Big State Hangover

Return of the Leviathan in South Africa?

Return of the Leviathan in South Africa?

There are many legacies of apartheid.  The socio-economic engineering experiment in South Africa that lasted 46 years from 1948-1994 failed dismally as ambitious projects of state-coercion always do.  Apartheid laws and the forced racial segregation, forced morality, and forced economic structure they created have left a trail of tragic consequences which will take a long time to deal with. 

Some of apartheid’s less obvious legacies are however it’s most insidious and destructive.  One of these is the legacy of the big state. 

If there was ever a repudiation of big statism it was South Africa under the apartheid rule of the nationalist government.  The Nats tried to control everything from milk prices to morality, from travel to trade, and from recreation to racial classification. 

By the late 80’s, the socialist state in Soviet Russia was crumbling under the weight of its own ineptitude and gargantuan social and economic blundering.  Many reasons have been offered for the collapse of the apartheid system in South Africa, most of them valid to some degree or another.  Black freedom fighters played a naggingly destabilising role on the periphery, political activists drumming up support overseas certainly kept the world focused on the problem, sanctions hurt in the 1980’s, and domestic white unease about the system also put pressure on the Nats to change.  But an undoubtedly significant and largely unrecognised reason was the collapse of communism in Vodkaland. 

That’s right, the collapse of communism helped bring the apartheid state to its knees.  It is a strange accident of history, almost certainly as a result of the Cold War, that apartheid South Africa is considered to have been a capitalist free market economy.  That is actually quite funny looking back at the reality.  Everything about the Gnats was socialist and coercive.  Almost nothing of true significance was free market.  Farmers were forced to sell produce at a set price.  Labour was told were it could live and for how much it could work.  There were huge trade barriers.  Industrial protectionism was rife.  The Land Bank supported unsustainable agricultural ventures.  There was no freedom of association.  State-run monopolies proliferated.  Jobs were reserved for favoured groups.  Information was controlled by the state.  Petrol was rationed and petrol prices regulated.  Ownership of certain assets by certain people groups was prohibited.  Books, movies, plays and ideas were banned. 

The list truly is endless. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a major blow to socialism in all its forms at the turn of the 1990’s, including to fascist-socialist states like South Africa. 

Unfortunately the legacy lives on.  Big statsim, tragically, was only partially vanquished, and, just like the perennial failure of the Israelites to fully kill off those pesky Philistines, it eventually comes back to haunt you.  The ANC meanwhile have been all too happy to embrace the Big Government.  After a lifetime either in the international wilderness or stifled in a sub-human status quo domestically a whole generation of middle to late aged ANC bigwigs needed a way to turn their toil and hard fought freedoms into actual lifestyle value.  The behemoth of a state bequeathed to the ANC by the Gnats offered the perfect vehicle for seemingly deserved enrichment. 

The bulging state structure we now have is as important to the ANC as it was to the bigoted Gnats.  The difference now is that all its bloated inefficiency, corruption, double standards, and coercion have been given the cloak of democratic legitimacy and rubber-stamped by a fawning international community. 

Even more disconcerting is that government wants to get bigger and bigger.  Already in this recession it is taking Rahm Emanuel’s advice to “never let a serious crisis go to waste”.  The government coffers are running on empty but borrowing and spending is soaring.  National Treasury says its revenue projections for the coming 5 years are “aggressive”.  In plain English that means squeeze every last drop from the existing tax base and then raise taxes further. 

One of the silent but deadly failures of the ‘new’ South Africa is a failure to recognise that apartheid was more than just a moral failure, it was an economic one, and it was so because of a big state socialist order that, like Russia, toppled under its own vast decreptitude.  The ANC government is moving in the same direction.  The ‘developmental state’, ‘economic planning commission’, ‘industrial policy initiatives’, ‘public works projects’ and the like are all thinly-veiled rhetoric of certain powerful factions within government trying desperately to make government more powerful, more influential, more controlling and more coercive. 

Hold on to your hats folks, the Big State Hangover might get worse before it gets better.

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