Escape from the present tense

Mike Berger says in conditions of high uncertainty, high risk and uncertain information we stick with our "own"


Every adaptation, every innovation also represents an act of liberation. Liberation from questionable ideas which may be flooding the public discourse and from the noise coming from angry, prejudiced, fearful or agenderised individuals, including ourselves. But especially liberation from what I'm going to call 'the dominant present'. What do I mean by this?

Let's first talk about context, 'our dominant present', and how that interacts with each us. There are 4 things about our South African context on which we all agree.

Firstly, we're very diverse with different histories, lived experiences, traditions and expectations. In short we're a bunch of very different tribes thrown together to sink or swim within the boundaries of an historical anomaly called South Africa. We were given a lifebelt however, our constitutional democracy (CD), a remarkably powerful set of rules and guidelines to help us cross the troubled waters of our future.

Secondly, we're very unequal in every which way but especially with respect to economic power and marketable skills, and thus future prospects.

Thirdly, we're the victims, willing and unwilling, of massive, ambiguous and often deliberately deceptive informational overload.

Fourthly, as a consequence of these realities (and others I'm ignoring for the present) we all feel highly insecure, and thus fearful and aggressive.

Under these circumstances humans fall back on a set of basic instincts and motivations which have served us well throughout our evolutionary past under similar conditions - which is most of the time. Just remember that our mainly Western history of economic plenty, longevity and personal security is no longer than a couple of centuries at most.

Under conditions of high uncertainty, high risk and uncertain information we stick with our own ethnic tribe and with genetic or ideological kin. Our levels of trust fall and indices of suspicion rise sharply, so we look after ourselves and our own. We search for simple, even magical, answers which provide a framework, even if illusionary, of security. Thus we seek scapegoats, enemies and leaders who promise to look after us. We seek retribution on those who we feel are responsible for our plight.

And all this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or, to put it another way, an autocatalytic cycle of insecurity, blame, racism, opportunism, criminality, poverty and violence and social disintegration. It is within these contexts that various flavours of patrimonialism arise and stabilise themselves as seen throughout most of Africa, foreclosing any avenue of escape. We grasp at straws: leaders who promise us divine intervention or some other magical solution which will solve all our problems.

Ramaphosa of all people has become the projection of these hopes and insecurities. Despite his deliberately ambiguous and divisive speeches, his largely token gestures and contradictory actions there are some educated sensible people who discern in this some mysterious but potent strategic pattern which cannot be disclosed to ordinary people until the time is ripe. I differ.

Let's look at some other potential answers to our predicament very briefly:

Option 1: The best would be a leader who brings us unambiguously back to a law-based, constitutional democracy (CD) committed to tried and tested methods of economic and inclusive social growth. Optimally this would be accompanied by the political will to use the law and state power ruthlessly to restore respect for legal and pro-social norms perhaps even including the temporary suspension of certain legal safeguards until the new norms, sense of personal security and prospects of sustainable economic progress have taken root. But the fundamentals of a CD would be preserved and restored as soon as conditions permitted.

Option 2: A far more risky and less desirable variant of option 1 would be the temporary institution of a benign dictatorship with the promise of an incremental return to full CD within a stated timeframe. This would require unambiguous signals of sincerity in the form of major salary cuts and demonstrably modest life-styles by the governing elites to gain popular credence. Probably that would also apply to the first option as well.

Option 3: Continue with incremental improvements until a breakthrough to a fully-fledged CD is possible without social meltdown. One credible signal of this intent would be a demonstrable readiness on Ramaphosa's part to sacrifice the unity of the ANC if resistance undermined all real attempts at reform. Almost certainly such a step would require a government of national unity; that is a coalition or merging of different political parties sharing a wider commitment to South African success than to personal ambition, security or tribal loyalty. Such a scenario strains all credibility

None of the 3 options seems realistically achievable. A 4th option, Chinese-style autocracy for instance, in the African (and South African) context would likely involve state capture, criminality and warlordism as the outcome rather than spark some Asian-style economic tiger transformation.

I'm not in the prophecy business but, in my view the most likely trajectory is that Ramaphosa will continue trying to square the circle, unsuccessfully, for the next 5 or so years with a further stuttering descent into the autocatalytic spiral described earlier. It is a depressing prospect.

As I pointed out in an earlier column, South Africa is an especially patchy neopatrimonial entity with pockets of CD and expertise. These always offer hope of escape from an apparently deterministic trajectory. So my pessimism could be misplaced but I remain to be convinced otherwise. Consistent and credible communication must be central to any realistic improvement and for the present that is not on my radar.

One great pity is that the really important work coming mainly, but not exclusively, from science is drowned out by the ethno-ideological tribal wars raging within the West broadly speaking and in South Africa specifically. Few politicians here or anywhere have the time or interest to engage with the transformative work and ideas arising from synergies between various scientific and more traditionally humanistic disciplines. That gap needs to be bridged.

This is too convoluted a topic to discuss here but those who want a flavour should look into the material at the following links - http://complexsystems.org/; http://peterturchin.com/cliodynamica/blog/; https://evolution-institute.org/

Mike Berger