The political editor of the Rapport newspaper, Jan de Lange, last Sunday penned a rather scurrilous attack on me and the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), accusing us both of being blind to the plight of the ‘working class’. Factually, he is simply wrong.
After my Daily Friend column, The careful massacre of the bourgeoisie, was translated and reprinted in Rapport on 24 May as Die slagting van die middelklas, De Lange responded with a piece of his own on 31 May, headlined, Ivo Vegter is blind to the plight of the working class.
From the outset, he turns vicious, rhetorically wondering whether my opinion might be a ‘swart gevaar’ conspiracy theory from some racist, Afrikaner far-right extremist group, and describing me as a ‘hired gun’ of the Institute for Race Relations (IRR).
I am a freelance writer, and recently joined the IRR as a member. The Daily Friend does remunerate me for my writing, and the IRR pays me when I write research reports for them, but I paid for my membership like any other member, and my seat on the IRR Council is unremunerated.
My association with the IRR is a simple matter of my own libertarian ideology meshing well with its classical liberal principles, and a mutual desire to grow the space for liberal discourse in South Africa. None of that is a secret.
If De Lange considers someone’s association with a think tank ‘mercenary’, I’m guilty as charged.
I have no association with the Afrikaner right-wing, and never have had. I’m not even Afrikaans. When they last were a force of any consequence, around the transition to democracy, I voted African National Congress (ANC) because I believed liberation from Apartheid was the greatest priority for South Africa at the time.
My own views don’t comfortably fall on a left-to-right spectrum, since I believe in individual freedom both on social issues (which is generally associated with the left wing) and on economic issues (which is associated with the right). My libertarian views stand opposed to authoritarianism and collectivism, no matter which wing it comes from. I oppose the radical right as strongly as I oppose the radical left.
The personal attacks over, he gets to the meat of his critique: ‘He is apparently blissfully unaware that those who used to earn their bread in the informal sector have been without income for two months. Those are people who before the lockdown had at most a week or two’s worth of disposable income in their pockets. … They are the country’s working poor. … Yes, the middle class is suffering, but they aren’t the ones being massacred. It is the working class – those over whom the ANC competes against the EFF for votes.’
It isn’t a contradiction to point out that the destruction of the middle and upper classes is a strategic objective of those who seek a socialist revolution, even while the means through which they achieve this harms the poor more. It isn’t a competition. Everyone is being hurt by the lockdown, and everyone will be hurt by socialism.
My column merely placed the lockdown in the context of the odious socialist ideology of the ruling party, to which it is committed in word and deed.
To suggest that I’m blissfully unaware of the plight of the working poor or the informal sector is, quite simply, false.
De Lange could not know that my wife is a nurse who daily works on the front lines of the Covid-19 response, predominantly in the townships. I am acutely aware of the plight of the poor in those communities.
He could, however, have known about my public writings over the months and years.
In Cozying up to the commies (3 May 2020), I wrote: ‘The lockdown is decimating the informal sector… It has little access to bridging finance to survive a period in which business is prohibited, and also does not have access to formal financial relief measures.’
In ‘Behind every silver lining is a dark cloud’ (7 April 2020), I criticised ‘elitists’, ‘living high on the hog’, who saw in the lockdown a chance to ‘put a grinding halt to the cult of unnecessary materialistic consumerism’. I wrote: ‘…the cost of taking Covid-19 seriously is economic catastrophe. It is destroying productive capital and driving millions back into the destitution from which capitalism lifted so many.’
‘Worse than prisons’
In Ramaphosa may be destroying the economy for nothing (31 March 2020), I wrote: ‘For people living in crowded townships and shantytowns, being confined inside their homes would be worse than prisons. Many don’t even have access to their own running water or toilets, yet aren’t allowed out on the streets to use communal facilities. Imposing a lockdown in these circumstances is a gilt-edged invitation to starvation, dysentery, cholera and, ultimately, riots.’
In How meekly and fearfully we march into totalitarianism (25 March 2020), I wrote: ‘The president has announced limited relief measures, but they are mostly targeted at formal businesses and salaried workers. The informal sector, the self-employed, contractors, freelancers and gig workers can expect no relief, and will face an extended period with zero income.’
And later in that same article: ‘The consequences of widespread layoffs and loss of income will be disastrous for millions. The country’s poverty levels and unemployment rate will go through the roof. And poverty is deadly – perhaps more deadly than the pandemic itself.’
Before I left Daily Maverick to join the Daily Friend, I routinely wrote about economic freedom in the context of the poor and the unemployed.
In Why socialism thrives nowhere except at universities (24 September 2019), for example, I described the findings of the Fraser Institute Economic Freedom of the World Report for that year: ‘The report notes that nations in the top quartile of economic freedom had an average per-capita GDP six times higher than those in the bottom quartile. The average income of the poorest 10% in free countries was seven times higher than in unfree countries and exceeded the average per-capita income in the least-free nations. In the top quartile, 1.8% of the population experience extreme poverty, compared to 27.2% in the lowest quartile.’
In an article about the proposed National Health Insurance, I described a scheme by which government would pay for the healthcare of rich people, who are perfectly able and willing to foot the bill themselves, as ‘a perverse redistribution of government resources and taxpayer-generated wealth from the poor to the rich’.
In one of my first tweets about the lockdown, I wrote, ‘I really fear for our liberties, I fear socialism, and I truly fear the consequences of this lockdown, especially in a country with so many poor people.’
