Avoiding collapse

Mike Berger writes on what the DA needs to do to help SA avoid this outcome

Close relatives: collapse and success

Part 1

In June 2017, nearly 4 billion years after life appeared on Earth, about 7 billion people find themselves fanned across virtually its entire surface. They are kept in a state of global entanglement by trade, modern transport technology and a ubiquitous communications industry. It's overlapping and multi-dimensional.

We are not evolved to meet this challenge and the main way we learn is through the harsh lessons of history. Entanglement makes errors of judgement potentially more catastrophic while also helping the dissemination of cultural intelligence. But it's an arms race with very high stakes and the odds are not in humanity's favour.

Collapse, preceded or accompanied by false narratives, worsening inequality, political failure, famine, violence, disease, refugees and, of course death, has occurred throughout history. The black death in the 14th century killed one-third of the entire population between India and Iceland in the words of one modern historian. Various famines listed by Wikipedia records 60 million dead in China between 1850 -1873.

The African Bank estimated roughly 8 mil to 10 mil war-related deaths from 1990 - 2008 in 13 selected African countries, a list which excluded Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan to name the most obvious. Of the 60 million global refugees in 2014 a considerable proportion were generated in Africa destabilising other, already shaky, African countries with South Africa in the lead according to the Fragile State Index of 2016.

Bare figures, of course, fail dismally in capturing the full immiseration of the ordinary people. In low trust/poor governance environments ruthless elites fight to extract their last pound of flesh openly or within the token constraints of enfeebled democratic norms.  

Part 2

What about South Africa? Less than 3 decades ago, it was the darling of a confident Western world. Hailed by the vast majority of the world's nations for throwing off the yoke of racial oppression, our icon of liberation Nelson Mandela, was courted by the high and mighty. Almost everyone felt on the right side of history, including myself.

The various stories of South Africa's erratic path down the slippery slopes of possibility are known to most readers of Politicsweb. Not all are accurate or helpful but our present predicament has been usefully summed up by Ricardo Hausmann, Director of the Center for International Development in Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, as a tale of missed opportunity and wrong choices. Although not the first to spell it out, his experience and expertise makes his analysis specially compelling.

In essence, for short-term political gain and for mistaken ideological reasons, the current economic and related inequalities in South African society have been cast in racial terms, as in 'white monopoly capital' the answer to which is, purportedly, 'radical economic transformation.

According to Prof Hausmann, this formulation false and will contribute to on-going economic decline through the flight of skilled and specialised know-how from South Africa along with failure to create the firms and environment necessary for real economic, social and material, transformation. The upshot is, in the absence of an effective economic underpinning, we are heading for some form of collapse.

This prognosis is borne out by the Fragile States Index for 2016. Within a spectrum of scores from 18.8 (Finland, very sustainable) to Somalia at 114 (very high alert), South Africa comes in at the last position in the 'warning' category at 69.9, on the border of 'elevated warning'. But more significantly the trend over the last decade is listed as 'significant worsening', just short of 'critical worsening'. In short, the Zupta decade bringing us to the edge.

Collapse can take a variety of forms which generally have in common a significant decline in financial viability, increased physical insecurity and failure of important operational and physical infrastructure along with shortages of food and other essential services. Such developments may be preceded or accompanied by violence from mobs or the state or both and political fragmentation or imposition of authoritarian rule.

Longer term outcomes are also variable but in Africa most commonly we have seen variations on the theme of progressively decreased legitimacy, capture of the state by one or more predatory elites, cycles of violence with periodic mass generation of refugees, loss of essential skills and the flourishing of corruption and dependency.

The afflicted country and entire region becomes set within a lowered trajectory of possibility and expectation, acutely vulnerable to internal and external challenges. Dependency on outside aid becomes entrenched and the prospects for serious improvement from within fade to zero.

Part 3

To find an exit to the spiral of collapse we need to extract the essential drivers of our predicament. Our national balance sheet in 1994 (to select a somewhat arbitrary date) came with positives and negatives.

