Wishful thinking leads to bad analysis

Gareth van Onselen asks why Eusebius McKaiser is so reluctant to take the ANC at its word

In an 'on the one hand, on the other hand' article, typical of much political analysis in South Africa today, Eusebius McKaiser bemoans in a New York Times blog that "no leader has yet cracked South Africa's post-democratic development challenges". Mbeki was good, but he was also bad. Jacob Zuma was bad, but he is also good, etc. The piece was written for an international audience, so it's designed as the kind of bland nothingness that allows one to highlight a problem in a generic kind of way without really causing any offence. A bit like describing fog. And perfect for posturing.

One of the things McKaiser complains about is that Zuma "has also been vague about whether the powers of the constitutional court should be revised."

Well, hardly. The ANC has been very upfront about its intentions. They are all set out in various different policy documents, in great detail. No doubt Zuma has waxed lyrical about how none of this should be seen as a threat when pressed about this in public. But there should be little about the ANC's, or his, actual intentions. Remember, this is the same person who has argued several times the ANC is more important than the constitution and who has a very obvious personal axe to grind with the courts.

What is it that constantly drives our political analysts to sacrifice sound analysis in favour of good will and optimism?

Usually the cause is one of two things: first, a politically correct desire to be patriotic and therefore constantly to downplay anything problematic or negative as "not that bad"; second, a disbelief that any organisation or individual could never purposefully act in an undemocratic manner and so their motivation in pursuing some undemocratic agenda is best explained as misunderstood or the result of good intentions that have, through no fault of their own, been misconstrued or misrepresented.

Often it is done under the guise of 'reasonableness'. That is, in order that an analysis might appear measured, even palatible, disproportinal weight is given to optimism. Often to negate any moral outrage that too harsh an opinion might attract in our overly senstitive political environment. No doubt when on the international stage that impulse is at its strongest. But, if that kind of optimistic bias isn't supported by evidence it serves only to skew analysis and is to shy away from necessary criticism.

The affect of this kind of deferential thinking can be prfoundly problematic.

By way of illustration: when the ANC first set out its cadre deployment policy in internal party documents, in stark black and white terms, not only did the media deny its intention was to politicise the public service but that anyone who suggested as much was unpatriotic, if not, racist. Of course the ANC, which is anything if not single-minded, then proceeded to do exactly what it said and, through the deployment of those loyal to it, subverted the public service and place as many "levers of power" under its control as possible. Now the problem is widely acknowledged as acute and its consequences far-reaching.

(Indeed, cadre deployment constitutes a direct assault on the constitution - so you could quite plausibly argue the ANC has been in the anti-constitution business for years.)

Likewise, a thousand other ANC policies: the ANC does what it says it wants to do. It doesn't put ideas out into the world to ensure its moral compass is guided by the country's response to them, it does so as a formality, so as to give the pretence it is a political party - perhaps even to convince itself of that fact - only to then do as its revolutionary agenda requires. It might tinker on the margins, appease a bit here and there, sand down the edges on certain specific things, but its primary purpose is to consolidate its position as the ‘vanguard' of the people; if not unfettered then as close to that as it can get.

There's a distinction between what the ANC says in its internal party documents - which have to be taken seriously - and the assurances it may given to external audiences - which don't.

If anyone is in any doubt about that, just look at the proposals has put on the table in last while: a single public service, scrapping the provinces, consolidating the police, a media appeals tribunal, the secrecy bill, re-organising the judiciary, and so on and so forth. One can debate as much as one wants about clause five in a specific piece of legislation, and that is good and necessary, but don't confuse it with the ANC's broader programme of action. And one shouldn't confuse a media conference where someone alludes to best democratic practice with the ANC's long standing desire to reshape South Africa in its own centrist image and govern unfettered by constraints.

It is comforting, perhaps, to constantly reassure ones' self that the ANC has the best of intentions at heart and, sometimes, through no fault of its own, it makes a wayward suggestion, and that, when that happens, we really ought to give it the benefit of the doubt, but to believe that absolutely is just delusional.

And, as I say, it leads to political analysis that is just, well, wrong. It also acts as a sort of Valium on public opinion and opposition - a soporific that actually makes it more likely the ANC will succeed in pushing through with its policies.

For example, take this piece written by Eusebius McKaiser and Sasha Polakow-Suransky for the international publication Newsweek, in April 2009, just after Jacob Zuma's ascension to the Presidency, and titled ‘South Africa will survive Zuma'.

Just like the New York Times blog, it was for an international audience and so was written in the same wishy-washy kind of way; which is all well and fine, but compromises the analysis.

This quote from the piece, for example:

"Then there's the ANC, which has generally shown a commitment to the rule of law. For years, it has had the votes to change the Constitution without opposition support but hasn't done so."

First, it is misleading. One doesn't have to change the constitution to undermine it - packing the civil service with party loyalists is just as damaging, if not more so, because it more pervasive and less easily countered. The ANC has had a conflict with constitutional checks and balances from day one. Second, it is to confuse the ANC's actions with its intent. And, as the past few years have shown, the ANC might have taken a while translate that intent into action, but its wasting no time making up for lost ground.

After all, if McKaiser was so certain back then the ANC has never intended to change the constitution, why does he need reassurance now? A little less certain perhaps?

But here is an even better example, from the same Newsweek piece:

"The ANC has also shown respect for a free, critical press. Almost all major publications bluntly criticize the party and its leaders. Yet the ANC has not used heavy-handed tactics to silence them. Such tolerance is all too rare in Africa ."

Only a few months after that had been written, the ANC would propose the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill (both of which, despite endless appeals its has pushed on with).

There are numerous other examples of ascribed good will and optimism subverting accurate analysis in that piece: the rise of COPE will force the ANC to "reinvent itself"; the fear of losing more popular support should lead the ANC "to reject irrational policies" and that the ANC "does accept and respect the institutions that make up the country's political landscape."

With regards to that last one, McKaiser would in 2011 explain his decision to resign from the public broadcaster as follows:

"Self-censorship on the part of a sufficient number of employees suffices to keep our politicians happy. The chilling effect of previous interference reverberates culturally. That is far more powerful than politicians needing to call SABC executives every morning."

Hard to reconcile that analysis with the behaviour of a supposedly ‘respectful' governing party.

The long and the short of it is that good will makes for bad analysis. That might sound like a rather pessimistic statement but, in the same way an outlook influenced by prejudice will be skewed, so a worldview that is overly optimistic will ascribe to certain decisions a motivation that just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And, in South Africa our political analysts do it all the time.

Optimism has a place. But one needs to understand its relative. What is best for South Africa is not necessarily what is best for the ANC, certainly it regularly confuses the two. At the same time, well-meaning action and behaviour would be badly affected if every possible outcome was written off before it took place. But analysis is not about being optimistic.

It is about interpreting the world around us, whatever its nature, and describing it accurately. That doesn't lend itself to ascribing good intentions to every undertaking. Likewise, it might well be the case that, in certain instances, some more general positive intention is indeed the right explanation but, when it comes to the ANC, the facts suggest that is the rarest of exceptions.

The ANC's intentions and what it understands South Africa's best interests to be are not necessarily objectively the best. And to use a universal frame of reference to understand them is, in fact, to profoundly misunderstand them. That doesn't require shouting ‘blue murder', and certainly not being pessimistic in the other direction, only the intention to describe things as they are and not as we wish them to be.

This article first appeared on the Inside Politics weblog.

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