context of 1955 South Africa, this may have been constructive. But intellectuals, politicians, men of industry and people who consider themselves not to be ignorant, should not confuse what is written in the Charter with anything that is practically possible or even desirable. As the rules of basic economics tells us, man is not productive without an incentive. Wealth does not grow in the fields (unless you are a farmer). By owning the land and controlling industry, the State is essentially telling people who would otherwise want to expand their business and be more productive to maximize profit, that they cannot do so, and if they do, they will not receive the well-earned fruits of that labor. Instead, the nation, or, as happens in fact, the government, will acquire the wealth.
“That is why it is still so relevant 60 years later. We have adopted a constitution and many laws which reflect clauses in the Freedom Charter and give better guarantees of social justice, human rights and equality than those of most other countries in the world.”
It is funny then that inequality has simply increased since these values have been enshrined in the Constitution. The socioeconomic ‘rights’ clauses in the South African Constitution have placed an unmeetable burden upon the government. Indeed, the Constitution states that these rights must be met progressively and not immediately, this concession is superficial. With an estimated population of more than 52 million in 2013 (an increase from around 50 million in 2010 and 47 million in 2005), 16 million of which have public welfare as one of their sources of income, the government has only 6 million individual taxpayers (1 in 5) to rely on. According to the Centre for Risk Analysis’ Frans Cronje, only 20% of South African adults pay the income tax. Clearly, this is no good story to tell. Full realization of the Freedom Charter will not only make even progressive implementation impossible, but will also lead to the inevitable decline in the number of substantive taxpayers, as the country grows poorer.
Vavi goes on to praise the rate at which the government has rolled out welfare to the poor. Is this truly something to be proud of? It is no surprise that a statist would be happy when a strong relationship of dependency exists between the government and more than 16 million of its citizens, but we as individual South Africans should be aware of the fact that welfare isn’t a good thing. At best, it is a necessary evil, but we cannot ever perceive it to be a desirable state of affairs. As Murray Rothbard explains in For a New Liberty, “welfare actively discourages self-help by crippling the financial incentive for rehabilitation.” When welfare recipients become financially independent of the State, they risk losing their welfare benefits – something they received without having to work for it, but simply by receiving a certain – or no – wage. Why then will a person seek to, for example, earn the exact wage, or slightly more, that would be the cutoff point for welfare? This is contrary to their interest, since at the end of the day they will end up being in a worse position than when they were on welfare. It is not the fault of the welfare recipient for they are acting as rational human beings. It is the fault of the State and much of our civil society, like Vavi, for making welfare noble and desirable.
I’ll now address the flawed logic and assumptions underlying the remainder of Vavi’s rant on perceived “issues” in South Africa. Vavi notes the fact that the gap in wages between chief executive officers and and the lowest-paid workers in their firms was more than 50 times in 2013. Thus, a CEO gets paid 50 times more than the lowest-paid worker, presumably a janitor or cleaner or an equivalent. He states this without further elaboration. Why is this a problem? Why does he concern himself with what the chief executives are getting paid, when it is not his money that is being used? In fact, where our money is being used, i.e. tax, the executives of Eskom are being paid exorbitant amounts of money. Where is Vavi’s complaint on this? Granted, recently he has not been a friend of the government. But his obvious statism still compromises his credibility here. There is no reason for an outsider, a third party, to concern himself with what someone else is being paid, if it is not his money involved. As a trade unionist, he should concern himself with the workers. He should assist them in bargaining and negotiating for higher wages as to meet their living expenses. He should not attempt to compare them to what the leaders in the industry are getting paid because we do not exist relative to one another.
He further cites that the two richest individuals in South Africa – Johann Rupert and Nicky Oppenheimer – jointly own about as much wealth as half the country (26.5 million people). Again, he leaves this hanging in the air. If I win a high stakes poker game tonight, I may end up having as much wealth as 10 other middle class individuals combined. Is this an injustice? If I sign a lucrative construction contract tomorrow and perform according to it, will it be an injustice if the payout results in me owning as much wealth as 10 other upper class individuals combined? What if I invent a new software application which makes life easier for people in some or other way, and I become filthy-Bill Gates-rich because of it? Has an injustice occurred? Why is it that the wealth that Rupert and Oppenheimer gained in a legitimate fashion (Vavi is free to prove otherwise – I am open to persuasion), by the mere fact that it is a lot, is somehow unjust? There is no logic in Vavi pointing this out.
