Manuel Speech on Socioeconomic Rights Insults Helen Suzman's Memory

I don’t often comment on affairs in my native South Africa, which I follow somewhat sporadically these days, but a recent speech by former finance minister Trevor Manuel caught my attention and deserves to be singled out. 

Manuel rose from his early career as a street activist in the anti-apartheid struggle to become one of the world’s most respected finance ministers, keeping deficits low and resisting populist calls for redistribution.

Still, he remained something of a political bully and retained a partisan loyalty to the left, in word if not in deed. Relieved of the responsibilities of office, he is now free to pontificate, and delivered an address on Tuesday that harped on themes of economic inequality, which remains stark in South Africa. Manuel emphasized the role of socioeconomic rights in particular, such as the right to education, enshrined in South Africa’s new constitution.

On the one hand, Manuel’s speech is to be commended. Despite his convoluted prose, he identifies the South African teachers’ union as one of the main obstacles to improvements in the public education system (as the unions generally are in the U.S. as well). He also acknowledges, implicitly, that the country’s democracy is not quite working, and calls for new ways of citizen participation (other than voting for the opposition, of course).

On the other hand, Manuel’s speech is something of an obscenity. It was delivered in memory of the late Helen Suzman, who was the lone white anti-apartheid member of Parliament for many years. 

Suzman opposed the inclusion of socioeconomic rights in the new constitution, believing that free markets and smaller government were the key to both economic prosperity and better public services. Nowhere does Manuel acknowledge that.

Nor does Manuel acknowledge what some have called “the greatest achievement in human history“–namely, the drastic reduction in extreme poverty throughout the world over the past decades, an achievement due entirely to the advance of free enterprise, as statist have governments collapsed or adopted elements of market systems over time. The world remains unequal, but for many of the poorest, life has been radically improved.

South Africa’s poor have shared in some of that achievement–though far less than they should have done, as the ruling party has imposed stifling labor laws and a corrupt system of racial redistribution. 

But Manuel prescribes more of the same: “rational redistribution” and stronger enforcement or construal of socioeconomic rights–dressed in trendy references to Thomas Piketty and the like. 

As policy, it is wrong. As a memorial to Helen Suzman, it is an insult.


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