Spotlight: South African Individualist


It is possible that in the past decade no country has moved further toward a libertarian society than South Africa has. Yes—South Africa. And much of the credit can be chalked up to a group of libertarians who have used almost clandestine techniques to achieve impressive ends. Leon Louw (low), a 32-year-old lawyer (jurist), a founder and the director of the Free Market Foundation, is at the center of the individualist conspiracy.

This Afrikaaner, descended from Dutch Louws who settled in Africa in 1654, says: "We work like the Fabian society. Historically, they have outwitted every capitalist, every free-marketeer, everywhere. Their weapons work, so we fight them with their own weapons. We infiltrate, we work behind the scenes, we reach opinion leaders. We disseminate literature, sometimes anonymously, sometimes with a suitable introduction through suitable channels. Our target market is the top people; we aim right at the top. We've taken the view that we can't reach the general public, and even if we could, it's not clear that it is the short-cut way to bring about real change. We've gone right at the cabinet ministers, at the popular leaders, the business leaders, the academic leaders, and the leading jurists."

There is a good deal of evidence to support the claim that such tactics are meeting with success. In the last three years, each successive South African budget has been a smaller percentage of the GNP there. Real tax rates have been reduced successively, and the country is moving away from all direct taxes. Foreign exchange has been completely deregulated, and central bank intervention has been decreased. The number of government departments has been cut from 44 to 18. Price and rent controls have been abolished, and transport laws are being phased out. Black trading restrictions have been removed, migration laws have been relaxed, segregationist public accommodation laws have been reduced significantly, and rights to property ownership are being extended to blacks. Economic deregulation has even helped the cheetah and other endangered species, which are on their way back following denationalization of wildlife and parks. Louw points out that all this has been accomplished without overthrowing the government or running an election.

Nowhere in the world is the distinction between "right-wing" and "libertarian" so evident. Many South Africans are aware of Louw only as a crusader for civil and economic liberties for blacks, who make up 70 percent of South Africa's population. Conditions for blacks have been improving dramatically but "not fast enough," says Louw. "I'm an abolitionist. What's wrong is wrong. Freedom is the first principle. You cannot justify restrictions by saying there will be uncomfortable effects during the process of change."

Black economist Walter Williams, who has visited South Africa extensively, says of Louw and the South African move toward a nonstatist society, "If you had to pick somebody on the continent that played a significant role, surely it would be Leon and the Free Market Foundation." The Foundation, says Williams, "is forcing people to view the problems of apartheid." Laughing, he points out that the American press reports that blacks aren't free in South Africa but ignores the fact that whites aren't either as long as the government regulates the telephone industry and controls economic activity. Louw is fighting for liberty for people, not blacks or whites.

An impressive measure of Louw's and the Free Market Foundation's influence is a list of its present friends and members. Since its inception in 1975 it has brought into the fold the head of the powerful South African government-funded consumer union, who has resigned and, with Leon Louw, is forming a profit-making consumer organization because of his new philosophical objections to the use of tax money for his purposes. The most powerful labor union leader in South Africa has started working with Louw and the Foundation and has come out against racially segregated unions and closed shop laws (a barrier to black employment).

Two of the three recognized black leaders in South Africa are now participating in Foundation activities. The powerful Chief Buthelezi said a few years ago: "Free enterprise is the black's only hope." Dr. Motlana, the other black leader, who has been described as a socialist by the American press, is forming the Soweto Committee for Economic Freedom, which will be formed and financed entirely by blacks—"One of the most exciting developments in some time," Louw calmly understates in the Queen's English. "I have him reading Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard." You get the impression that the third black leader would be coming around to libertarianism, too, if he could get out of prison long enough for Louw to talk to him.

Black business leaders, Jewish business leaders, politicians, civil servants, people from the entire spectrum of South African life, are involved in Foundation work and its publication, The Free Market. It's comparable, notes Louw, to having Ralph Nader, George Meaney, and David Rockefeller on REASON's list of contributing editors and arguing about the best way to get rid of the government.

Other Foundation publications include Die Individualis, Afrikaans for "The Individualist," an out-and-out libertarian newsletter, and Fred Macaskill's In Search of Liberty, the first South African book on libertarianism. Another book published under the auspices of the Foundation is Ad Wassenaar's Assault on Private Enterprise, a book that so enraged South African statists that, when it came out a few years ago, former Prime Minister John Vorster spent half an hour in parliament attacking Wassenaar and his ideas.

Louw's friends admit that he is in some danger. Professor J.A. Lombard, a founding member of the Foundation and the country's leading economist, has been the target of one unsuccessful bombing. The bombers could have been radical leftists or rightists, but Louw says his biggest enemies are not Marxists, who are relatively easy to deal with once the issue of coercion is put on the table. The real enemies are those who say, "I am a capitalist, and in a capitalist society, you have to control morals. These are the most poisonous enemies," says Louw, because they say they're for free enterprise or freedom or libertarianism, but they're not.

Louw's wife, Frances, has just completed a book on the applications of individualism to child rearing. The couple and their children live in Johannesburg.

Louw is quick to admit that his country has a long way to go, but after meeting South Africans like him and his wife and observing trends in the United States, I have been wondering…How hard is it to get South African citizenship?

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.