The conventional interpretation of economic freedom in the Western world refers to the freedom individuals have to work, produce, consume and invest in an economy. But in South Africa it is interpreted as the material security of people.
It is this economic freedom that continues to elude many in post-apartheid South Africa. The fruits of economic prosperity have not necessarily trickled down to the broader population.
South Africa is ranked among the top five unequal countries globally with a Gini-co-efficient of 0.63. This is high. The index measures income distribution in households, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 perfect inequality.
Using the Palma index, which measures the distribution of income ratio between the richest 10% and poorest 40%, South Africa is also highly unequal with a score of 7.5.
A key criticism against inequality measures is that they do not consider the impact that social welfare grants can make on reducing poverty. The Human Development Index shows that, while there has been some improvement, life expectancy is only 61 years and the average years children spend at school is ten.
South Africa’s welfare system has been expanded. But the government led by the African National Congress (ANC) is accused of giving people social grants instead of true economic freedom.
The quest for economic freedom
At the birth of the South African democracy in 1994 the idea of freedom was intimately linked to that of transformation, not just politically, but socially and economically. Democracy implied not just changing the state. It entailed a more inclusive ownership of the economy, with all citizens sharing in the country’s wealth.
This was evident in many ANC discussion documents, including its Ready to Govern policy guidelines for a democratic South Africa released in 1992. The first step to transformation was to secure political power. This would put the ANC in a better position to advance social and economic change.
In conceptualising the role of the state, the ANC envisaged that it would remain the gatekeeper and driver of the transformation project. In its self-conceptualisation, the ANC would continue to fight for the complete liberation of people.
After political power was seized, the liberator (as in the ANC) would then be charged with leading the complete socio-economic rebirth of society through transferring wealth from the rich to the poor. This would be done through a developmental state, which would seek to actively guide economic development to meet the needs of the people.
What is interesting is the sense of entitlement to govern that emerges. The liberator party, through state capture and cadre deployment, would advance the democratic aspirations of its people to wealth, prosperity and economic freedom. This of course implied a moral and ethical elite that carried the best of the people at heart.
Economic freedom an elusive dream
Economic transformation of unequal societies in a democratising context is difficult. It requires a creative mix of policy options underpinned by a commitment to social justice.
Two out of 54 African states have successfully pursued a developmental agenda while maintaining a degree of democratic legitimacy: Mauritius and Botswana. For a democracy to endure, the people must see it as legitimate and to be delivering the promised goods.
As South Africa enters its third decade of democracy, the socio-political environment is becoming increasingly volatile as inequality deepens. The country has high unemployment rates, and protests against a lack of basic services are an almost a daily occurrence. Business confidence is slowly declining in the midst of sluggish economic growth. We also cannot ignore the rise of systemic state corruption. And the failures of the education system could condemn future generations to a life of poverty and hardship.
In response, the ANC has sought to undermine institutions that should hold it accountable. These include the public protector and the the media. It has blamed history for the country’s economic woes. It has also undermined the doctrine of separation of powers and used cadre deployment to entrench patronage for state capture.
Democratic stability is being undermined through unethical actions, endemic corruption, and a lack of delivery on key socio-economic issues. This is exacerbated if a sense of entitlement to govern emerges within liberator parties. They eventually see themselves as accountable to the political party and not the people. They begin to believe that the liberator will govern forever.
Because the ability of people to hold the liberator accountable diminishes, discontent finds expression in violent and destructive service delivery protests. People opt out of the formal mechanisms of participation, such as elections. A little less than half of South Africa’s voting age population now do not participate in elections. Support for the ANC among the voting age population has declined to 35%.
Looking into the future
In the midst of South Africa’s incomplete liberation because of a failure to make good on the promise of economic freedom, a mediocre track record of delivery on key socioeconomic issues and growing political volatility, the question that emerges is whether the liberator will relinquish power if the people will it so.
South Africa will hold local government elections next year. It seems that the ANC will either lose municipalities or win with smaller margins, thus reducing its dominance of municipal councils. Will the party respect the voice of the people, even when a vote is cast for another political party?
Inequality creates breeding grounds for revolt and instability, even against liberators. Societies only remain patient for so long before they start demanding the promised fruits of democracy and freedom. This can either be through the ballot box or through outright revolt. For South Africa, the 2016 municipal elections may very well give the country a glimpse into what extent the will of the people is indeed respected.