The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
Over half a century back, free market protagonist Ayn Rand educated an entire generation of Americans through easy-to-read novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Readers are unlikely to forget the rational approach to unleashing human potential personified in fictional characters like John Galt, Howard Roark and Dagney Taggart. Solidarity’s general secretary Flip Buys has borrowed from Rand’s approach in this brilliant summation of flaws in the populist ideas peddled by South Africa’s third political party, the EFF. The new party has attracted a large slice of those genuinely seeking solutions to the obvious challenges that face their country. Reading Buys with an open mind will surely lead to quite a few Damascene-type conversions. – Alec Hogg
By Flip Buys*
The other Saturday morning I stopped by an EFF canvassing stall that happened to be on my way. It was still early and I was the only visitor at the stall where three enthusiastic EFF “fighters” sat fighting. “Good morning,” I greeted. “Good morning,” they answered in a curious yet friendly way. “I see you are canvassing votes for the EFF,” I said. “Why?” “We want to get enough votes to win the election, then we can all have economic freedom,” one of them replied.
“Sounds great,” I said. “To think one only has to vote for a living. I was under the impression one must work for a living!” I tried to state my case. They just laughed. “But what is the EFF’s goal?” I asked. “Economic freedom,” they replied in a chorus. “What a coincidence,” I laughed. “I am also working full-time for economic freedom.”
Their giggling was friendly, yet they were not entirely convinced by this coincidence. “Are you also an economic freedom fighter?” the one asked in a mocking incredulous way. “No, fighting the economy doesn’t help; then there is nothing left for anyone. I am an economic freedom worker,” I replied.”
Revolution versus restoration
Now they were all ears. “What do you mean by a freedom worker?” the three fighters’ commander in chief asked. “Unfortunately, economic freedom cannot be achieved merely by voting for it and then handing it out to people for free” I replied. “To achieve that requires hard and smart work. “We believe in achieving economic freedom through a revolution such as the 1917 Revolution in Russia,” the talkative commander said. “And you?”
“No, I believe in economic freedom through restoration, as has been achieved in Japan since 1868,” I said. “Restoration of Japan?” one of them asked. “Never heard of it. What was that all about?” That was when I got into my stride. “The Japanese realised that revolutions don’t work because things are only overthrown and destroyed during revolutions,” I said.
“That is why the turnaround of Japan was a restoration – they developed their country and their people. They created things and did not overthrow and destroy everything”. Restorers ask, “What have we done wrong and what do we need to do to correct it now?” Revolutionaries ask, “Who did this to us, and what must we do to them now?
They stared at me incredulously, shaking their heads. “They started by introducing mother tongue instruction and by using that as medium they mastered Western science and technology,” I took the gap. “Then they encouraged the Japanese people to start businesses, and to manufacture and export products. In this way, they eventually gave jobs to thousands, enabling them to look after their families themselves. At the same time, businesses and workers started paying tax, thereby generating revenue for the state to build roads, railway lines and electricity networks, and to build more schools so people could get a decent education and training that enabled them to find jobs,” I tried to summarise the Japanese industrialisation in one sentence.
“Japan modernised itself within 40 years and they could begin to compete with the West,” I added. “That is what I mean by economic freedom workers,” I concluded Lesson One as I could sense they could not wait to have their say.
“The EFF is fighting for a revolution,” two of the three said simultaneously. “Economic freedom in our lifetime – our people cannot wait any longer.” “That’s a great idea!” I said. “But they should definitely not sit and wait much longer; they should start to work for their economic freedom right now,” I said. “We are revolutionaries,” the one said rather offended. “We believe in revolution.”
Redistribution or sharing
“But revolutions don’t work,” I put it to them equivocally. “Look at the three practical case studies of West Germany versus East Germany, North Korea versus South Korea, and Taiwan versus China before the Chinese started using their Taiwanese brothers’ system. In all three of those cases we are dealing with the same people and the same countries, their systems being the only difference. The one was revolutionary socialism, the other free market restoration by which the countries were developed according to the Japanese recipe,” I replied. “The one leads to oppression and poverty; the other has already brought economic freedom to 500 million Chinese.”
“No, we believe in the radical redistribution of wealth,” the commander said sticking to his guns. “Why don’t you want to share?” “But we are already sharing,” I replied. “The difference is simply that we believe in sharing according to the principles of giving, not through redistribution.” “What’s the difference?” the quieter one wanted to know. “It sounds the same; you have to share.”
That was when I took the gap.
“According to my sense of sharing ‘mine is yours,’” I said. “That’s giving.” “Your redistribution means ‘yours is mine’. That is grabbing,” I said. “The one amounts to giving as part of caring; the other is grabbing by using laws or weapons. That’s the difference.” They stared at me. “The one leads to prosperity for all; the other to conflict that destroys the economy and the country and impoverishes and oppresses everyone.”
