A little story from South Africa tucked away on page 37 of The ( London ) Times last Saturday caught my eye. Apparently President Joseph Zuma has got himself into trouble by attacking the first Dutch settler Jan van Riebeeck by saying that South Africa’s problems are all the fault of the whites. As a result he has been referred to the human rights commission for stirring up racial hatred.
A storm in a teacup you will say. Well, no. The point here is not the fact that Mr. Zuma’s white opponents are accusing him of lacking political correctness- which given the history does make me raise my eyebrows a bit. Rather it is that Mr. Zuma’s remarks betray a deep misunderstanding of his responsibilities as President of South Africa. Of course he has a responsibility not to exacerbate the animosities existing between the various groups which inhabit his beautiful country. But as importantly he has a responsibility as President to ensure that the debate in South Africa focuses on the correct issues. In this instance he has clearly failed to do this, as he has not understood that there is a crucial difference between the cause of an historic injustice, and the most prudent way of putting it right.
It is certainly true, ( and not denied by any sensible observer, ) that black South Africans were for many years subject to a regime of injustice which was quite unacceptable. This has led to a huge gulf between the way of life enjoyed by black and white South Africans. No one denies the cause of this, and Mr. Zuma is correct when he attributes it to the policies of the various white governments before 1990.
The question though which now presents itself to any government of South Africa is how this gap can be closed. Of course a part of the answer is for wealthy whites ( and blacks ) to pay more tax than they might like. Of course part of the answer is for the ownership of land to be spread more equally between white and black. But neither increased government services, nor land reform will be anything like enough to provide a decent way of life for the rapidly increasing black population of South Africa.
This can only come through economic growth. There is no alternative solution. The socialist model of development has been tried again and again, and it has always failed. It has failed not because of a lack of enthusiasm, hard work, or dedication on behalf of the socialists. It has failed, we now know, because we can use resources effectively if and only if we have a system of prices to make it possible for us to make rational economic choices.
This is a truth universally acknowledged and applies not simply to Mr and Mrs Bennet in the Northern Johannesburg suburbs, but in every township from Soweto to Khayelitsha near Cape Town. Everyone has the responsibility to ensure that Black South Africans do not to have their hopes destroyed and their lives further messed around by the kind of policies that have failed everywhere they have been tried. South Africans, black white, and coloured alike, need and can only prosper in a free society. They need the rule of law. They need property rights. They need economic freedom, and only those regulations that are absolutely necessary.
This is the road to prosperity and self respect for all South Africans. We know from Colin Bundy’s ( b. 1944 )remarkable book “The Rise and Fall of the South African Peasantry” that, if given such opportunities to prosper through their efforts, black South Africans will seize them with enthusiasm. Bundy ( who writes from a broadly Marxist perspective ) shows that in the nineteenth century many black South Africans were making a tremendous start at building prosperous lives for themselves. For example they by were growing maize and selling it more cheaply than their white competitors thanks to their lower overheads. Their efforts were only frustrated by the government that did everything it could to protect the interests of the white farmers.
The real objection then to President Zuma’s remark is not that it violates the canons of political correctness; but that it reasserts the foolish fable that the only way forward for South Africa is through redistribution. The point here is not just that Mr and Mrs Bennet’s swimming pool is not big enough to accommodate everyone, but that by arousing hatred of the Bennets, President Zuma has distracted his fellow black South Africans not simply from one of the most remarkable chapters of their own history, but from the only way that they have of escaping from the poverty that still so stunts their lives. South Africa deserves a President who does better than that.