The following is my address, as Chief Executive-designate, to the Annual General Meeting of the Free Market Foundation (FMF) on 17 November.
Fighters for economic freedom
“The Economic Freedom Fighters…” How unfortunate and ironic that this was the name chosen by the most vocal proponents of Marxist-Leninism in South Africa.
For in fact, long before it was fashionable to don the ‘red berets’, the real ‘economic freedom fighters’ – the men and women at the Free Market Foundation – were hard at work advancing the true cause of “economic freedom in our lifetime” in South Africa.
Those EFF Communists expropriated our name without compensation – how typical!
Of course, what we mean by economic freedom is quite different to what the EFF has in mind.
True economic freedom means empowered, sovereign individuals free to trade with one another, to earn an income for themselves and their family, with security of tenure over their property and their assets, protected under the rule of law with minimal government interference.
The FMF has never been afraid of challenging the powerful.
Whether it was against the white nationalists of Apartheid, or the African nationalists and socialists of the Tripartite Alliance, the FMF has argued the case for economic freedom and individual rights without let or hinderance.
For almost half a century, the FMF has been South Africa’s gadfly.
It has questioned orthodoxies; provoked authority; proposed controversial alternatives.
Today, I feel privileged to be speaking to several of the men and women who have been involved with this organisation for many decades, and the many others who joined the cause of advancing liberty more recently.
It is indeed an illustrious organisation with a proud history.
I want to use the occasion of this Annual General Meeting to convey my deep appreciation to those who have worked tirelessly in defence of freedom. South Africans owe you a debt of thanks.
I also want to reflect on where I see South Africa going, and what role the FMF can – and should – be playing in our society.
The current state of play in South Africa
Let’s zoom out and consider the current state of play in South Africa today.
The country is, in many respects, going backwards.
In 2008, unemployment on the expanded definition (which includes those who have stopped looking for work), stood at 28%.
Today, under the same definition, unemployment now sits at 44%.
Dependency on social grants has risen. In 2008, 13 million grants were issued every month. Today, over 25 million social grants are doled out.
With our shrinking tax base, mass redistribution is financially and socially unsustainable.
In the mid-2000s, GDP growth averaged around 5% for three consecutive years.
Last month, the Minister of Finance projected annual growth would average just 1,6% over the next three years. That simply is not good enough.
Electricity production cannot meet demand, our ports have been ranked among the most inefficient in the world, our infrastructure is crumbling, and the state is unable to fulfil its basic function of maintaining law and order.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
Amidst the disorder we see the emergence of new entities that are filling the void left by the retreating state. Some of these groups are criminal gangs and syndicates, operating with violent impunity (witness the attacks on the mining and construction industries, which have been beaten into submission).
However, we are also seeing the emergence of new social movements seeking to preserve order where the state has abandoned its obligations to citizens.
Whether it is community groups in platteland towns repairing broken sewerage pipes, private companies that are filling potholes in the suburbs, or civil society groups like Sakeliga who are building an independent business community, we are witnessing a groundswell of ordinary citizens working together to fix South Africa themselves.
In 1990, the late John Kane-Berman of the Institute of Race Relations wrote South Africa’s Silent Revolution, where he described the quiet rebellion by millions of South Africans against the Apartheid state’s ubiquitous race laws and labour controls.
The Free Market Foundation’s own former chairperson, Michael O’Dowd, had similar thoughts when he wrote the O’Dowd Thesis in 1966.
A similar ‘silent revolution’ is currently underway in South Africa today.
Millions of South Africans, most of them poor and black, are hustling, selling and trading in pursuit of a better life for themselves and their children.
The irony is that as the state weakens, it simultaneously expands its scope, desperate to reassert its authority.
But South Africans are not stupid. They can see that the emperor has no clothes.
They are decoupling themselves from the failing state and embracing self-sufficiency and free market exchange – even if they do not necessarily call it that. We must support them and remove the obstacles that lie in their way.
It is this pluck and grit that gives me hope for the future of South Africa.
A loss of strategic focus
Let’s return to the FMF itself.
South Africa, despite its many problems, can boast a rich diversity of civil society organisations, of which the FMF is one.
Through its Khaya Lam project, the FMF has transferred over 9,500 council-owned properties to legal council tenants – turning tenants into homeowners, and making dead capital come alive.
We continue to work with street traders and the unemployed. Eustace Davie deserves a special mention for his tireless promotion of the Job Seeker’s Exemption Certificate. Thiswould give young people the option to opt out of South Africa’s onerous labour laws.
Our Chairman, Rex van Schalkwyk, a former judge, has ably led the Rule of Law Board of Advisors which ensures that South Africa is ruled by the power of the law, not by the power of man.
More recently, Gail Day, apart from her countless other duties, has spearheaded the Laws Affecting Small Business project, defending the rights of entrepreneurs.
There is a lot to boast about.
Sadly, however, the FMF has been consumed by internal conflicts in recent years. These fights have caused considerable anxiety and strained many lifelong professional – and often deeply personal – relationships.
While many excellent people remain, a number of young up-and-coming stars have left the organisation out of frustration.
These conflicts have been a massive distraction, blunting the FMF’s impact during a time where economic freedom was under unprecedented assault from all directions.
Public scrutiny of the organisation has been intense.
