Our future as a free and open society depends on one thing alone – shaping public opinion on the pressing need for policy reform.

The following is an extract from a speech I delivered during an IRR roadshow* across the Eastern Cape this week.

Whether we can roll back the multitude of threats to South Africa’s future as a free and open society depends on one thing alone; the future trajectory of South Africa’s battle of ideas. ‘Battle of Ideas’ is what we do. Our methods align closely to the idea that the war in Vietnam was lost in America’s living rooms and on the streets of Washington and not in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Put differently, it is the ability to shape and command public opinion that determines public policy. It is quite pointless, in our experience of many decades, to seek to convince politicians of the need for reform if they cannot at the same time be convinced that the balance of power in public opinion is against them and in favour of reform.  

Put differently, South Africa cannot turn itself around and become a truly free and prosperous society within the bounds of the hegemony of ideas that has been forced upon the country by the ANC – ideas that dictate that the State should determine the direction of the economy; that actual disadvantage should be subordinated to race in empowerment policy; that growing the economy should be subordinated to the redistribution of a diminishing pool of wealth; that property rights should be diluted to facilitate historical redress; that the right to articulate ideas should be restricted in order to foster social cohesion; and that individuals and communities should be denied the authority to determine how their schools and police stations are run.

The IRR, which turned 90 this year, has throughout its history advocated for the rights of individuals to make decisions about their own lives, families, and businesses, free from unnecessary government, political, and bureaucratic interference – as it does here tonight.

In our offices hangs a framed credo that reads:

We stand for classical liberalism, an effective way to defeat poverty and tyranny through a system of limited government, a market economy, private enterprise, freedom of speech, individual liberty and the rule of law.

It was through fighting to defend those principles that saw the IRR become the most influential anti-apartheid think tank in the world. Autocratic regimes undermine freedom of speech, ban books and jail dissident thinkers because they know how dangerous it is when dissident ideas take hold among ordinary people and communities. And we are here in your community tonight for exactly that purpose, to ask that you take the bold step of getting into a new fight with us in order to take back control of your future and that of your family and community from the politicians and hatemongers who are driving our country to failure.   

The winner of the battle of ideas will ultimately be the side that injected the greatest volume of compelling argument into the public mind and fought that battle of ideas by injecting vast amounts of information into the public domain. Last year, IRR staffers placed almost 1 000 opinion articles in newspapers and secured over 10 public citations ever day – each of which was a small argument in favour of the ideas that must come to define South Africa’s future policy framework but which collectively represented the single greatest source of pro-liberty arguments entering the public domain.  

Specifically, we take an aggressive and robust public stand for:

  • Real economic empowerment – not the failed, counterproductive, and racist policies of the government. To really empower poor people, South Africa needs to focus on the root causes of poverty which can be found in bad schools, weak family structures, a sluggish job market, low levels of entrepreneurship, and an economy that is growing far too slowly. The government’s empowerment policies address none of these things and focus instead on racial engineering that undermines investment, raises prices, reduces competitiveness, and forces entrepreneurs to comply with costly administrative hurdles while offering little to the poor and the truly disadvantaged. The victims are black and white people who cannot get ahead because empowerment policy does not focus on the things that are holding them back. Enforcing the current policies more aggressively will change none of this. We advocate for a bold new approach to empowerment policy that identifies its beneficiaries based on their actual socio-economic disadvantage, and helps them to escape from poverty through education, entrepreneurship and employment. 
  • Property rights for all – all South Africans have the right to enjoy the benefits of their hard work, and the government must never again have the power to take that right away. The historical denial of property rights to black people is something the IRR fought bravely against for many decades, but is something that cannot be reversed by undermining property rights today. Without property rights, South Africa will never attract the investment it needs to grow the economy and create jobs, and this will worsen the circumstances and prospects of disadvantaged people. Property rights also anchor human liberty in every free and open society because a government cannot oppress people whose property rights are secure.
  • Family choice – over how you want to live. It is not for the government to tell you how to educate your children, or to force you to use a dangerous public hospital or rely on an incompetent police force. We advocate for policies that allow communities to wrestle back control of their schools, hospitals, and police stations from politicians, and lobby for the government to introduce healthcare and education vouchers that will allow for communities to decide how taxpayer funds should be spent, for stronger school governing bodies, and for community police forums that will have the power to appoint police station commanders.
  • Freedom of speech – there should be no limits on what you are allowed to say or think except where such ideas threaten physical harm against another person. It is dangerous that South Africa has imported from Europe and America a culture that seeks to protect people from things they don’t like to hear through creating ‘safe spaces’ and savaging any person who holds an opinion that is not seen as politically correct. Political correctness is strangling our society and risks a tyranny of the minority where a small group of politicians, activists and journalists get to decide what you are allowed to say or think. We advocate against all threats to freedom of speech and all attempts to force ‘group-think’ in business, academia, the media, civil society, and politics.
  • Political accountability – we think that politicians should be directly answerable to you. In South Africa, you do not vote for an MP who you can call to account when the government acts against your interests. Rather, you vote only for a party, which then appoints a certain number of MPs, depending on their share of the vote. This means MPs are answerable to party leaders and not to you and this is the main reason why many political parties support policies and take decisions that directly threaten your future and that of your family. To put the power back in your hands, we advocate for Parliament to be divided into an upper and a lower house where the MPs in the lower house will be elected directly out of community constituencies and be answerable only to the people who elected them.

Central to all of this, for the IRR, is the unambiguous rejection of race as the basis of government policy. It is good and right for society to help those who are disadvantaged, particularly given our history, so that any child born in our country can rightly aspire to a middle class standard of living. But this must be done not on the basis of their race but on the basis of their disadvantage. Given the patterns of poverty and inequality, the great majority of beneficiaries will be black – not because they are black but because they are poor. It is a subtle but profoundly important distinction upon which hangs the whole of South Africa’s liberal tradition. And the broad acceptance of that distinction, and the policy implications that arise from it, is the pivot point around which the prospects for real socio-economic reform revolve.  

The more we can collectively do to spread and disseminate these ideas across our country the greater the odds become that when South Africa hits its next major crisis the ideas we have articulated will dictate the post-crisis policy framework. The democratic transition of the 1990s did not come about through happenstance but was the product of the sophisticated efforts of a great many organisations to sufficiently discredit the idea of separate development in order to open the way to democratic reform. It is time to change the tide of ideas again.   

* The IRR toured the Eastern Cape this week, meeting journalists, politicians, and community leaders and hosting public events in East London, Grahamstown, Port Alfred, Port Elizabeth, and Jeffreys Bay. If you want the IRR to tour your community, contact Nicholas Lorimer at nicholas@Irr.org.za or 011 482 7221 ext 2013

Frans Cronje is the CEO of the IRR.

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Frans Cronje
Frans Cronje was educated at St John’s College in Houghton and holds a PHD in scenario planning. He has been at the IRR for 15 years and established its Centre for Risk Analysis as a scenario focused research unit servicing the strategic intelligence needs of corporate and government clients. It uses deep-dive data analysis and first hand political and policy information to advise groups with interests in South Africa on the likely long term economic, social, and political evolution of the country. He has advised several hundred South African corporations, foreign investors, and policy shapers. He is the author of two books on South Africa’s future and scenarios from those books have been presented to an estimated 30 000 people. He writes a weekly column for Rapport and teaches scenario based strategy at the business school of the University of the Free State.


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