Economic freedom, but for who?

ANCYL president Julius Malema addresses the crowd during the league's economic freedom march in Pretoria. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu.

ANCYL president Julius Malema addresses the crowd during the league's economic freedom march in Pretoria. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu.

Published Nov 6, 2011


The Economic Freedom march, which took place last week, was an exciting spectacle. Though protests in the street are commonplace, this prolonged three-stop tour ending at the Union Buildings in Pretoria evoked the historical Women’s Freedom March of 1956, thus creating a link between the struggle of yesteryear and the present.

This connection is an important rhetorical and metaphorical device that the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) exploits – but more of that later. Whether the link is artificial or not the question remains: what did “freedom” mean in the 1950s and what does it signify now?

The “freedom” that the women who participated in that 1956 march were advancing was quite clear: they wished to be free of the pass laws that the then minister of Native Affairs had introduced earlier that year.

In this way there was a tangible notion of what liberation denoted and thus a concrete goal had been set, though it might have encompassed a range of ideals.

Interestingly, in the reports on the recent Economic Freedom march there was little mention of the contents of the memorandums they handed over to the Chamber of Mines, the JSE and the government. Nor did it seem that many reporters or observers, or perhaps even participants, ponder the significance of the catchy “economic freedom” slogan that was used to frame the march.

One might argue that this is because it is not a new phrase – it was at the ANCYL’s 24th National Congress in June this year that this organisation adopted the motto. It was intended to encapsulate their objective to fight for “total economic and social emancipation of the oppressed people of South Africa”.

For this reason, those who supported this battle would become known as “economic freedom fighters”. But what exactly is total economic emancipation?

“Economic freedom” expresses a sentiment that would appeal to almost any person from any walk of life who wishes to improve upon their financial status, though each individual would define “freedom” differently.

Someone without a job might equate securing a regular salary as “economic freedom”. For someone who has to support their parents and siblings, being relieved of that financial burden might be termed “freedom”. Freedom is therefore relative – so the notion of total freedom is not only ambiguous, but could be said to be unattainable.

In the memorandums that the ANCYL handed over to the various authorities during their march, they detail a number of ways in which they believe economic freedom can be achieved.

These demands range from the distribution of land, nationalising strategic sectors such as banking and mining and increased state ownership of Sasol, Arcelor-Mittal and oil companies.

Electricity and water must be made available to all citizens, free university education, more bursaries for international and postgraduate study and the transfer of ownership of all private corporations.

The central thrust driving all these demands could be summarised as the transfer of wealth through schemes and grants.

One could not argue with the fact that people will benefit from these requests should they be granted, but largely the transfer of wealth – or should one say power – will be to the state. Citizens will depend on the state to give them water, education and, most importantly, jobs. The nationalisation and state control of all the large industries will mean that the state will become the main employer in the country.

The ANCYL, of course, argues that because capitalist-run industries have failed at creating sustainable jobs, the only way to increase job opportunities is for a state-run, non-profit organisation to take control.

Whether this is a valid and feasible proposal is not what is under investigation here, but rather the notion of “freedom” that the ANCYL is advancing. Will the majority of citizens in this country be economically “free” if they are beholden to the state for their livelihood? How will this impact on their political freedom? Can you vote against your employer and still keep your job?

The memorandum which the ANCYL and its supporters delivered to various authorities offers strategies to attain “freedom”, but it doesn’t outline in any concrete description what “economic freedom” signifies.


In the memorandums they echo the same idea articulated in the political report released at their 24th National Conference where it states that by “economic freedom we mean the realisation of all Freedom Charter objectives”.

In this way, the ANCYL quite slyly redirects the definition to a historical document, which everyone who supported during the struggle against apartheid had already agreed upon.

If, indeed, as the ANCYL suggests, that “economic freedom” is the attainment of all the objectives in the Freedom Charter, then why are they only pursuing a selected number of ideas proposed in this document?

And why have they also reneged on, or argued against, some of the concepts contained in it, such as one that states that “all national groups shall be protected by law against insults to their race”?

If economic freedom is tied to the realisation of all the ideas proposed in the Freedom Charter, then surely the only way we can measure the ANCYL’s success in attaining it rests with them carrying out every aspect of this document to the letter. They have already made certain adjustments: in the Freedom Charter it is stated that the transfer of ownership of land, banks and other “monopoly industries” should be to the people, and not to the state.

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