An SA that would make our kids proud

2013-08-26 00:00

I HAVE always been a capitalist, even when I had nothing. It’s not what you have or don’t have that makes you a capitalist, it’s a state of mind. You just know that you will prosper if you provide value for others.

I want you to imagine the way our country and the world could be, rather than the way it is. We have to think of the generations that are going to follow us and do all we can to make the world a better place for them.

My understanding of freedom or lack of freedom is not based on theory. I learnt what freedom truly means through experience.

In my book, Black Like You, I describe the “white-by-night” curfews that applied to black people. Curfew usually fell between 9 pm and 5 am the next morning, and black people were not allowed on the streets during those hours. If you have not experienced a curfew, you cannot imagine what such a lack of freedom of movement feels like. Then we had the pass laws, which prevented people moving from the rural areas into the cities. The city areas where we were allowed to go were specified. During my early years in sales, I was restricted to operating in areas where I knew there was a friendly police presence.

I mention these things to give young people an understanding of the freedom they enjoy, a freedom we did not have. We did not bemoan our fate, we simply found a way to get around the difficulties that were placed in our path.

I urge young people today to look around for opportunities. Don’t expect someone to hand them to you. You have access to opportunities that past generations only dreamt of.

The current generation must put in place laws and policies that foster economic and personal freedom. The supremacy of the Constitution and the rule of law are among the founding provisions of our South African Constitution. It is our responsibility to ensure that the rule of law is respected and followed. If we do so, opportunities will open up for our young people.

Economist Milton Friedman wrote about being free to choose. Among the most important freedoms is being able to make our own choices about our own lives. That is the kind of freedom we all looked forward to with the end of apartheid. That is the kind of freedom we must have for the future.

Governments, when they want to shield us from the consequences of our own lifestyle decisions, interfere with our freedom. There is nothing wrong with politicians trying to persuade us to cut down on smoking or drinking liquor, or eating unhealthy foods — as long as they limit themselves to persuasion. When they introduce laws to try to change people’s peaceful habits, that is when it becomes a problem. If you are not allowed, because of interference from government, to adopt habits that could be bad for your health, or to make decisions that other people consider unwise, you no longer have freedom of choice.

We have 7,9 million unemployed people in this country. How can this be possible? If people want to work, there will be someone who will employ them, as long as employers can earn more from the output of the workers than it costs to employ them. What this situation tells us is that our labour laws and regulations are a barrier to employment. According to the 2013 African Competitiveness Report published by the World Bank, the two most problematic factors for doing business in South Africa are an inadequately educated work force and restrictive labour regulations. Despite the proof offered to us by these reports and the large number of unemployed people in the country, we are told constantly that labour laws play no role in causing unemployment.

We see reports in the press and on TV about people losing their jobs because bargaining-council agreements have been extended to non-participating small firms. Is this not evidence that these agreements make the labour laws more restrictive and put people out of jobs? Other reports tell us that minimum wages are being raised and even state that more people will lose their jobs because the employers can’t afford to pay the higher wages. The workers whose jobs are on the line are not asked whether they would prefer to keep their jobs at the lower wage rather than lose them. That should surely be their decision to make, not somebody else’s? Once again, it is freedom of choice that is at the root of the problem.

What will make our children and grandchildren proud is if the citizens of this country tackle the problems and sort them out. If average incomes are high because of a healthy and growing economy, unemployment and poverty are minimal, education is top-quality, there is freedom of choice, everyone is colour-blind, business is innovative, the courts are efficient, the criminals have reformed, co-operation is the order of the day, everyone is safe and happy, our expats are returning home, and South Africa is considered to be the best place in the world. That would make our children and their children proud.

• Herman Mashaba is the chairperson of the Free Market Foundation and this article is based on his address to the annual meeting of the foundation. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by members of the foundation.

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