A path out of the morass?

Mike Berger analyses our situation through a causes of state instability model

A path out of the morass?

19 August 2020

National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.” Richard Rorty in 'Achieving Our Country'

For most of my politically conscious life extending back quite a few decades, South Africa has always felt as though it is about to jump the tracks. It's not only me; prophecies of doom abound from 'When Smuts Goes' by Keppel-Jones to 'Waiting for the Barbarians' by JM Coetzee to the latest RW Johnson erudite jeremiad. It's reflected in our sport and in our attitudes towards the South African situation which vary from utter despair to grandiose self-confidence.

It's not all that difficult to see where our national bipolar disorder springs from. South Africa seems to be a microcosm of all the pressing global challenges: massive inequalities across multiple dimensions, ethnic divisions, corruption, deep ideological differences and smouldering historical grievances. Fertile soil indeed for conflict and opportunists

Our news media both reacts to and drives the political theatre of everyday life. The actors and the details change but the plot remains depressingly unaltered. And so we're engaged from one day to the next with the repetitive drama of moral outrage, scandals, political theatre and factional battles.

A fairly wide consensus has emerged that the ANC has been corrupted to the extent that purely internal reform is difficult or impossible. It is further entrapped by a hodge-potch of socialist -anti-colonial ideologies and collective scripts of historical injustice and marginalisation. To these dynamics may be added the steep economic incentive gradient in present South Africa where the drop-off between wealth and poverty is horrifyingly steep and political power or access to power offers opportunity and insurance.

In unpacking the drivers of our current serious national malaise I'll start with a general model (the demographic-structural (D-S) model first proposed by Jack Goldstone and subsequently developed further by Turchin and others (1) which looks at the causes of state instability and allows us to drill down further into the South African story.

Fundamentally, the D-S model includes 3 major (macro) components: the State. the Elites and the Population. To simplify considerably, instability arises when the state runs out of money and/or legitimacy, the population size exceeds the demand for remunerative labour and factionalism increases within the expanding elites. Instability is signified by verbal and physical extremism, protests and violence which may or may not end in state collapse of varying forms and severity.

Turchin et al argue that cycles of disorder are recurring cyclical events in the history of nations but the precise outcomes - eg. subsidence, revolution or state collapse - depend upon more granular realities, called meso and micro factors. which we'll touch on. In terms of the macro features of the D-S Model, current South African instability is wholly to be expected.

The State is rapidly approaching bankruptcy and its legitimacy is being widely challenged including by broad swathes of its own previously-loyal constituency.

Unemployment and serious poverty is rife due to slow or non-existent and unequal economic growth, floods of immigrants from neighbouring States and natural population growth

The increasing queue of the political elite with their clients and cronies at the feeding trough has led to vicious factionalism and ineffectual leadership.

With all the basic macro drivers of instability so firmly in place the question to ask is why the South African pressure pot hasn't blown already and an attempt to suggest some answers follows. Suffice it to say for the present that the social violence, lawlessness, vandalism and chronic unrest characteristic of our socio-political scene is evidence of a pressure cooker society letting off steam.

At this point two vital questions arise:

How has South Africa managed to maintain its current degree of State stability in the face of such prolonged and flagrant corruption, economic failure and misgovernance?

And, secondly, how can this period of macro stability coupled with political clarity be used productively? This requires an investigation into the recuperative strengths of South Africa and the sources of its apparent resilience.

I believe that our relative State stability depends in a wide number of factors of which the most important may be:

The existence of a constitutionally-based democratic framework which provides space for normal political processes to take place. However attenuated such democratic norms and institutions are they provide a potential political pathway to reform. By and large radical populist movements like the EFF and other even more anarchic and predatory groups have remained within legal political boundaries. A relatively free media may also contribute to macro stability while perhaps stoking meso-micro level conflict and division.

A strong civil and commercial sector which tends to stabilise the country.

The release of social tensions in chronic unrest and criminality, which has also played a role in transferring some wealth into the hands of the masses both directly and by the emergence of a massive security industry.

Low expectations, traditional culture and structures as well as the church which dampen extremist rhetoric and radical consciousness amongst the broad African masses.