The positives were massive: large size with a relatively benign climate and considerable bio-ecological diversity, abundant mineral resources and energy, the best infrastructure in Africa, a small but strong foundation of technological and scientific expertise, functioning proto-democratic institutions and a brilliant new Constitution reflecting a remarkable alloy of idealism and pragmatism. We were also buoyed by massive international goodwill and support.

At least a good part of that inheritance is still with us but the debit side of the balance sheet was equally daunting, including immense material inequalities, huge gaps in education and embedded economic features which still favoured whites. Still raw was the simmering sense of anger and injustice on one side against fear and, in some quarters, sullen resentment on the other. This was by no means universal and many, both black and white, approached the future with hope.

Perhaps less fully appreciated were the huge differences in culture and historical memory plus the psychological residues of centuries of division and domination on the psyches of all South Africans added to massive ideological differences within and between the various camps. Without proper 'redress' - still undefined and somewhat open-ended - these demons remained, hungrier than ever.

Our liberal, social reconstructivist constitution was, under the circumstances, a minor miracle but South African politics dithered in the new political freedom while material inequalities worsened, the social fabric frayed further, corruption became embedded in our governmental structures, and the sense of betrayal and hopelessness felt, paradoxically, by both the poor and the privileged grew.

Our nearest neighbour, Zimbabwe, crashed with our tacit complicity. We became the epicentre of the global AIDS epidemic which Mbeki lost no time in exacerbating by substituting ideological fantasies for scientific reality. South Africa became and remains a voracious consumer of international narratives centred on injustice and identity which threaten even stable democracies.

In short we were caught in a spiral of history, ours and others. But history has its unexpected twists and into the whirlpool stepped a determined and combative politician named Helen Zille.

She took the DA, more-or-less by the scuff of the neck, and converted it from a liberal, white-dominated organisation into a potent vehicle for transformation and renewal. She invaded the ANC's turf in the townships, spoke the local languages, danced the local dances and physically and metaphorically hugged the local disempowered citizens. She introduced rigorous procedures within the party to ensure financial integrity, institutional accountability and job performance and initiated projects to improve the tangible material existence of the poor. She actively recruited and cultivated black and coloured leaders and promoted the commercial potential of the Cape.

In so doing, first Cape Town and then the Western Cape became the poster child for what a future united, non-racial South Africa could look like. Zille and her party were rewarded by the people of the Western Cape by winning every election with increased majorities. They were 'rewarded' by the rest of South Africa by making the Western Cape the holy grail for internal migrants. And Zille personally was honoured by the international community by being elected Mayor of the Year for 2014.

But history also has its ironies and one of these is that every 'good idea' seems to come with the seeds of its own destruction.

In Zille's case, she successfully transformed both the leadership and membership of the DA into something resembling the South African demographic profile. But success and the gravitational pull of racial identity politics signalled dilution of her singular vision and drive into political 'normality'. In the words of Mmusi Maimane "if you don't see me as black, you don't see me".

Part 4

Given this context what is realistic, other than a descent into some form of political and economic collapse presaged by the Zupta capture offensive, which has been blunted but not fully defeated by an inspiring fight-back from politicians and civil society alike? It is this spirit which South Africa will need to fulfil its destiny as the bridgehead between the best of Africa and Europe.

The only sane way forward is to harness this clear sighted constructive spirit originally pioneered by Zille in the political domain, persist with the counteroffensive but continue with the hard graft of creating the new South Africa while protecting the Constitutional framework required by a modern state.

It needs to be unambiguously understood that Zuma and his ilk are 'yesterday's men'. They have neither the vision nor the desire to create a successful South Africa. Motivated by power and greed they will sell the people down the river for their selfish ends. These tribal tyrants, male or female, are the curse of Africa and as South Africa threw the old lot out in 1990's we must throw this new lot out before we can get on properly with the job.

Until recently, the DA seemed the only viable vehicle within the political domain for a leadership role. But no longer is that assured in the minds of many South Africans and its immediate task must be to restore real credibility. To accomplish this the DA must offer a coherent and consistent transformative politics within the South African context and communicate this effectively to the electorate.

