Coming through our crisis

Mike Berger says the DA will need to up its game, even if Ramaphosa disappoints

A new compact

Nate Silver's wonderful book 'The Signal and the Noise' was published in September 2012, climbed rapidly towards best-seller status, was named by Amazon as the best non-fiction book of 2012 and was awarded the Phi Beta Kappa Science Award for that year. Silver is a baseball and politics junkie, an accomplished statistician and writer and, in many ways, a polymath in his broad area of interest: prediction. See his website 'FiveThirtyEight'.

The title of his book touches directly on one of the great problems of human life (and animal to a lesser extent): how to distinguish true and meaningful information from the noise - random or deliberate. It ain't easy, but just as it gets more difficult it becomes more important.

This article is really aimed at trying to penetrate the noise to get to the most important and accurate signals that enable us to make worthwhile choices. This preamble brings us to some of the current debates within South Africa especially those concerning the ANC under Cyril Ramaphosa and the DA under Mmusi Maimane. Specifically I want to look critically at their respective claims to leadership.

As pointed out in a previous article, there is a panting eagerness in certain media quarters to paint Cyril Ramaphosa (CR for the remainder of this post) as our saviour and redeeming hero. Is that realistic? I will argue the jury is out but nevertheless, his election as ANC President does afford us a breathing space. And an opportunity to recalibrate.

CR's symbolism and public comments have all been heartening and generally unambiguous. Rainbow scarves at Davos and promises of non-racial unity. Firm public commitments to constitutionalism. Promises that underperforming and potentially corrupt SOEs are under scrutiny and an emphasis on economic growth have lightened the mood in the country. That's good for investment and the rand has responded with record strengths against the dollar.

But when Magda Wierzycka of Sygnia, is moved to suggest he takes over the Cape water crisis I'm inclined to say 'whoa'! Words need to be converted into action over the longer term and that is a horse of a different colour.

I can't help remembering how 'subdued' CR was throughout Zuma's sustained assault on our institutions and treasury. It was also brought to my attention that way back in Dec 2014 Ranjeni Munusamy wrote in the Daily Maverick:

"… (the) Cabinet announced that the Deputy President would oversee the turnaround at three besieged state-owned entities – South African Airways (SAA), the SA Post Office and Eskom. If he wants to be a president South Africa will have faith in, Ramaphosa had better get this right".

Hmmm, that hardly turned out well. Whatever way you slice it CR has hardly been a shooting star since his rather reluctant return to the political arena, even setting aside Marikana. The best one can say is that, with much encouragement from the sidelines, he has raised the tempting possibility that the ANC can shed its current tattered political skin and emerge as a party capable of governing a modern, progressive democratic state.

How likely is that? One way of starting is through the eyes of William Saunderson-Meyers:

"Virtually every managerial level of the public service and of the many state-owned entities is overrun by corrupt and incompetent Zuma cadres. These drones are entrenched and unrepentant. They will not be easy to budge from the feeding trough, especially since the “struggle veteran” generation, which actually did have an ideological commitment to serving the people, has pretty much been pushed out, or bailed out, of the most influential positions in the ANC hierarchy."

That is an immense hurdle and cleaning these stables will be a herculean task. It's not simply the corruption and the resistance but the metanarratives which provide the soil for rent-seeking opportunists. Narratives, drawn from a real (and mythologised) history of conflict, loss, subjugation and partial liberation, have been weaponised into a powerful justification for transformation politics which perpetuate racial division, economic stagnation and inequality.

Furthermore, such narratives of identity and oppression tap into powerful currents within the wider West and the global arena encompassing regional, religious and various national political systems in chronic conflict. The remarkably polarising potential of such currents is clearly apparent in the rise of intolerant and inquisitorial politics across much of Western society.