Ethnic and tribal divisions within South African society which dissipate the potential for a broad mass revolt plus the skill of the ANC in diverting popular attention towards ethnic minorities, especially whites, or other convenient red herrings.

The power of patronage which hobbles the development of revolutionary fervour in trade unions and other political groupings.

And, multiple other intangibles which would require a separate discussion.

While these explanations are subject to debate and do not constitute a guarantee South African stable-instability has offered the opportunity for reform without the trauma and unpredictability of large-scale social breakdown. It may be argued that it's simply a matter of time and a trigger, and that the rational course of action is to get out of the country if that is possible.

This gloomy prognosis is impossible to refute and I won't try, but in any case for the vast majority of South Africans emigration is unfeasible. For these, and others who voluntarily choose to remain and face the music, simple self-interest is one reason amongst others to work towards realistic reform. National rescue (or renewal if optimistic) will necessitate not only the right prescription but inducing the patient to swallow the medicine and, as we all know, the second part of the equation is the stumbling block.

To start we will need a laser-like focus on three targets. One is to implement the lower three rungs of Maslow's hierarchy of personal needs (suitably adapted for national level) as urgently and fully as possible. These include

- satisfaction of basic physiological needs for food, shelter, clean water, personal safety, security - especially of women and children

- basic healthcare

- improve trust in the leadership, respect for law and restoration of the belief that the system is fair and can improve.

If not for reasons of simple decency and fairness, popular immiseration is one spoke of the cycle underpinning state instability. South Africa has the highest level of economic inequality in the world as measured by the Gini index and unemployment rates in excess of 30% concentrated mainly in the black community. Combined with crime, social violence and domestic abuse, general lawlessness and a youthful population, such dire ethnic-selective poverty is a powder keg waiting for a fuse. Right now this is compounded by serious food shortages due to elite theft and state-level incompetence

Fully rectifying this situation is a vital priority and innovative solutions involving the private and public sectors and civil society must be implemented. In the longer term it involves building a capable state which in turn requires the elimination of cadre deployment, introducing merit (including integrity) as the primary criterion in appointments and a focus on transparency, accountability and outcomes. Economic recovery will have to be driven from a private sector liberated from government corruption, interference, outright sabotage and heavy-handed bureaucratic obstructionism.

It goes without saying that such reforms cannot be accomplished overnight (if at all) but what can be done immediately is to make this the first amongst equal policy targets in word and deed. In the almost certain absence of a national commitment, the DA in the Western Cape (and elsewhere) should waste no time in announcing its focus on dire poverty alleviation and eventual elimination - and ensure it is also seen to unambiguously walk the walk.

The second target is to reduce and eliminate government corruption. The evidence of embedded State criminality at all levels, originating at the highest tier of Government, is by now overwhelming. Even the media, once happy to focus on sensationalised stories of racism and fashionable identity narratives , are now targeting State criminals engaged in looting funds and resources destined for Covid victims.

Once again, national-level cooperation in genuine efforts to detect and prosecute looters will be arduous so it falls to the DA to assume the lead in exposing and publicising these abuses. So far the DA has led by example and that must continue.

Inter-party cooperation should be sought and reform depoliticised insofar as that is realisable within South African political realities. That could be accomplished in various ways but obviously a plan B will be required to deal with meaningless gestures and delaying or diversionary tactics. This time around however the media may be more alert to such tactics and refuse to be diverted by ANC theatrics.    

The third spoke of the instability cycle is State bankruptcy and loss of legitimacy. The first part of this equation has been overwhelming documented. State legitimacy has been eroding for over a decade and has reached its lowest point yet with the heartless and compulsive looting of Covid funds by ANC members and State functionaries - more-or-less the same thing.

Zille recently termed South Africa a criminal State and while many would agree, it is only partially true. Neglecting the non-or partially-criminalised portion is a mistake since it constitutes a starting platform for something more secure.

There is a powerful tendency to reduce a complex, multi-dimensional reality to simple polar opposites. People are more psychologically comfortable with black and white arguments and strategic political considerations further amplify such binary preferences. Human cognitive biases don't, however, reflect the dynamics of complex systems and one can assume there is much less predictability and more slack in the system than supposed by conventional analysis.

And so I will conclude with some speculation that South Africa's fate, including the potential for reform, is greater that 'realistic pessimists' may suppose.

At an important psychological level there persist elements of a national identity and self-esteem as demonstrated by cross-ethnic national pride in South African resilience, accomplishments and examples of South African exceptionalism - and by the persistence of considerable inter-ethnic goodwill exhibited throughout the Covid pandemic by individuals in all communities.

This foundation should not be underestimated. In IRR surveys racial division in the broad population was considerably less than one would suppose from the provocative utterances of politicians et al. Such commonsensical embrace of mutual interdependence has proven quite resistant to polemical echo chambers and creates a bridgehead for a leadership which consistently speaks to all South Africans in both word and action.

The reality of South African resilience, though not infinite, is remarkable. Despite the constant drain of talent and expertise overseas and morale-sapping malgovernance, examples of South African commercial and entrepreneurial ingenuity continue to impress. This has been especially apparent in response to the economic challenges thrown up by the current pandemic and State interventions.

Besides the resilience demonstrated by entrepreneurs within the civil and commercial sectors, the Western Cape (WC) provincial administration and Cape Town municipality have demonstrated that South Africa has the capacity to govern effectively given pragmatic, solutions-orientated leadership, financial integrity, ingenuity and a focus on inclusive outcomes.

Success has been achieved despite limited autonomy, an often hostile and sensationalist media and sabotage by elements within the ANC. Adding to the unpromising political environment has been the challenge of accommodating large numbers of unskilled internal migrants from the Eastern Cape in particular seeking opportunity and escape from a failed and corrupt provincial administration.

This achievement within the furnace of inter-party (and intra-party?) politics has required the creation of a capable, outcomes-orientated culture within the provincial and Cape Town administration which has been show-cased by the remarkably efficient management of the Corona pandemic.

A proper discussion of the WC model of governance requires separate treatment and it clearly has not been uniformly successful. Nevertheless, it stands as a model and marker for national-level reform.

The other positive for SA is the persistence of a free media and relatively unfettered political expression. Despite the justified criticisms of our conventional media there has been a recent resurgence of critical and investigative journalism. Some academics have also contributed and as a result the ANC has been subjected to unprecedented scrutiny.

We should never take this for granted. Any hope of national renewal rests upon the free flow of information. That is the Achilles heel of corrupt leadership everywhere and as such will be resisted. The tools available, including brute suppression, are considerable and range from ideological spin and disinformation to street theatrics and conflation of the inevitable occasional racist incident with systemic racism.

While South Africa is indeed slipping down the slope towards State failure driven by the macro factors outlined by Turchin and many others, the time scale provides us with the opportunity and motivation to initiate meaningful reform. Although the proposals in this article fall short of a Singaporean-Scandinavian 'Utopia', they provide the foundation for further stabilisation, development and for a happier and healthier future for millions of fellow South Africans.

On a more philosophical note my closing argument is that we must not use the State to fill our psychological needs and search for spiritual meaning. It is the State's primary role to help meet Maslow's basic needs at which it has failed abysmally. Human dignity, spiritual meaning and national pride can only realistically be attained when those fundamentals are available to the overwhelming majority of our population.

To cover up such failures and divert attention from self-enrichment and other erosions of the democratic order, ruling parties everywhere (and often their opponents) play to racial and other identity issues and to historical grievances. Such hot moral buttons are regularly pressed in South Africa and across the world by those with agendas of all sorts.

I cannot offer a fail-safe vaccine against such mental pathogens which are adept at infecting susceptible hosts. The best advice is to stay calm, sceptical and informed and don't spread the infection yourself.

And focus on the positive?

References for D-S models of state instability.

a. Turchin, Peter. 2013. Modeling Social Pressures Toward Political Instability. Cliodynamics 4: 241–280.

b. The science behind my forecast for 2020 http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/the-science-behind-my-forecast-for-2020/

c. Turchin, Peter, Sergey Gavrilets, and Jack A. Goldstone. 2017. Linking “Micro” to “Macro” Models of State Breakdown: Improving Methods for Political Forecasting. Cliodynamics8: 159–181