‘More severe consequences’
About Sweden’s strategy, I tweeted: ‘And that’s in a rich country, where shutting down the economy for a month or two shouldn’t lead to outright starvation and destitution. In a poor country, lockdown has far more severe consequences than it would have in Sweden.’
In a tweet about the payment ‘glitches’ involving social security grants, I wrote: ‘when you’re poor, not getting paid is the difference between life and death. It’s not an “inconvenience”’.
I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. When the lockdown hit, my very first concern was for the millions of poor South Africans who would lose their jobs and incomes, and for whom this would spell destitution and starvation.
How does De Lange square all this with my alleged ignorance of, or lack of concern for, the poor? Is a single article about the destruction of the middle class evidence that I don’t know about, or care about, the working class? Or is De Lange just setting up a giant straw man so he can attack my free-market views?
That he is so glibly dishonest about my opinions and concerns rather strongly undermines the validity of his entire article.
He describes the damaging impact of the lockdown on food supply chains, including rising prices at large supermarket chains, as ‘a classical failure of the free market’. Why would you describe the effect of draconian restrictions by the government as a failure of the free market, though? It is the very opposite: it is a failure caused by government interference in the market.
De Lange neatly segues from his attack on me, to a similar attack on the IRR. ‘There are … many people on the top floor [of the economy] who are blissfully unaware of the existence of the bottom floor. Like Vegter and the other hired hands of the IRR.’
This is also false. I can’t speak on its behalf, but as a policy think tank, the IRR has published several reports since the start of the lockdown, all of which address, in part, the plight of the poorest South Africans.
The report Friends In Need – Covid-19: How South Africa can save #LivesAndLivelihoods, was published on 25 March 2020, even before the hard lockdown was imposed, and was written by ten contributors and three editors associated with the IRR.
Discussion about unemployment
Its chapter on income security starts with a discussion about unemployment, and ‘focuses on those who did have an income going into the Covid-19 pandemic, but have now, will soon, or might lose their jobs through no fault of their own’.
‘Now is their hour of need’, the report says, blissfully unaware that two months later De Lange would accuse them of not recognising the needs of the working poor.
It goes on to describe exactly how low salaries are in South Africa, focusing specifically on the 50% of workers who earn less than R3 500 per month, and the 25% who earn less than R2 000. It also notes that most workers earning less than R6 000 per month wouldn’t be able to make their savings, if any, last more than a month. It highlighted many other ways, from hunger and malnutrition, to social instability, to interruption of education, in which the poor would be the worst affected.
This is almost word for word the reality that De Lange accuses us of not knowing about.
‘If the most vulnerable South Africans are the elderly in multi-generational households and the immuno-compromised, the most at-risk communities are the poor, typically living in informal settlements,’ wrote Hermann Pretorius, the IRR’s deputy head of policy research, in A Trim Down Approach for South Africa: Getting SMME’s, the economy, and the country into a state of recovery (16 April 2020).
In Lifting The Lockdown Now (30 April 2020), Anthea Jeffery expresses concern about the number of working class people being pushed into poverty, and quotes an estimate by economist Dawie Roodt that this could lead to an excess of 300 000 deaths over the next 10 years.
‘Bereft of economic independence’
‘Draconian lockdown controls have also triggered an upsurge in dependency on the limited support the state is able to provide,’ wrote Jeffery in Keeping Liberty Alive Through Covid-19 and Beyond (14 May 2020). ‘Until such time as the lockdown is lifted and the economy recovers from the massive blow it has been dealt, millions of South Africans will find themselves bereft of the economic independence they previously enjoyed and ever more reliant on the government to fulfil their core needs.’
This is the IRR allegedly doing nothing to try to relieve the plight of the working class and the nation’s poor. If I didn’t think that the political and economic conditions of the poor were among the concerns of the IRR, I wouldn’t have associated myself with it.
De Lange claims that the IRR has kept itself occupied with ‘the darkest predictions about everything the evil, communist and socialist ANC has in store for us’. He mentions, specifically, the threat of prescribed assets for pension funds, the National Health Insurance, and expropriation without compensation.
He is apparently blissfully unaware that these are real policies, written down on real paper, proposed or announced by real politicians, and intended for real implementation.
He disputes my description of President Cyril Ramaphosa as a committed socialist, preferring to describe him as ‘a capitalist with a conscience’, perhaps because he got stinking rich on the back of black economic empowerment. Wealth, however, does not a capitalist make, and socialist leaders are rarely poor.
De Lange appears to be blissfully unaware of Ramaphosa’s background as a trade union leader, and that Ramaphosa describes himself as a committed socialist. He also frequently refers to the National Democratic Revolution, the ideological touchstone of the ANC, which calls for a socialist revolution to follow the democratic revolution of 1994. His recent comments on the ‘new economy’, or ‘radical economic transformation’, he wants to build on the ashes of the economy destroyed by the lockdown also eloquently express his socialist ambitions.
For someone who presumes to admonish others about walking around with ideological blinkers, De Lange seems pretty blinkered himself.
It is unfortunate that De Lange felt the need to make such a litany of false allegations against me and the IRR. His underlying concern – that the poor, working and otherwise, are hit the hardest by the lockdown – is perfectly valid, and bears being repeated as often as possible. They are often the silent victims of government policy.
It’s just dishonest to say that I have never said so, or that the IRR never does.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR