A memo to the gatvol

Mike Berger writes on reviving the promise of South Africa as a successful multi-racial democracy

"The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart ... And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained." Alexander Solzhenitsyn 

"... living in a complex system requires us to embrace and even harness uncertainty. Instead of attempting to narrowly forecast and control outcomes, we need to design systems that are robust and adaptable enough to weather a wide range of possible futures." Jessica Flack and Melanie Mitchell

The most pressing business for South Africa is to revive the possibility that existed a quarter of a century ago: to build the first indigenous, multi-ethnic, flourishing modern democracy in Africa on our own troubled soil. Success from the get-go would indeed have been a case of South African exceptionalism against heavy odds.

But we had an iconic President, the world's goodwill (not unmixed with scepticism), a very reasonable foundation of material infrastructure, natural resources and human capital. The dream seemed attainable.

As we all know, we squandered the apparent opportunity for greatness that history and our own efforts had provided us. Some say any such vaulting ambition was an illusion from the outset, and history has proven the pessimists right - so far. In the year 2020 South Africa is struggling to prevent incremental State failure from sliding into collapse and, in reaching this point, many lives have been unnecessarily sacrificed , many more blighted and the hopes of millions dashed on the rocks of human cupidity and stupidity.

So we've served our apprenticeship, been knocked about the ring and been taught some lessons. Have we learnt them and can we apply them? The answer to that question is not in and will have to await the passage of time.

But the 'we' I refer to does not simply apply to scattered individuals; it applies to the collective, the complex system which is South Africa. The answer as to what lessons have been learnt will be reflected in the collective actions, norms and institutions that we construct - or fail to construct - over the coming years and decades. That is what my own writing is about and that, I imagine, is what PW is largely about.

In a previous post 'A path out of the morass? ' (PW, 19 Aug 2020) I analysed the nature of the South African crisis in terms of Demographic-Structural (D-S) Theory as updated by Goldstone, Turchin and others . In terms of the model. all the macro drivers of State instability are present as now widely recognised within South Africa itself (here and here), as well as globally. Such acknowledgement is the first tentative step towards reform.

D-S theory is based upon historical and empirical research within a branch of scientific political science directed at deriving testable hypotheses. Science veers towards reductive models which is recognised by those engaged in the project. Hence recently they have been extending the model by incorporating what they call meso and micro level factors which may influence the outcomes of State instability.

Based partly on their insights I proposed some possible explanations for South African resilience and argued that the chronicity of the process provided an opportunity for action to stave off a further slide into meltdown and to set the country on a more sustainable trajectory.

Specifically I argued that this initially requires a focussed drive to restore trust in State integrity and competence and rapid alleviation of dire poverty and gross inequality in our population. As part of this argument I listed a number of potentially favourable factors within the South African situation which offered some grounds for optimism. These included:

a nascent national identity and pride in brand 'South Africa'

the persistent of democratic norms

popular acknowledgement of mutual ethnic interdependence

and a more realistic tone in the conventional media together with a greater engagement of academic and other experts in the public debate.

Finally, I proposed this task could not be accomplished by the ANC Alliance alone and that the DA (amongst others) had a vital role to play in any escape from the abyss of a collapsed State.

This argument provoked vigorous debate within the Comment Thread following the article, notably Helgard Muller (HM) and Ursus formidinis (UF) with interesting contributions by others. This debate was especially important because ideas are a vital component of reform and the productive exchange of different perspectives is key to the process.

If I understand correctly, HM claims that the embeddedness of the ANC in South African black culture, community and historical narrative have been vital to South Africa's 'stability'. While he acknowledges that the ANC Alliance has squandered much of its moral authority, he claims that DA liberalism is inauthentic or outrightly hypocritical and, more generally, he rejects a liberalism detached from community, tradition and a pre-existing sense of national identity. From this base HM implies that a national identity and state renewal has to be built from the 'ground up', but fails to specify more precisely how that is to be done.

UF's response follows:

"What is tragic is that we were well on that path(a national sense of shared destiny around the constitution) before the corrupt, duplicitous subversives in the ANC resurrected and doubled down on the whole identitarian fascist angle purely as a means to amass populist appeal, simultaneously deflecting unwanted attention from their wanton excesses.

How does one provide for that kind of deliberate sabotage of the national democratic project? One can not (sic), because it is a deliberate agenda being pursued for the gain of an elite clique, it therefore precludes any chance for broad, cohesive, nation building. There is a clear, rational reason why many are now contemplating secession, because debate, engagement and cooperation are precluded by the SACPANC's dogged NDR agenda - they are now so insular in their thinking, so complacent in their majoritarian, multi-tentacled hegemony and network of patronage, that they no longer see the need for the schlep of the whole Hegelian dialectic. process - they just want to seize the country and settle down to some classic African one party state self indulgence. Under such conditions, any further discussion about ethical engagement and nation building is superfluous."

There is little doubt that UF's uncompromising stance will be more appealing to PW readers than HM's soft-edged approach to the ANC's contradictory role in South African politics. I'm not interested in adjudicating, but HM underestimates the conviction behind the expression of liberalism and its success in providing space for differing ideologies, liberating innovation and entrepreneurial energy and its direct appeal to the fairness instinct. But he makes an important point in foregrounding historical and contextual factors necessary for firmly rooting the liberal paradigm and the constitution in the political order.

