Freedom, free markets, freehold and democracy

I am reading a fascinating book by Martin Meredith entitled 'the State of Africa - a History of 50 years of Independence'. A friend who had played a key role in the liberation of Zimbabwe over many years kindly sent it to me.

What I appreciate about the book (it is a must for all Africans) is that it is not in any ways emotional, ideological or apologetic. He just sets out the facts as they presented themselves in some sort of chronological and regional/country order. It is not an easy read or comforting and in fact reveals the awful track record of many post liberation governments in Africa.

One of the great tragedies of this appalling record is that many Africans have lost faith in themselves and in their countries. The myth of black inferiority is a tough legacy to overcome when so much failure of leadership has taken place and when the Press relentlessly promulgates the worst of the African experience. In fact what this hides is a simple reality that almost all commentators miss in their musings. It is the fact that what we have seen in Africa is a universal experience and one that has characterised the emergence of successful, democratic and rich countries everywhere - including Africa.

The lesson is this - pay attention to policy and principle and give people freedom to excel for themselves. Foreign donors who have played such an important role in postcolonial history in Africa share much of the blame because they have not done so and have often compromised with rogue dictatorships that have systematically raped and pillaged their countries. Many current African commentators argue that the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe was about land, in fact it was not, it was about 'one man one vote' and transferring power from a white controlled minority government to a majority government.

The subsequent failures of so many majority governments is due to both the fact that they often failed to preserve the very principles they fought for (personal freedom and the right to vote) and not to their inherent capacity. This was compounded perhaps by the failure to emphasize the importance of policy in postcolonial administrations.

If we are to construct free, democratic governments in Africa then we must pay close attention to all three basic freedoms listed above. People should have all their personal freedoms protected and enshrined in the national constitution - the freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of choice. Governments must respect the personal freedoms and rights of the individual in their societies, it must assume the role of a regulator and facilitator and should never be allowed to dictate the circumstances of the individuals that make up their societies.

Then the link between free markets and the basic freedoms associated with those rights must be enshrined and protected. The right of the individual to choose where they live and work, the right of the owners of productive enterprise to set their own prices and determine the management of their enterprise. The right to fail if they do not succeed!

The right of public choice - what to buy, when to sell, to choose an acceptable price and to be in charge of ones own personal affairs. Free markets are not an ideological formation; they are the very foundation of a successful human society and our collective economy. When government interferes with market mechanisms - no matter what the rationale - the consequences are negative for the people they serve. Governments make poor managers of economic institutions and markets. The temptations to use such control for personal enrichment and power are just too great to let go and allow the proper exercise of such control.

Free, competitive markets best allocate resources and this has been proven over and over again in every corner of the world. Whether you are Chinese, Japanese, Russian, European or American - or African, this remains true. State corporations in the USA look and behave much the same as similar institutions in Africa - or anywhere else.

Finally there is the link with freehold. The right to own assets you have created or paid for and to hold secure, predictable and legally enforceable rights over those assets. Interfere with such rights at your peril. The communal ownership of land and other immovable assets in Africa is almost a universal aspect of traditional culture and economy. Many African governments have moved swiftly in the post independence era to dismantle the title rights of those who build up and controlled the economy before independence. This is almost always presented as a just act of retribution or compensation or even equity but in almost all cases has resulted in the near destruction of the productive assets involved.

In fact, without secure title rights no real development or growth is possible, anywhere. This is a universal human need and can only be met by carefully constructing and protecting a system of tenure over assets that protects the rights of those who own such assets. It is not just a question of land, it also embraces things such as buildings and fixed assets, it also covers moveable assets and intangibles such as intellectual property and share rights in productive assets.

One aspect of this that is often overlooked is that these three freedoms are inextricably linked to the functioning of a democracy. If people do not have their basic freedoms, if they do not have freedom of choice, if they do not have security, they simply cannot sustain a democracy. Of course, that is why tyrants - everywhere, always attack these rights in the pursuit of power and privilege. It was so in Germany under Hitler, it was so in Russia under Stalin, it was so under Mao in China, it was so in feudal England and the consequences were identical to the African experience everywhere.

Next month we in the MDC will publish a comprehensive suite of policy statements that will give the people of Zimbabwe an opportunity to see what sort of new society we want to create here. In it we will guarantee to respect these essential freedoms and thereby lay the foundations of a new, vibrant and dynamic country. We have been working on this for 15 months since our last Congress and I am excited by what has been agreed so far.

We have a vision for the country, a vision that we believe will be underwritten and fulfilled by our people once they are empowered by the freedoms that we will restore to them and for which they made such sacrifices when the struggle for democracy and our human rights was under way.

The failure in Zimbabwe has come about not because of the capacity or otherwise of the people who make up the government, but because they have robbed us of those freedoms since they came to power. Put these back in place and we can join the growing list of countries in Africa that are proving the skeptics wrong.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 26th August 2007