Cutting off your nose politics

Mike Berger says we should not assume the deep corruption within the ANC has been vanquished

"Politics is the art of the possible" . This piece of folk wisdom comes from Otto von Bismarck and reads in full “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best” (courtesy of Wikipedia).

I'm not sure that the complete quote adds much to the short version, though I like 'the art of the next best'. Like all aphorisms it contains a powerful grain of truth but is far from the whole story..

Modern, Western democratic politics may be somewhat cynically viewed as an elaborate public soap opera conducted according to written and unwritten rules. The precise nature of these rules, and the institutions which monitor and enforce them, vary between democratic nations and over time but, nominally at least, the central purpose is to give meaningful expression to the popular will.

A long, bloody and intellectually rich history has converged on a set of democratic institutions which are designed to accomplish two important objectives. The first is the Rule of Law, namely, the norms and institutions which preserve the democratic system itself against erosion by personal ambition and tribal or ideological passions. The second is Freedom of Expression which, together with The Media, is intended to extract and scrutinise the underlying values, motivations and contending ideas behind the political theatre so that rational and optimal choices can be reached by the broad public.

In other words, within this framework the ordinary citizen is expected to decide which of the parties participating in the soap opera will best serve their interests. I have used the unflattering term 'soap opera' since it captures the component of deceit and intrigue which is an inescapable part of politics, but also because the media for various reasons of its own has an interest in presenting political issues in theatrical terms - as an on-going, larger-than-life epic which taps into the public's own moral universe of values and emotions.

But, additionally, there is an inherent contradiction between the idea that the democratic process allows the broader public to converge on the set of policies and politicians which will best serve the common interest and the fact that human cognition is inherently emotional and tribal in nature and can thus be steered into various dead-ends which best serve the interest of one or other elite.

Despite these basic design flaws within the democratic paradigm, the options are even worse, as famously observed by Winston Churchill. Assuming for the moment that Churchill (and many others) are right in this belief, South Africa is blessed with a Constitution particularly rich in institutions and formal rules designed to maintain the democratic order and to best extract the value residing in the democratic process.

But South Africans, like many others, have come to understand that institutions alone will not suffice unless the ordinary citizen believes in the central importance of the democratic system to their present and future happiness and are willing to defend it, even when their short-term interests seem to dictate otherwise.

When assessing the survival prospects of democracy in South Africa we're faced with a mixed picture. The good news is that most of our citizens understand the alternative to democracy is not likely to be a Singaporean miracle but some version of an African-Middle Eastern-Asian-South American nightmare.

In short tyrannies of various kinds are far more likely to end in disaster than success. This prospect cools the blood of most wannabe revolutionaries but that does not include those of a totalitarian or criminal bent for whom the scent of power and wealth is far too intoxicating to resist.

Nevertheless, the vigorous fight back of civil society against the criminal behaviour of the Zuptoid faction (amongst others) within the ANC demonstrates a strong spirit of independence and self-preservation within our wider body politic. This is not entirely something new. It was even expressed within the vigorous parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition throughout the Apartheid years.

One could argue that it was especially the opposition from within the parliamentary system against the abuse of democratic norms by the National Party that helped keep the idea of a rule-based democracy alive and which ultimately led to the South African constitution, which has proven a potentially powerful bulwark against state capture.

Indeed the election of Ramaphosa to the ANC Presidency is an example of the democratic process delivering the 'next best' out of impending catastrophe. But is it good enough and is there a better 'next best'? It's worth looking at the continuing obstacles to full realisation of the democratic potential in SA.

Despite the enormous amount of wishful thinking which has accompanied the Ramaphosa election the dysfunctional narratives and deep corruption within the ANC have not been vanquished; at worst they are licking their wounds and are planning a comeback.

It also needs re-emphasising that democracy is an advanced cultural innovation which arose fairly recently within the Western model in response to the dual challenge of large nation-states containing various group interests and inter-state warfare. The demands of a modern rule-based democratic system sit uneasily with our evolved psychological dispositions and also with traditionalist, hierarchical (tribal or clan) systems which were the norm in pre-colonial Africa and other parts of the world.

For example, those who cannot understand the tendency of voters, black voters in particular, to re-elect failed leaders against their objective material interests would benefit from acquainting themselves with recent findings in the evolutionary behavioural sciences. It is now widely accepted within the scientific community that people model themselves especially on those with prestige and/or power. It is thus not surprising that Zuma and Malema both attract continued support within poor rural communities, from those trapped in poverty in peri-urban townships and by elite aspirants to wealth and power who find in them powerful models for their own self-advancement.

Such emotion-driven motivations are difficult to counter through logical or 'rational' argument. Eventually counter-productive group loyalties may fade because self-interest eventually trumps tribal motivations or by the rise of alternative models which also appeal to the prestige and status triggers in our psychology.

Zille's re-branding of herself and the DA to be more compatible with ethnic and prestige filters as well as with self-interest is a classic case of emotional subversion rather than logical argument. That is why the ANC and EFF response has been so vicious and derogatory, latterly helped by the fact that with the rise of the DA to mass party status, cracks and factions have appeared. The drought-De Lille crisis in Cape Town has not helped either and the DA faces a backlash from impulsive voters which may undo decades of progress.

Without handing the DA a blank check it is important for South Africa's future that the citizens show some maturity and are not stampeded by Utopian fantasies or conspiracy theories disseminated by those with political or commercial agendas . Sensitivity to our own emotional buttons and a deliberately wider frame of reference will help South Africans to reject agenda or conformity-driven media narratives which threaten our independent judgement.

As we bob around between meltdown and mediocrity let's resuscitate the South African dream of being a first-rate, non-racial African success story. It's a goal that we cannot allow to slip from our fingers by cutting off our collective nose to spite the DA.

Mike Berger