A primer for national renewal

Mike Berger on what needs to be done in the face of formidable obstacles

In this post I wish to continue with the thread initiated by my previous article in PW (Choosing the best over the worst, 07 November 2018). In it I argued for a visionary politics, a politics based on fairness, reciprocity and inclusivity within a democratic ethos.

Those with some practical experience of life knows that successful political action often rests on an amalgam of raw self-interest and an acute intuition of the intentions, benign or evil, of one's friends and enemies alike. Deception and expediency are part of the common currency of all politics, including the democratic varieties where they are constrained by formal institutions and informal norms.

In short, even Utopian dreams become encrusted with the compromises and expediencies required to emerge into political realisation. But while the end-result may not be as pristine as the original vision it may transcend that in ways which could not have been fully predicted.

An important lesson to be learnt from such struggles is that they're never endpoints, only way-stations in the seemingly endless project of imagining and achieving human aspirations within changing circumstances. Utopian visions are necessary both as moral guides and as spurs to action.

In a previous post I listed some of the broad principles for any party or organisation seeking to provide a real alternative to the current dispensation. Any feasible transformative set of policies will require funding and a threshold level of public buy-in. Less tangible but equally important requirements include the necessary tenacity, innovation and adaptability to see it through.

This is not the place to cross the “t's” and dot the “i's” but it would be useful to place on record some pragmatic ideas. Since in a democratic system public support is a key requirement it's worth starting the obstacles. They are formidable:

- The 'aura' derived from a carefully cultivated liberation narrative around struggle heroes, oppression and suffering can undermine inclusive, non-racial solutions. Such narratives represent a curated version of reality in which truth is selectively used to advance a heroic mythology of sacrifice and virtue. Struggle mythologies can potentially serve a useful foundation for national identity, but they can also be used to divide and oppress. Ultimately progress is better served by the whole messy truth than reductive mythology.

- The media also derives significant rents from the patronage of a ruling party whose anti-imperialistic narrative finds resonance in the ambitious segment of its middle and elite membership and support base. This includes substantial parts of the media, academia and the corporate world.

- It is thus inevitable that opposition will attract a great deal of diversionary smoke and mirrors as well no platforming. But at least parts of the media have shown a willingness to engage the ANC on its worst abuses. This needs to be leveraged into a deeper critique of its policies both overt and covert

So, it's against an inevitable backdrop of disinformation and deliberate ethnic polarisation that a credible message of change will need to be formulated, broadcast and reinforced. That cannot rest simply upon negative propaganda. Positive messaging is essential to a renewal strategy.

Of course more targeted support can be sought across all segments of South African society. There is still a substantial reservoir of goodwill, expertise and constructive energy within this country. Mobilisation of this support base is essential to counteract growing cynicism and pessimism within SA society.

On a practical note, any ambitious reform project will require considerable funding. Initially venture capital, so to speak, will be needed to get the project off the ground followed by additional sources of future funding as it bears fruit. Some success and greater confidence in the direction being taken will help attract the necessary funds partly through hard-headed investment and partly through long-term commitment by outside agencies to promising initiatives within Africa.

But for an out-of-the-box source of money see, for example, "People's Capitalism: the economics of the robot revolution" published by Albus in 1976 (available on-line as a pdf). In this publication the author proposed a semi-private National Mutual Fund which would invest in sectors promoting economic productivity, or whatever other national priorities would best serve the principles of a fair, sustainable society.

Whatever the details and safeguards of such a scheme the entire population would be shareholders receiving regular dividends which could, of course, be ploughed back into the fund at the discretion of the recipient. Besides the boost to economic activity such a device would also help lift the entrapped and marginalised out of the poverty-crime-abuse spiral which threatens our future and blights fellow citizens lives.

This or similar proposals need careful consideration, but the point is that South Africa can tap into a substantial reservoir of original thinking for ideas which simultaneously boost economic viability and serve the ethical and pragmatic purpose of uplifting vast sections of our population by-passed by the self-serving, ethnic-based transformation policies promoted by the ANC axis.

South Africa needs to remain with one foot firmly planted in the democratic family of nations. Whatever its current tribulations and shortcomings, the democratic 'West' is the major source of innovation, human flourishing and economic prosperity the world has ever known. We must be part of it.

The other foot is planted in Africa since we are part of this continent and need to set the model for other states struggling to escape the neo-patrimonial political cultures stifling their potential. South Africa and the world can only benefit in multiple ways from a resurgent South Africa and we must grasp the opportunity to lead a real African renaissance.

For that to take place we require a thriving free enterprise economy freed from unnecessary regulatory and bureaucratic constraints and the stifling effects of race-based transformation policies. South Africa requires a deracialised transformative agenda designed to bring real change to the disadvantaged of all colours and creeds.

For true liberation to be achieved we must also loosen the brakes which hold us back. Some of these have been mentioned already but I want to stress the interlocked impacts of crime, social dysfunction and insecurity on the possibility of progress.

In the long run elimination of these social blights will require economic prosperity and greater social justice but it is imperative that we tackle petty lawlessness, outright criminality and free-riders directly. There needs to be the political will to professionalise the police, to restore security and order to our streets and public spaces and to counteract organised crime seeping deep into our society.

The longer such reforms are delayed the more dangerous and entrenched they will become as we have seen across the world. There is a clear connection between crime and political dysfunction. To counteract this growing culture in South Africa will pose both ethical and political problems which will be exploited by those benefitting from the status quo. But these cannot be avoided and is a major plank within any workable reform program

In the context of ethnicised conflict it is essential to create a safe space for moderation and dialogue to emerge. This can be difficult within a party-political system which is predisposed to sharpen differences and to stress the negative. Furthermore, renewal should come as much from civil society as from within the conventional political establishment. Hybrid approaches may be needed so long as the organisational structure remains flexible and adaptive.

Leadership is vital. Besides a credible public profile, charisma and experience, a leader will need to demonstrate a special ability to unite factions around common ground without sacrificing essential principles. My own preference is for an early conference involving local contributors as well as international figures. This can be used to send a message to the wider public, to extend and refine the original vision and policies, to start the process of creating a united front committed to shared ideals and to attract the 'venture capital' to fuel further development.

While leadership is a central plank it is not sufficient. Success will depend upon pulling in the range of expertise, ideas and support which transforms an idea into an unstoppable wave. The waters will be predictably stormy momentum will constantly be threatened by rip tides and countervailing currents. Clear communication and rapid resolution of internal divisions are both essential.

In the long run success will depend upon the commonsense, courage and judgement of the wider South African public. This will be the ultimate test.

Mike Berger