This is implicitly acknowledged when UF points to the unravelling of the liberal project in the USA but then goes on to promote 'constitutionalism' as a skyhook for bootstrapping South Africa out of its crisis. This is likely to be too abstract to attract the SA street and depends heavily as a lawfare weapon on interpretation as shown in the USA and other countries as well as SA.

In unpacking the idea of State failure further, it is possible to distinguish between failure and collapse. The latter term suggests, and is, in fact, so defined in D-S theory, as a more-or-less nationwide collapse of law and order and supply chains accompanied by serious violence and casualties.

That is indeed a potential outcome for South Africa, to be followed by who knows what: military rule, an arbitrary authoritarian leader - or leaders on a rotating coup basis - or state fragmentation (balkanisation as some would like to call it)? But South Africa is a well-mixed omelette and balkanisation would be a very costly and destructive outcome of very uncertain viability. Full-on State collapse would be a calamity from which it would be very difficult to recover.

Failure on the other hand is more graduated, incremental and patchy. We have already entered the stage of outright, patchy state failure. In the worst afflicted areas even minimal standards of law and order are absent, food insecurity is rife, public lawlessness and domestic violence is widespread and public health is abysmal due to inadequate housing, sanitation, lack of clean water and poor medical facilities. Governance, such as it is, is provided by often criminalised, under-resourced and incompetent state and party cadres. Covid patients dying in tents from hypothermia and neglect as reported by the BBC recently reflects a reality we're all famililiar with.

There is no question that criminal corruption has contaminated the entire ANC Alliance, a process further accelerated by the calculated campaign by Zuma and his accomplices to undermine the constitutional institutions designed to prevent just that. Bit by bit the regional criminal networks have penetrated into the highest echelons of the Government where they ensure that reform efforts do not undermine their own interests.

It is from that perspective that JP Landman's recent summary of steps taken by the ANC, under the leadership of Ramaphosa, to root out corruption and introduce competence and merit into key state appointments needs to be critiqued. These welcome initial steps may be tolerated insofar as they improve the public image of the ANC and stave off state collapse but not so far as to seriously disrupt the criminal rent-seeking activities embedded in the SACP/ANC .

Serendipitously, Landman's review has been followed by Ramaphosa's decision to throw down the gauntlet to the ANC in the form of an public letter which endorses much of the popular revulsion towards the culture of looting embedded within the body of the ANC and its associated penumbra of political allies, relatives, cronies, cadres and corporate beneficieries. (Remarkably this was followed by a second letter a day later).

But however justifiably cynical one may feel, the original public letter pins Ramaphosa's reputation to unambiguous statements of intent and open the door to both public scrutiny and to productive engagement. It is a potential weapon in the hands of reformers from within and outside the party and also an invitation to productive interaction This is where the long view is so important. The letter is far too precious to dissipate its potential in a welter of cynical, party-political indignation.

If politics is conceived as the art of the possible, we must start with the reality that SA is a multi-dimensional patchwork quilt. For these sharp edges to blend and soften within a unitary state will be the work perhaps of decades at least, even in this age of accelerated change. For this to happen we will need to restore the potency of a national identity.

In my view that can only be done around the unifying dream of a shared national destiny or project. And for that purpose we can unambiguously nail our national destiny to the project of becoming the first truly successful multi-ethnic, modern, democratic state to emerge from the debris of colonialism and apartheid in Africa.

Surely this is an ideal to which all living in South Africa can subscribe; an ideal which would cross party-political and ideological lines. Some organisation needs to take the lead in promoting this vision without claiming sole ownership.

It offers a broad tent under which inter-party, inter-ideological and inter-ethnic communication can take place and it comes with potential markers (eg. measures of inclusivity, economic growth and fiscal stability, levels of inequality, democratic norms and freedoms, governance etc) against which progress can be measured. It is not simply a top-down solution but expresses the universal human yearning for dignity and pride in the form of an inclusive national destiny.

Rhetoric alone won't cut it. A national dream can turn rapidly sour if not accompanied by action and tangible results. The overriding paradigm under which such a project must takes place is recognition that SA is indeed a patchwork quilt (or blanket)* and that all parts of South Africa must participate in and benefit from the national project, starting with the poor and previously excluded.

It will only work as the national glue if kept front and centre despite all diversions and obfuscation. But while a catchy slogan can't substitute for the bread and butter processes of governance and political communication, it allows for the past to be acknowledged and addressed while focussing on the future.

Sometimes the obvious needs to be said. All the old stumbling blocks remain and together they may be able to undermine any attempt at altering the SA downward trajectory. Realists of all stripes would not give high odds on success. But there are other examples of State creation and renewal which defied rational pessimism from Singapore to Israel.

Churchill offered the English blood, sweat and tears. Herzl offered the Jews of Europe a national homeland in a swampy desert with no resources. 'Liberté, égalité, fraternité' is the national motto of France - but also Haiti. We need to start putting flesh on our national dream by

Restoring the moral legitimacy and economic stability of the state

Urgently addressing the dire poverty and inequalities which destabilise South Africa and undermine our sense of social solidarity and national pride

Restoring respect for the law (based on our Constitution, fairness and cultural values) and by radically reforming the civil bureaucracy.

If we can embed these essential reforms within a national project to whom all can subscribe, so much the better. To be continued...

Mike Berger

* The entire project of restoring the reality of a national dialogue is a project on its own. It falls short of a government of national unity but builds upon common values whether openly expressed or latent within all parties and sectors of society. It needs to be taken seriously.