Now I really got going.
“I want to make the poor richer; you want to make the rich poor too,” I continued. “Then there is nothing left to pay taxes to the state, or to give people jobs, or to redistribute anything. Then we have to look for help from the rich countries’ poor taxpayers and then the rich in our poor country take the money as has happened in other poor countries,” I concluded.
Housekeeper or breadwinner
“We don’t agree,” the third commander commanded. We are dealing with a lot of commanding here. “All must be equal.” “It would seem we agree on this point at least,” I replied. “I also believe in equality – everyone should have an equal start.” “But that is not what I meant,” the third one stated categorically. “Everyone has to be equal.”
“But surely you don’t mean we all have to reach the finish line simultaneously,” I enquired. “Because then, society stagnates at the speed of the slowest one. Then we will all be impoverished and oppressed because by restraining the ones in the front you will have to suppress them.” At that stage they looked confused, and just reiterated their stock reply.
“No, the state has to look after everyone,” the second commander persisted. “You have to hold your horses here,” I said. “A state that is strong enough to look after everyone is also strong enough to take away from everyone. And besides, what the state gives to the many who are not working, it first has to take from the few who do work,” I added.
“That’s communist suppression, not so? Then productive workers would also stop working. That’s why all socialist countries are poor and oppressed,” I tried to explain. “And I thought your fighters were fightingfor the workers. Now it sounds as if you are fighting them!”
They shook their heads. “Government will make sure there is enough for everyone,” commander number one stated, still full of confidence.
I was not going to let him get away with this. “But reality has shown that governments aren’t good at being breadwinners. Governments are only housekeepers. It seems to me you believe the state should be the economy’s locomotive, while I believe it should only be the railway line.”
“What do you mean by locomotive and railway lines?” the first commanded. “Government just has to see to it that the house – the country – is in order and that it has things such as railway lines so the private sector as the locomotive can pull the economy forward providing room on the wagons for everyone,” I replied.
“But it’s going to take ages to achieve all those things you are referring to. Our people have been waiting very long; they have run out of patience,” the second commander commanded. My patience was also beginning to run thin. “But what I’m saying is you can start immediately, nobody has to wait,” I tried again. “What do you mean?” the first commander asked.
A flight of stairs as opposed to a lift
“Economic freedom is a long road. It is like a steep flight of stairs everyone has to climb,” I said. “Government can’t pull every one up simply by the touch of a button or by making your cross in an election. Command-driven economies have collapsed everywhere, landing on the heads of workers and their families in communist countries. The way to the top begins at the bottom – with the family. You can start working with the churches today to heal our country’s families. Only 28% of all black children grow up in families comprising a father and a mother,” I stated.
“Schools are the second step that needs to be climbed. More than 80% of our black public schools are dysfunctional. Without good education no child will find a job. That is why there is such an imbalance and so much unemployment in the country. The inequality is largely a reflection of unequal education and training. You can start at your nearest school right now. See to it that parent governing bodies are functioning and that they see to it that the teachers, schools and children are working. Healthy families and proper education are the only way out of poverty,” I explained.
“The workplace constitutes the third step. Fight racial laws and establish a culture of performance. Then the civil service would start to work and deliver services, and the private sector will grow again. In this way, more jobs will be created for everyone. All the legislation that was introduced to protect workers resulted in the fact that the unemployed now sit without protection. The more laws there are, the less work there is. Trade unions, and not government, should protect the workers, not so?”
That’s when the commander in chief saw his chance to exercise his leadership. “Trade unions must put up a fearless fight and strike to achieve double-digit increases,” he commanded. “People are being paid too little.” His comrades nodded approvingly.
“Double-digit increases!” I exclaimed, holding my head. “You guys think way too small. We have to double people’s salaries!” “And how do you want to do that?” one of the commanders asked somewhat annoyed, yet being curious.
“Through training,” I replied. “You just want to make people’s poverty bearable by increasing their consumption through redistribution and double digits. I want to break poverty by helping people increase their productivity through training, thereby doubling their salaries,” I emphasised my point.
And so the discussion carried on for another half an hour or so. We couldn’t make much headway with each other, but they did say we should talk again. Finally, they asked me what I thought of Julius Malema. I tried to be as frank in my reply: “I think he is the first bull who takes his own China shop everywhere with him. At first I thought he was a promising young man, but I see he is just a young man full of empty promise,” I quoted Churchill. “Socialism only lasts until other people’s money runs out.” Soon after that we parted on good terms; with them still fighting and me being off to work.
- Note. This piece is a five minute summary of a two hour long discussion. It had to be shortened and simplified. My purpose in writing this was not to belittle the EFF guys’ genuine concerns about poverty, but to suggest a better solution.
- Flip Buys is the general secretary of trade union Solidarity