Economic Freedom in our Lifetime: a Critique

The African National Congress Youth Leaque(ANCYL) and its bloodline of youth leaders are credited for coining the popular slogan “economic freedom in our lifetime”. The slogan is mostly used to emphasize  the importance of transforming the South African economy to be inclusive of previously marginalized racial groups such as people of African descent; in particular the youth, women and children.

In August 2010 the ANCYL presented a programme titled Orgnizational Growth, Development and Renewal towards Economic Freedom in our Lifetime: Back to Basic. This programme was introduced at a time when the mother body of the ANCYL, the African National Congress(ANC)was preparing to celebrate its 100 years of existence as Africa’s oldest liberation movement. The ANCYL argue the idea behind the call for organizational growth, development and renewal was meant to rubber-stamp the critical role young people should play within a developmental state.

Critics of the programme of economic freedom perceive it as an acknowledgement that the ruling ANC had achieved political freedom but failed to liberate the masses economically. Interestingly, debates that followed the introduction of the economic freedom message by the ANCYL have fallen short of unpacking the many unanswered questions around the slogan of economic freedom in our lifetime.  For instance, in the main; is it necessary to understand the relationship between the concepts of economics and culture first before we can go around preaching the message of economic freedom in our lifetime?

What is economics in its varying definitions?  These questions and more need to be answered so that the millions of masses of people avoid the falling into a trap similar to the one carved by the ANC when they promised ‘a better life for all’ based on political freedom aspirations only in 1994.

There is no doubt that Julius Malema remains one of the former ANCYL members who believed so much in the ideal of economic freedom in our lifetime to an extend that it is often wrongly associated with him and him alone. Of course, Malema has since left the ANC and formed his own political party; taking with him the ideal engraved in the slogan economic freedom in our lifetime. It is not surprising his new home is also called Economic Freedom Fighters. From the name of the  EFF we can derive there has been a consolidation of ideas that were somehow spoken at random in the ANCYL towards a more focused tone of advocacy. The new political home of Malema and many other former ANYL members has grown in leaps and bounds since its formation and is now a kingmaker on the South African political landscape.

So what is the problem with this seemingly glorious economic ideal? Judging from the election results of 2014, the ANC is on the decline and this has helped loosen its grip on power thereby allowing other political parties such as the Democratic Alliance(DA) to make its mark. Since 2014, things have gone from bad to worse inside the ANC with scandal after scandal raising fears they might lose the upcoming general elections in 2019. Continuing political killings among ANC members in Kwazulu-Natal are not helping the situation.

Assuming that the ANC loses in 2019 and the DA takes over and the EFF become main opposition; chances are the EFF might take over the reigns in future. It is this unknown future which we should try to imagine in our attempt to answer the questions raised earlier regarding the ideal of economic freedom in our lifetime. In this essay, I argue the ideal of economic freedom in our lifetime needs unpacking since economics is a cultural phenomenon. That for real economic freedom to be felt by the ordinary man and woman on the street, cultural freedom should precede economic freedom or the two be implemented and advocated for at the same time. That the approach taken by the EFF in its mission to liberate economically is one dimensional and therefore not dissimilar to the one taken by the ANC pre 1994.

In my attempt to find a definition of economics I came across varying definitions by different authors. The search was done in peer reviewed journals, books and of course, the internet. In order to make it easier for readers to find some of the sources cited for the definitions, it was decided those definitions accessible through search engines such as Google would be useful. Two definitions found on Google caught my attention. The American Economic Association define economics as a discipline that studies scarcity, how people use resources, or the study of decision making. The definition goes further to identify the change of behaviour by people when they want things as the central tenet of economics. Important to note is that a change of behavior involves decision making on a micro economic level(i.e. budgets in homes) as well as on a macro-economic level (i.e. government, industry etc.). Furthermore, the Economics Network at the University of Bristol state that the ‘ancient etymology of economics defines it as a science of wealth’. That throughout the centuries, economics has evolved to become a social science that studies the well-being of nations by borrowing from other sciences such as history, law and psychology just to mention a few.