Added to this burden, South Africa itself comes with an impressive list of political faultlines running the full spectrum from ethnic to racial, ideological to religious and more. Rumbling beneath these tectonic plates is the primary driver of political instability and state failure: 'inequality' - which in South Africa encompasses a number of dimensions, especially economic. Such structural and normative dysfunctionalities are reflected in the daily routines of a fraught, low trust society that we are all familiar with. Political expression in South Africa is frequently linked to violence and there is a widespread (not universal) disregard for law and for pro-social norms.

While we should never try to deny the negative realities of South Africa the important question is how to also realise our enormous potential. I cannot escape the belief that it's South Africa's mission to be the catalyst of an African revival.

That cannot be built on a narrow African nationalism nor can it simply be done by the indiscriminate importation of European memes and practices. But Joseph Henrich in his must-read book 'The Secret of Our Success' points out that successful groups (collectives, political entities) gain a considerable advantage by adopting and adapting the norms and practices of other, perhaps more successful, groups.

Where does the DA stand in relation to this imperative? When Zille tweeted the example of Singaporean success, she was mobbed by significant parts of the media and of course by the ANC and its ideological bedfellows, as a racist reactionary. That episode remains an indelible blot on South Africa's recent political history and its negative ripples still persist.

By adopting the wholesale rejection of our European heritage as evil colonialism for short-term political gain and by constantly feeding the insatiable 'grievance-identity' crocodile with symbolic victims, South Africa is aborting its own future. The plain fact of the matter is that Western free markets coupled to democracy and the panoply of values and institutions which underpin this gigantic cultural-political edifice, is the great success story of the last two centuries.

And, correspondingly, the deep problem with the ANC is its ambiguous relationship to this wider heritage. Depending on which way the local ideological and political tides are running, the ANC flips between a reductionist leftist-Fanonist version of history and a tenuous commitment to free markets and constitutional democracy. Given its alliance partners and the exigencies of the political power game, it is hardly surprising that the ANC cannot adhere to a coherent strategy for more than a nanosecond.

Simultaneously, it is widely recognised that the DA is facing a crisis of identity, performance and principle. A decade or so ago Zille brought the previously dominant European element of the party into forced confrontation with its African context by sheer force of conviction and drive. Contrary to the objections of liberal fundamentalists, this was not an act of expediency but one of essential moral pragmatism. It enriched the party while making it accessible and relevant to the wider South African citizenry. It was a seminal moment in our recent history.

As heir to this legacy Maimane will ultimately be judged on whether he can find the words and wisdom to re-articulate and implement DA vision and mission in a way that unites both strands of our history. Waldimar Pelser in an insightful article on Politicsweb appropriately entitled "Where now for the DA?", pointed out that the party's strategy and rhetoric is becoming unconvincing and repetitive. The election of CR has largely (hopefully?) taken Zuma out of the equation and it may not be as easy to use economic stagnation and corruption as rallying cries if he is able to pull in overseas investment.

Hence, while the DA is far better suited than the ANC to become the dominant unifying, progressive force within South African politics the free ride for the DA is also over. Some of the current criticism reflects doubts long suppressed because of the dreadful alternative. But that will no longer do. The DA must turn the tide and do so rapidly.

The party needs to retain its technocratic edge while fundamentally revitalising its message and performance and getting the word across to the broad electorate. It's no longer sufficient to trumpet its superior values; that is the baseline expectation. The party will have to relate its actions and policies to the formidable complexities of South Africa convincingly to a skittish electorate.

In short, it will need to combat the innate, and contrived, tendency of heterogeneous nations (like SA) to splinter into tribalised conflict by an authentic message of unity which recognises both our historical diversity and legacy of inequality (by no means unique to SA). The South African soil is not conducive to such a message but if we wish to realise our potential and fulfil the hopes of most citizens, this is the only path currently available.

How to instrumentalise these principles into a workable political strategy within meaningful time scales is a problem of practical politics and will demand all the talent and courage available to the party.

And, finally, a message to the electorate: don't be stampeded by the noise and 'blame' politics. Yes, we must call out the politicians for their mistakes and transgressions but don't become pawns. Remember that history shows that individual success is ultimately tied to the success of others.

Mike Berger