Is South Africa exceptional?

Jack Bloom says one area we fail badly is dependence on the state

In his State of the Union address this year US president Barack Obama said "We are the first nation to be founded for the sake of an idea." This is a staple theme of what is called "American exceptionalism".

The unique idea that America was founded on was that of God-given rights and liberty. The belief expressed in the Declaration of Independence is that "all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

So was born a country without an aristocracy, free from the feudal horrors of Europe. Foreign observers like French writer Alexis de Tocqueville were struck by the freedom and equality enjoyed by early Americans.

This allowed for a vigorous democracy quite unlike anything else at that time. Hence American politicians often use phrases like "the last, best hope of mankind'' or "the shining city on the hill''.

The American economy is a marvel in its dynamism and ability to raise the standard of living of huge numbers of people. It is a country of immigrants of great diversity who have integrated and become Americans.

Contrast this with countries whose nationhood is based on shared tribal, ethnic or language ties. This was not a possible basis for nationhood in South Africa with its many divisions and bitter history of internal strife.

What was truly exceptional in our case is that a ruling minority negotiated a relatively peaceful handover to the majority. This could only have been achieved by the transcending ideals expressed in our Constitution.

So we too are an exceptional nation, one that "belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity." This has not been feasible in many countries where partition has occurred, the latest being Sudan where the South has voted overwhelmingly for secession.

When we all pull together we are a formidable force, as shown during the Soccer World Cup. But too often the divisions re-emerge. And one area in which we fail badly is dependence on the state.

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe recently voiced concern that "People want houses, they want this and they want that. For free, for free! Where have you ever heard of such a thing?"

Our welfare net covers nearly 30% of the population. Developed countries are finding this model unsustainable, yet we are headed this way despite a relatively small tax base.

Contrast this with America where the reaction of voters in a deep recession is to demand less rather than more government intervention. The Democratic Party lost many seats because of concern that government was driving up debt by spending too much.

Voters there know that government money comes from taxes on the private economy.

Motlanthe recognises this too: "Nothing is free, absolutely nothing ... it is paid for from revenue collected from those who pay taxes."

If taxes are too high, economic growth suffers and everyone is worse off. The state must fulfill certain essential duties, but generally, when government is big, the people are small. We will be truly exceptional when able-bodied people are independent of state hand-outs and take advantage of opportunities to advance themselves.

Jack Bloom is a DA member of the Gauteng legislature. This article first appeared in The Citizen.

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