An article by someone who subscribes to African socialism cannot be complete without a racializing element. Vavi stresses that “the means of production” are still in “white hands”. He states that “almost all” highest wage earning directors of companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, are white males. He then asserts that “this is a far cry from what the drafters of the Freedom Charter envisaged”. At the risk of being irritatingly repetitive: so what? It has been pointed out ad nauseam that it makes no difference for the majority of poor South Africans what the color of the richest South Africans are. So if all the highest paid directors were black, South Africa’s poverty would be solved? Certainly not. Racialization is a convenient tool which is wielded by social democrats across the world. It does not inquire how those directors came to be appointed. It does not inquire whether there even was a black applicant. It does not inquire anything except the race of the persons concerned. For this reason it simply doesn’t matter. If Vavi can show that they were appointed because they are white, rather than personal connections (contrary to the public sector, nepotism in the private sector is 100% fine and legitimate), prior experience or a probably contractual agreement resulting from a merger or other business-related occurrence. The point remains that race by itself means absolutely nothing.
Vavi of course then refers to the dreaded “ticking time bomb” of the glorious socialist revolution. The fact that whites remain wealthy and blacks (who are seemingly the only ones who can be workers – according to Steve Biko – and poor) remain poor means that there will likely be a violent uprising, “unless we get back to the principles of the Freedom Charter.” Perhaps Vavi is right. But this uprising will be due to people like him stoking the fires of irrationality and racialism, not because of any particular concentration of wealth. The onus is on Vavi and his ideological compatriots (and lest I forget the academia) to stop their veiled spreading of race hatred and anti-wealth culture.
He would probably believe his next paragraph preempted my previous one. He cites corrupt politicians, “and even some union leaders”, who go into the public sector to “get rich quick”. Of course, he is correct. But this measly concession does not even begin to speak to the real source of South Africa’s problems: not the State and not the apparatus (the unions) which support the State, but the concept of statism itself. The Freedom Charter, if one is able to look beyond the poetic and inspiring language, requires nothing less than a supermassive state to even scratch the surface of realizing its goals. One may make an argument that a small – very small – government may be free of corruption if there is a vigilant citizenry, but when it comes to a communist government, complete with regulation and planning boards for every conceivable facet of our social and economic existence, this is an impossibility.
If corrupt politicians and an ineffective state bureaucracy scares Vavi, he should abandon the Freedom Charter post haste. I am not asking him to become a free market capitalist (although this would be ideal), but I am merely recommending that he adopt the Constitution, rather than a document to the left of Marx, as his rallying post for South Africa. While the Constitution is also a socialistic document with unrealizable goals, it is more practical and less destructive than what would have occurred if we adopted the Freedom Charter verbatim in 1994 as our constitution. The Freedom Charter is not relevant in 2015 because the Cold War is over and the ideals which the Freedom Charter enshrine, lost that particular war. Not on the battlefield but in the various attempts to realize them in practice. Eastern Europe, and various parts of Africa and South America can attest to that. With all these places, including much of Africa, adopting market-inclined policies and finally replacing their harmful socialist ideas, so too must South Africa.
The Freedom Charter belongs in a museum as a representative of the rebellious bravery of many anti-Apartheid heroes. If only as an “f* you and your ‘anti-communist’ laws” to the former South African Apartheid regime, the Freedom Charter shows that even just to annoy the authorities, thousands of South Africans were prepared to adopt an ideology which Apartheid SA regarded as Satanic. For its time, the Freedom Charter proved useful. This is true for Black Consciousness and the burning down of schools. But today, all these things are counterproductive and stand to do irreparable harm to South Africa, when such harm is not required, unlike 60 years ago when it was. We must finally move away from the African socialism vs. Afrikaner socialism paradigm and do that which works, and which has been shown to work: market liberalism.