Property rights our most important fight in South Africa
1 February 2017
For South Africans to build their communities, increase their wealth and make better lives for their children, their private property rights have to be secure, free from interference by others and any political force. Private property rights secure the right of any producer to earn and use their property as they deem fit. Investors, whilst willing to take some risks with their funds, want to be sure that the enterprises in which they are investing will not be arbitrarily seized because of a government edict out of the blue. Black South Africans were denied their property rights by the Apartheid government. Now that they are acquiring property, they need to have absolute assurance that their property is safe, no matter what political party may be in power. Also, if we want to ensure that people stay and invest in the country, they must be secure in the knowledge that the property they have earned is safe.
There is a crucial metaphysical point we need to establish before we proceed. We frequently talk about the many human rights people enjoy in the liberal democracies of the world, including here in South Africa, but none of these rights mean anything if there is no right to property. Our rights are ineffective if we cannot translate them into reality. As Ayn Rand writes in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, ‘to think, to work and to keep the results’; these are the right to property. The ability to earn and gain property and wealth is enabled by your mind and the labour that you put into your endeavours. If your ownership of the property you have earned is doubtful, you cannot act and use those resources as you judge best. For any human right to have real meaning, we must have the right to private property.
In The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand explains that without property rights no other rights are possible. No one else can sustain your life for you; it is up to you what you do with your talents, time and resources. If you are not secure in what you produce, you cannot sustain your life. The right to private property does not mean the right to take property you have not earned, but rather that, once you have earned property, you have the right to keep it and do with it as you deem fit, even if that means selling it by exchanging it for a more desirable product.
As people grow their wealth, they will invest in other businesses, growing them in turn and adding jobs, but only if they know those businesses will be secure throughout their investment. There are huge rewards for investors who invest wisely (and we have a thriving entrepreneurial landscape) but they will not even consider the potential reward if they feel that their investment may be seized because a bureaucrat decreed that it be so.
The fight against apartheid embraced many aspects, but fundamentally it was the fight against a government which denied some of the people rights that every individual should inherently possess. It does no good to talk about those rights if we do not, first and above all, respect and protect the private property rights of each and every individual. No matter the purported aims of any politician’s plan, if it harms property rights, we all must do what we can to fight against it. Private property rights are crucial if we want to respect human rights in practice, and not simply talk about them in speeches and government events.
Many pressing issues challenge our democracy today, but, if we want to help people overcome those challenges it will not help to adopt a unilateral government approach - people want to work together, meet those challenges and thrive. They cannot do so if they are not free. Private property rights, the underlying foundation of true freedom, are what will give them the drive and purpose to do so.
Chris Hattingh is a Free Market Foundation intern. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.