Such consistency entails some dos and don'ts and its worth considering what these may be. A simple acknowledgement of our collective history with all its pain and many dimensions can be used to unite this country, not to divide us. At the minimum we need to ensure history does not repeat itself in our great country.

Hence the first obligation of the DA is to refuse to enter the great South African racial theatre however appealing and expedient that may appear. It cannot afford to feed the racial addictions of the South African public (and elements within the media) irrespective of colour or political persuasion. The DA will have to address its appeal to the sane majority present in all classes and colours who understand that we can only succeed as a united country.  

The courts too are a vital but double-edged weapon which need to be used with clear strategic objectives These obviously include defence of our constitutional institutions and freedoms, but use for short-term political purposes will diminish effectiveness and destroy the possibility of constructive politics.

The DA in particular will need to find the clarity of thought combined with communication skills to level with the citizens of South Africa. The road forward will have no cheap victories. Progress will be bought through hard work, responsible behaviour and, sometimes, unpopular choices. Economic growth is vital for the politics of redress and transformation. But economic progress will require compromise and sacrifices from all sectors of the population. There will be those only too willing to exploit class and ethnic faultlines for narrow short-term advantage.

Let's be even more explicit. To create the climate for investment in an increasingly uncertain world, we must provide political consistency within a law-abiding society. Almost every social indicator and personal shows a debilitating disrespect for law and the common good in South Africa. It's shown in road behaviour, crime statistics, the kinds of crimes being committed, the embedded corruption within Government and the cynical exploitation of us all by parts of the corporate and professional classes.

An urgent task is to restore the efficacy and professionalism of the law-enforcement institutions of this country which have been systematically undermined by inept and corrupt political appointments. It is time also to promote dedication to the common good as a counterweight to the materialist worship of money and status. The best hope for each of us is the collective success of us all.

South Africa, like the rest of the world, needs a politics based less on cheap sentiment than on hard information and careful analysis. The poisonous climate created by media mobbing, social or mainstream, is inhibiting solution-based politics in South Africa - as it is in the USA and the broader West. The DA must take the lead against reducing national politics to issues of personality and populist demagoguery. Substitute facts for adjectives.

For instance our Minister of Health has once again resurrected the idea of a National Health Scheme. Although there is some confusion over the precise details of his proposal, it needs to be pointed out that the provision of a broad-based health service, especially within a country like South Africa, is one of the most complex, contentious and difficult tasks imaginable. Until we show the capacity for such an undertaking it would undoubtedly become a greater albatross around South Africa's neck than the much-touted nuclear energy deal.

This is not an argument against a more just and effective health service for all citizens. But to do that will require some serious soul-searching and thought to the complexities and skills of all kinds required. In the meantime build up capacity, improve service attitudes and introduce workable incremental reforms. These will all be difficult enough.

Part of the mission of the DA is to educate our public in political and economic realities. We need a mature electorate if we are succeed as a nation. Like the rest of Africa, our youth bulge and popular worship of youthful passion needs to be balanced by experience.

To change minds change realities on the ground. The transformative politics of the Western Cape over the past decade was achieved largely by living out, even if imperfectly, the party rhetoric in actual daily practice, and thereby changing existential and material realities for the Western Cape communities. What was achieved in the Western Province must be the minimum goal for all South Africa - only more so.

Part 5

'State decay' may be easy to fix according to a recent Politicsweb headline (in theory at least) but real progress will be dauntingly hard in the South African context. There is an immense gap between general principles and operational implementation in the South African social, political and economic environment.

The sheer scale of the South African inequalities, urban demographic pressures and cultural-historical-ethnic differences are exceptional and democracy is not the most efficient political mechanism for such a multi-dimensional complex undertaking. But the alternatives in our context are worse.

A better South Africa cannot be built through the political realm alone. Everyone has a contribution to make and the future will be as much a test of the calibre of our citizens as our swirling political currents. Civil society has already shown the way.


The politics of progress is for the long haul and requires realistic and dedicated visionaries.  The verdict of history is still open but barely.

Mike Berger