Distribution’s dynamic dance

2011-04-23 13:48

The life of Oliver Tambo was intertwined with his position as president of the ANC, which he occupied, somewhat reluctantly, for 30 years.

The Freedom Charter starts with the words: “We, the people of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.”

After its adoption at the Congress of the People in June 1956 the apartheid regime responded with total brutality – 156 people, deemed to be the organisers of the Congress of the People, were charged with treason.

The struggle intensified.The ANC was banned, membership became a punishable offence and the organisation was driven underground.

Tambo was asked to go into exile and build the movement from beyond the borders.

For 30 years he shouldered this task – leading the movement, holding it ­together, generating support and overseeing both decision-making and its implementation. His role in this context is unmatched anywhere in the world.

It is for this reason that his leadership role and his memory remain ­revered by all South Africans.

Here, at Georgetown University in an address on January 27 1987 he said: “We seek to create a united, democratic and non-racial society.“

We have a ­vision of a South Africa in which black and white shall live and work together as equals in conditions of peace and prosperity.

“To this end, we repeat that we are ready to seize any opportunity that may arise to negotiate, with the aim of creating such a society.”

In the same year he assembled a team of the ANC’s finest lawyers from across the world and set them the task of drafting the first set of constitutional principles for a democratic South ­Africa.

These principles were incorporated into the Constitution, as adopted by the Constitutional Assembly in May 1996, almost verbatim.

We have one of the few constitutions that uses the words non-racialism and non-sexism in its founding provisions.

This is not by accident. Similarly, our Constitution commits to a rising floor of socioeconomic rights.

This is no ­accident either. Our Constitution speaks to the need for justice.

It is worth starting with a definition of justice and here I turn to social theorist and Nobel prize-winner Amartya Sen who argues that justice is a multifaceted concept.

First, a theory of justice must include ways of judging how to reduce injustice and advance justice.

Injustice could be the subjugation of women, hunger, a lack of schooling or the absence of affordable healthcare.

Second, Sen argues that the idea of justice is ultimately about people and not just institutions.

Third, justice is about the open exchange of ideas in a society.

If I were to add my interpretation of Sen’s ­definition it would be that justice is a people-centric concept.

But if remedial action is required to deliver justice then agency is required for this task.

These ideas – from Tambo and Sen – also resonate with those argued by the US economist John K Galbraith, whose persuasive arguments are set out in his short, powerful book entitled The Good Society.

In the good society there is, and must be, a large role for the state, and especially on behalf of the less fortunate of the community.

This need must be met and paid for in accordance with ability to pay. Basic justice and social utility are here involved.

So the delivery of justice is impossible to conceive without the fundamentally important agency of the state.

In the good society, achievement may not be limited by factors that are remediable.

There must be economic opportunity for all.

And in preparation for life, the young must have the physical care, the discipline and especially the education that will allow them to seize and exploit that opportunity.

Implicit in this definition of a good society is a strong role for the state, to intervene on behalf of the poor and the less fortunate.

While in its primary incidence, this pro-poor role is domestic, a good society must also have a global perspective and be prepared to intervene globally on behalf of the poor.

The role of economics (and markets) in the good society is basic; economic determinism is a relentless force. The economic system in the good society must work well and for everyone.

Only then will opportunity match ­aspiration.

Very specifically, the good society must have substantial and reliable ­economic growth – a substantial and reliable increase in production and ­employment.

This reflects the needs and desires of a people who seek to ­enjoy greater economic wellbeing.

Sen also supports a market economy, arguing that markets are an efficient way to allocate resources, raise income levels and improve the standard of living.

He believes it is difficult to obtain (economic) wealth without taking advantage of the possibilities of exchange and specialisation that the market offers.

He does not, however, believe in markets alone. Even though he supports an open world economy, he warns against reducing globalisation to the unfettered expansion of trade and markets, and is a vocal critic of neo-liberal policies.

He argues that huge inequalities exist in the world because the market alone is incapable of assuring the wellbeing of the people.

For the needs of the poorest to also be met, the market needs to be framed by public authorities’ actions, giving the market specific incentives.

We need other institutions in addition to the market. Sen maintains that policies (education, health, land reforms) and institutions (micro- credit, judicial systems) are of significant value both for generating a ­surplus and for distributing it.

Public policy and institutions not ­only allow markets to work, but they also enable markets to take a longer term and a more just perspective on growth.

The role that public policy plays is not only important because of the need to support markets and to ­rectify market failures, but also because our sense of justice determines that opportunity must be broadened.

Following the social compact of our Constitution instigated by Tambo on race and redress, we must now try to find ways of growing our economy in a manner that benefits all of its citizens.

A careful balance between redistribution and growth must be struck.

We have achieved much since the establishment of democracy in April 1994 – spending on pro-poor services such as education, healthcare, social security and housing are remarkably strong, as is our spending on police and the institutions of democracy.

Yet, we still battle with the adequacy of the institutions that empower people to fulfil their potential.

In recognising the role the state plays in making markets work for people and for the most marginalised, we must be alive to the fact that states can be captured by vested interests, powerful vested interests that seek to abrogate the role that the state plays in intervening to broaden opportunity.

And so the state has to play a careful role in building partnerships with the powerful elites to implement a just agenda of social change, but at the same time keep a distance to prevent manipulation.

As we grapple with the day-to-day and year-to-year challenges of building our institutions, growing our economy and broadening participation, we are guided by the vision of people like Tambo.

There is a dynamic dance between the idea of justice and society, markets and state.

Public policy must be based on the principles of social solidarity and must be infused with the ethics and values of justice that bring balance to the power of markets.

I leave you with the words of the partner of Tambo in that iconic Joburg law firm of

the 1950s, Mandela and Tambo.

Our former president Nelson Mandela said at the launch of South Africa’s Constitution in 1996: “Those who sought their own freedom in the domination of others were doomed in time to ignominious failure.”

Out of such experience was born the understanding that there could be no lasting peace, no lasting security, no prosperity in this land unless all enjoyed freedom and justice as equals.

» Manuel is Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission

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