Many commentators have asked whether the FMF can still play a constructive role in the policy debate in South Africa. I am confident that it can, but we need to do more to convince an incredulous public.
While I am sensitive to the many issues that have preceded my appointment as Chief Executive, I wish to encourage everyone who is invested in the FMF and its ideals to look forward to the role that the organisation could be playing in ending the current crisis that is facing South Africa.
To those who have left the FMF under a cloud, I say this:
I bear you no ill feeling. I acknowledge your past contribution, and I wish you well in your endeavours. However, my obligation is first and foremost to the organisation that I now serve, and I will do what is necessary to defend its interests.
To those who have stuck with the FMF through this turbulent period, I want to say thank you for your patience and forbearance. We must now focus our resources and efforts on advancing liberty and protecting the rights of all South Africans, black and white, rich and poor.
It was Archimedes who said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
The FMF can be a fulcrum for moving South Africa in the right direction. However, to assume this vital and necessary role, it must first put its past behind it and turn its focus towards the future.
There is a lot of hard work to be done.
The FMF’s political role
I would like to speak briefly about the FMF’s role in advancing change in South Africa and its political status.
This is a question that has vexed the organisation in recent years and from which I do not shy away.
Firstly, it is important to state that the FMF is – and should remain – institutionally independent and nonpartisan. This means that it should not hitch itself to the agenda of any political party or organisation.
We are, in more ways than one, the complete opposite of the South African Communist Party (SACP), which lobbies within the Tripartite Alliance for the advancement of its overtly socialist agenda: the National Democratic Revolution (NDR).
This has been a very effective strategy for the SACP, as evidenced by the growing multitude of statist laws that now litter the statute books. Many prominent Communists occupy key Cabinet positions.
Not only do we differ from the SACP in terms of fundamental principles, but we also, to borrow a Marxist phrase, differ in terms of “strategy and tactics.”
Fortunately, the FMF is not in the business of trying to win votes or of gaining seats. This gives us more freedom to articulate our policy proposals confidently and without equivocation.
While we will not ally ourselves with any political party, we will certainly speak to politicians of various ideologies and persuasions. However, we do not seek to achieve “consensus” with our opponents or to participate in “social compacts.”
The FMF is a combatant in the battle of ideas. It should not shy away from defending and advancing its cherished values and ideals. Doing so often entails entering into conflicts with political organisations or participating in what might be referred to as politics with a small ‘p’.
We know that politics is downstream from public opinion, so we will seek to influence the ideas that shape public opinion.
We will do the traditional things we have always done well: submissions to Parliament, opinion pieces in the media, interviews on the radio and television, and public interest litigation.
Some of our campaigning might make political parties feel like they’re being attacked or affronted by us. That is okay. We are not going to be aggressive for its own sake, but we will need to be firm in defending free enterprise and the market economy, for the greatest drivers of human prosperity the world has ever known.
The FMF is not simply an ivory tower think tank that will confine itself to churning out policy papers and sending them into the ether. We will not stand by and merely document South Africa’s inexorable decline.
Not only will we try to arrest that decline, but we also want to contribute to the revitalisation of South Africa’s economy and its society more broadly.
We recognize that there is a certain distribution of power in South Africa, which at the moment is concentrated in the hands of the African National Congress (ANC).
RW Johnson wrote in 2016 that “South Africa can either choose to have an ANC government or it can have a modern industrial economy. It cannot have both.”
But do not despair. The ANC’s hegemonic status will not last forever. One day it will end, gradually and then suddenly, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway.
Like the Institute of Economic Affairs did in the United Kingdom, we need to endure South Africa’s own ‘Winter of Discontent’ and be on hand to provide the alternative policy solutions when power changes, as it inevitably will.
We cannot avoid being political. No person or organisation is apolitical, or completely insulated from the political process. Because even if you’re not interested in politics, sooner or later, politicians are going to become interested in you.
Will you be ready when they do?
We will be ready.
If there are policies from the incumbent government (or any future government) that threaten to infringe on your freedom to trade or the sanctity of your property rights, then we are going to defend those rights, be it in the court of public opinion or in the court of law.
Our ideas are worth fighting for.
An arduous path, but one worth taking
I would be lying if I said that accepting this appointment was an easy decision to make. It wasn’t.
But in the end, the decision came down to a simple question:
Will South Africa be worse off without the FMF, I asked myself?
Yes, far worse off, I thought. That is why I accepted the responsibility to lead this organisation.
Of course, such a role comes with a certain degree of risk. But any significant endeavour comes with the risk of failure. It’s a sign that it’s worth doing.
I have no doubt about the scale of the challenge.
I intend to implement some big changes to the FMF’s internal management and governance systems, to seek new sources of funding, and to restore the public image of the organisation. I will also have to grow the team, although I intend to do so slowly at first.
I want to thank everyone at the Free Market Foundation who has invested their trust in me, many of whom have devoted their entire lives to this important institution. I feel a great sense of duty to uphold the FMF’s legacy.
I also want to thank my colleagues at the IRR for their support and their ceaseless commitment to advancing the cause of liberalism in South Africa. I leave the IRR with a heavy heart, but also a full heart.
I have been given an incredible opportunity, but also an awesome responsibility. I will give it my complete focus and energy.
But I cannot do it alone. I want to ask you all to join me in picking up the pen as we write the next chapter of the FMF’s history, together.
You can watch my address here: