South Africa's silent revolution
It was, Kane-Berman declared, a “silent revolution” where race and other laws were simply ignored. A culture of disobedience had taken root that no amount of enforcement could deracinate.
This is what happens when market forces collide with tyranny. What brought down apartheid was disobedience on a massive scale. “Ordinary people simply ignored the pass laws not because they deliberately sought to defy them but because they were seeking better economic opportunities in the towns,” says Kane-Berman. Disobedience, and fiscal bankruptcy, eventually sank apartheid.
When the regulatory over-burden becomes intolerable, people will ignore laws that inhibit their ability to survive. There are signs this is happening again. The culture of disobedience that the ANC so successfully implemented to make the country ungovernable in the apartheid years may come back to haunt it. For a start, take a look at electricity: it is reckoned that 10% of South Africa’s electricity generation – equivalent to 3,600 megawatts, or one full-blown coal-fired power station – is lost to non-payment or theft. That totals about R5,3 billion a year.
Then there is trade union group Cosatu’s call for civil disobedience should the SA National Roads Agency proceed with e-tolling in Gauteng. On this it has the backing of more than 10 civil society groups, including the SA Council of Bishops. The Democratic Alliance, too, has slammed the planned introduction of e-tolls. This is a litmus test for government – should it lose this battle, ordinary citizens will scent blood and demand cheaper petrol, electricity, phone charges, to name a few. The only way to give people cheaper anything is to free up these markets. What’s unique about the e-toll battle is that the opposition is highly organised, and it helped that Cosatu led from the front. If government loses this battle, it is on a hiding to nothing. Consumer activists will pounce on any number of grievances, from bank to fuel and call charges. It could get messy.
The culture of disobedience that sank apartheid has resurfaced in other ways. South Africa lost more work days to strike action in 2011 than any other country in the world, bar Canada, and the figure was likely topped by last year’s strike action. In 2010, 20,6 million days were lost to strike action, in which one million workers participated in 74 strikes. Many of these strikes were unprotected, or illegal (in terms of the Labour Relations Act). It is not known how many workers in these unprotected strikes lost their jobs, but probably not many. So, in the area of labour law, disobedience pays.
The informal sector is often seen as a convenient tax dodge by the Treasury. It has been suspected for years that small tax-paying businesses often liquidate and then re-surface as informal sector enterprises, operating below the tax radar. Hence, business liquidation stats – as indicative of the country’s economic health – are probably useless. The fact that they are falling does not necessarily suggest an economic recovery is underway, merely that the laundering of toxic credit from the system has run its course for the time being.
Then there’s the perennial headline “Tax evasion costs South Africa billions.” It gets trotted out every year whenever a new amendment to the Income Tax Act aimed at plugging loopholes is introduced. Finance minister and former SARS boss Pravin Gordhan, in 2011, lamented that in most countries, including South Africa, tax administrators were 10 years behind tax planners. So what we get is ever more complex tax codes on which tax planners have a 10 year head start. SA Revenue Services has taken to the airwaves with some emotional feel-good stories that shows our tax money is being put to good use, which at least softens the threats it standardly issues at those it feels are not paying their fair due.
For the truly big figures, you have to look at what fraud and corruption is costing the country: R100 billion a year, according to the Open Democracy Advice Centre in 2011. According to Business Day, the Public Service Commission recently published findings showing that financial misconduct in the public service had grown from R100 million in 2008/9 to R346 million in 2009/10 and soared to R932 million in 2010/1. The Public Service Commission estimates that financial misconduct in 2011/12 could exceed R1 billion. Yet, only 19% of officials found guilty of financial misconduct were discharged from the public service. The majority of perpetrators remain in their positions and often continue to commit financial misconduct, according to the report. So in the public sector, disobedience pays.
Not that fraud and corruption can be compared to protests against e-tolls, but it it is illustrative of a growing culture of disrespect for the law.
One need only look at recent history to understand the power of civil disobedience, which is nothing more than an expression of elemental market forces. The pass laws, for a start, had been ignored in many parts of the country since the 1970s. Hillbrow in Johannesburg by 1985 was widely acknowledged to be the most racially integrated precinct in the country. Landlords overlooked the Group Areas Act and rented properties to blacks, who were by then defying racial prohibitions by pouring into the cities in search of work.
Bantu education was another pillar of apartheid that crumbled under the weight of market forces. Wealthy blacks, in defiance of the laws of the time, had their children admitted to the best schools in the country. In some schools, 60% of the students in the 1970s were non-white. Schools openly defied the government, which threatened to withdraw registration of the offending schools. But its bark was worse than its bite. Eventually it introduced permits to replace blanket prohibition on the integration of private schools.
In fact, every pillar of the apartheid edifice had started to atrophy long before racial separation was abandoned as official government policy in the early 1990s.
The Influx Control Act was intended to keep blacks out of white areas. Recognising that such a law could not be enforced by mere edict, the National Party layered its imperial vanity with a host of race-based laws, such as the Natives (Prohibition of Interdicts) Act, the Natives Resettlement Act, the Population Registration Act, the Promotion of Bantu Self-government Act – all intended to strip blacks of citizenship and deprive them of recourse to the courts.
All told, it required more than 50 pieces of legislation to deal with the separation of the races, and nine more anti-terrorist and security laws to suppress rebellion. All this was quite a hefty burden on the treasury, and that’s before counting the billions of rands spent on creating self-governing homelands.
For all that, hundreds of thousands of blacks poured into Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the police were ordered to burn down illegal shanties and deport the inhabitants. The Riekert Commission was set up in the late 1970s to debate the wisdom of continuing with pass laws. Its final report in 1979 decided the pass laws should stay, but relaxed some controls on blacks already in the cities, while tightening restrictions on anyone else planning to move to the towns. The Urban Foundation mobilised the business community to lobby government not for relaxation of influx control, but its complete abolition. This was, says Kane-Berman, “probably the most successful business achievement in the dismantling of apartheid that South Africa has yet seen.”
It was the quiet, non-confrontational nature of this disobedience that allowed the government to turn a blind eye. A campaign of defiance intended to challenge the government’s hold on power might well have prompted a more aggressive response.
There are many who celebrate South Africa’s culture of disobedience, since it exposes the limits of government and creates a new morality that eventually translates into law or, better still, the abolition of laws that achieve the exact opposite of what they promise, as Simon Watson of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute SA recently pointed out. Disobedience occurs when government flagrantly violates market forces and the will of people to operate in a free and voluntary manner.