From the above mentioned definitions we can derive that although there is a misconception that economics deals with only numbers, markets and currencies; the core focus is on the well-being of human beings. That said, human beings are among the many living species on earth who have thus far managed to carve civilizations; from the ancient to the modern, the documented and the undocumented. In the Global North, history lessons teach us European and American nations have sought to change their well-being by embarking on sea crusades across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans in search of better living and wealth. Such crusades enabled these nations to come into contact with people of the Global South where the ideals of trade resulted in the introduction of slavery and war as man sought dominance over the other. Among other continents, Africa became a battleground of cultural contestation when Europeans and American nations realized the continent was endowed with so many natural resources.

There are a lot of theories out there which seek to explain why the arrival of nations from the Global North was the beginning of the end of first; political subjugation and the economic enslavement of the people of Africa. One of the theories seems to suggest that the cultural traits of African people(i.e. those for warmth, peace, selflessness and collective brother/sisterhood) were taken advantage of and as such exploited by the cultural traits of violence, selfishness and individualism that were displayed by colonialists. The use of the adjective cultural is used deliberately here to refer to the distinct way of life practiced by a racial group of people among others. This includes traditions, customs and values.

In modern South Africa it is easier to tell which racial groups have been successful in utilizing their cultural traits for the accumulation of wealth. Whites in particular, are known to own the majority of the wealth when compared to people of African descent who make up the worrying statistics of the 27.7 percent unemployment rate reported by Statistics South Africa in 2017.

Loosely put, it could be argued political subjugation during the early years of colonization and the segregation policies of apartheid has assisted whites to accumulate more wealth than people of African descent. This has since culminated in gross unemployment, poverty, inequality among people of African descent who are finding it very difficult to keep up with the economically savvy, competitive behavior of people of other races. As a result, the message of ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’ as advocated for by the ANCYL and EFF in 2017 is as relevant as political freedom in our lifetime was among veteran elders of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania(PAC) and others in the 19th century. How we acquire the freedoms is all vested in the approach used in a generational revolution.

Surely, the revolutionary approaches of Mao Tse-Dong in China are totally different from those employed by Nelson Mandela and company in South Africa. In China, the approach was Cultural Revolution first to allow the masses to be self-assertive and self-reliant. Although the was much suffering, death and torture during the ‘Great Leap Forward’, those who have lived to see present day China would attest it was worth it.

Today China has a thriving and growing economy and the masses can be counted among others as the most culturally sensitive, self-assertive and self-reliant nation in the world. Comparatively, very little can be said about the revolutionary approach taken by leaders of Nelson Mandela’s ilk on behalf of South Africa and its people. If there are any lessons to be learned from the likes of China is that there is a relationship between economics and culture or vice versa. That an affirmed mind is not susceptible to subjective social engineering unless such a move is intended to ensure that in a global world, one has a place they can proudly call home.

My greatest fear is that a slogan such as ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’ in South Africa has become so popular to an extent any criticism leveled against it is often perceived as counter revolutionary no matter how sensible it can be. I have been following the programme that gave birth to the ideal of economic freedom in the ANCYL and are yet to come across clear cut policies on how such a humongous task is going to be achieved. The inconsistencies in the nomenclature cannot be over-emphasized.

While the ANCYL talks ‘economic freedom in our lifetime’ its mother body speaks of ‘radical economic transformation’.  Do this two mean the same thing? Not even the EFF has such policies at the present moment. EFF leader Julius Malema occasionally quotes Steve Biko’s ‘black man you are on your own’ slogan but it is still not clear how an economic revolution is going to be take place within a nation that still suffers from an inferiority complex that was inflicted by decades long of dominance by self-assertive nations of the Global North. So, what is it going to be; economic freedom first and cultural freedom later or both?

Mahlaga Molepo is a member of Makhudu Traditional Council and writes in his own capacity.