Struggling to keep the "struggle" alive

David Bullard writes that the notion of economic freedom is a chimera

A phrase frequently bandied about by readers of this column is "economic  freedom".  I'm not sure I understand what is meant by the phrase but I'm pretty certain that those using it have even less idea what they mean by it.

There is a hard core of delusional ANC supporters who believe that the struggle is still taking place eighteen years after democratic elections. The recently departed leader of the ANCYL, Julius (Kiddie Amin) Malema, was one of those and for a very good reason. Without the pretence that the struggle is still going on he wouldn't have had much to do all day.

I'm in London this week and inevitably have found myself trying to explain South African politics to people. One can easily defend our polygamous president as a cultural peculiarity but it's more difficult to explain why a political party with a two thirds majority still have talk about winning their freedom. Is it sheer ineptitude on their part or, as I suspect, a rather clever way of laying a post colonial guilt trip on some of the more economically productive members of our society?

"Economic freedom" seems to have become the new buzz phrase and it is sufficiently vague and woolly to appeal to people who prefer to spout slogans rather than engage in rational thought. There can be no peace in South Africa until economic freedom has been achieved by all seems to be the gist of the message. Obviously anyone who objects to that is a racist and doesn't wish to embrace the now not so new South Africa.

So what on earth can this economic freedom be and is it worth fighting for?  I doubt whether many of the citizens of Europe would describe themselves as economically free.  Those who are fortunate enough to have jobs are frequently saddled with debt and are now facing government austerity measures designed to reduce the benefits they have previously been entitled to. In other words the percentage of the tax they pay that comes back to them in the form of government hand-outs is falling and that isn't about to change any time soon.

The small amount of people who have made provision for their retirement by saving rather than spending everything over the past thirty years also don't qualify as economically free. For example, the absurdly low level of interest rates in the UK means that the return on an annuity is considerably lower than it was a decade ago.

Gambling pension money on the stock exchange isn't a great idea when you're 65 and the millions of people who bought holiday homes in places like Spain and Portugal as an investment are unlikely to be able to sell them at a profit if they were purchased after 2005. So those who thought they were being prudent by investing in property for their retirement are far from economically free.

So it seems that only the very rich and the very poor could really be described as having attained economic freedom. The rich because they can afford to live wherever they wish in the world and buy whatever they want without making a real dent in their wealth. The poor because they cannot afford anything and know that it is pointless to hanker after material wealth. My feeling is that of the two the poor are more economically free than the rich and sometimes a great deal happier but I don't suppose that is what the struggle activists want to hear.

The fact is that the notion of economic freedom is a chimera. It simply cannot exist other than in a hippy colony. It certainly won't be brought about by government hand-outs. All that does is to favour the economically inactive in society at the expense of those who are economically productive.

As a long term policy that is disastrous, particularly in a country like SA where the dwindling number of tax payers supports an ever growing number of dependants.  Pravin Gordhan is already desperately casting around for new ways to balance the budget each year. Inevitably it's the same people who are hit with extra taxes since you can't tax people who have nothing.

The grim reality is that the ANC still see themselves as a liberation movement fighting white rule. They've never managed to segue from an opposition party into a credible government. The concept of the "struggle" is a romantic notion that many like to cling to for nostalgic reasons. 

The pretence that the struggle is still going on 18 years after the election of the ANC is clearly laughable but very few people are bold enough to tell the ANC to grow up and stop talking nonsense for fear of an ear bashing from the party bully.

However, the real reason for pretending that the "struggle" is alive and well and for conjuring up meaningless phrases like ‘economic freedom" is to distort that fact that delivery for many ANC supporters has been non existent. But rather than blame those in power it's much smarter to pretend that it's somebody else's fault by invoking the struggle. That way we all know who to blame don't we?

I'm off to the South of France to see whether it's all it's cracked up to be in those James Bond movies. The column will reappear on May 24th.

David Bullard can be followed on Twitter here.

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