Fear, loathing ... and some hope

Mike Berger on whether South Africa can once again avoid tumbling into the abyss


Let's start with a shout-out to the heroes of the Thai cave rescue. This includes, of course, the divers risking their lives daily in the 4 km partly underwater trek to the 12 boys and their coach who miraculously survived for 10 days in the pitch-dark of what so easily could have been their underground tomb. But it also includes the rest of the huge rescue team, from technicians to doctors, and the countries and firms supplying specialised equipment in what must be one of the most dramatic rescues of modern times.

This episode reminds us of the best in the human spirit capable of setting aside tribal animosities, prejudices, fear and narrow self-interest in pursuit of a unifying mission. But sceptics, like me, may say that even while this feel-good drama is proceeding there are more unnecessary and tragic deaths daily in the Western Cape alone than in that Thai cave. And that these deaths are ignored except to perhaps to score political points.

But that's not quite right either. In fact, humans are the dominant species precisely because we are the ultra-cooperators of the biological kingdom. Evolution, to use a teleological turn of phrase and to simplify enormously, has equipped us with the basic emotional and cognitive equipment to balance self-interest and cooperation in such a way as to maximise our net reproductive fitness; or so the conventional dogma goes. It does not go far enough.

The fact is that we're just beginning to get to grips with the dimensions and implications of the human socio-cultural-technological niche, encapsulated in the term "the Anthropocene". This terminology, and the set of evolving ideas it incorporates, has hardly entered the political sphere even within the educated corners of the global niche. Yet our happiness and even existence depends upon us understanding this idea and learning how to regulate and coordinate human behaviour. It is an immensely tall order for many reasons not least of which are questions of scale and short-term versus long-term planning.

Humans occupy an intermediate position on a hypothetical planning continuum. At the very base most species react to immediate threat and opportunity situations. Some more complex non-human species (fish, birds, mammals) have developed what looks very much like longer-term planning by responding to suggestive environmental clues which presage seasonal changes in temperature or rain, etc. These responses are pretty stereotypical, however, and don't involve the more strategic planning of human decisions.

Intuitively it is clear that high-risk, complex environments will result in short-range, self-interested choices. Longer-term, more inclusivist planning, requires a higher degree of personal security and predictability arising from greater social order and prosperity. It is thus no accident that democracy arose in industrialising, stratified and relatively authoritarian, large-scale societies in Europe, generating a self-sustaining cycle of social order and prosperity.

Where does South Africa stand on this slope? Thomas Friedman put the low end of the slope in these terms: "Many of these fragile, artificial states don’t correspond to any ethnic, cultural, linguistic or demographic realities. They are caravan homes in a trailer park—built on slabs of concrete without real foundations or basements—and what you’re seeing today with the acceleration of technology, climate change stresses and globalization is the equivalent of a tornado going through a trailer park."

I'm not sure that this accurately describes South Africa. In my view the history of South Africa is best understood as the entwined fate of two major colonising groups with very different histories and cultures attempting to co-exist within a unified polity. The first colonisers, the great wave of Bantu-speaking farmers and pastoralists from West-Central Africa entered Eastern South Africa approximately 1000 - 1500 years ago, decimating, displacing and interbreeding with the indigenous Khoisan peoples of the region.

The second wave came from an aggressively expansionist Europe a few centuries ago, landing in the South-Western region of Southern Africa, decimating, displacing, interbreeding with and enslaving the Khoisan peoples of that region but eventually confronting, defeating and more-or-less enslaving (not to put too fine a point on it) the Bantu tribes of Southern Africa.

This basic sequence recapitulated much of human trajectory across the globe, but the mills of history are never simple or predictable. Both groups of colonisers fell prey to bloody internal clashes within their own ranks, a new people, the Cape Coloureds, arose from the complex interactions of the original colonisers with each other and with the indigenous Khoisan peoples . The further importation and immigration of other ethnic groups further enriched the genetic and cultural history of the region.

Also without quite realising it, South African history became entangled with possibly one of the greatest and still on-going transitions in the human story to date, driven by technology and war and the revolution in political ideas catalysed by these developments. One side-consequence of this global convulsion was the attempt at a new dispensation for the warring tribes of South Africa in the closing years of the 20th century under the auspices of an inclusive constitutional democracy.

But the twists of history are not yet done with us. Despite the explosive advances of science and the big picture cognition it fosters, politics at the popular level remains local and tribal-ideological creating hybrid identity coalitions within national democracies. Driven by rival elites and the polarising potential of digital communication, the public square in the West has become an ideological battleground. These currents have proved devastating to South Africa poised at the cusp of the chaotic global battleground between the conqueror and the conquered.

In response to these post-colonial, identity infused narratives, to the failures of delivery to an expectant population and the seductions of power and wealth, the ANC bloc has mostly given up pretence at Western-style democracy or to broad economic-social development and national unity. It has retreated into open race-baiting, looting, patronage politics and internal battles between factionalised black elites and their minority allies. Hybrid revolutionary-ethnic slogans are used opportunistically to neutralise any remaining white economic or political power and to undermine the ideal of a constitutionally-based, inclusive, developmental democracy.

Polls and everyday experience suggest most ordinary black South Africans understand the economic catastrophe awaiting them if current self-defeating trends continue or increase and are fairly resistant to racial incitement. But as the divisive propaganda, crime and public disorder increases and the social and institutional fabric frays further, scapegoating and self-preservation may come to dominate voting patterns. Institutional safeguards which have kept the worst excesses at bay for the present may ultimately prove ineffectual against ruthless cadre deployment and warlordism.

The DA under these immense stresses are in danger of splitting into two, potentially mutually destructive components: liberal fundamentalists, mostly white on the one hand and ANC-lite mostly black on the other. There are arguments to be made for both sides. At the root of the ANC-lite is a tacit acknowledgement that as matters stand tribal-nationalist, neopatrimonial politics with a revolutionary veneer is the winning political formula whatever longer-term disasters it brings.

But our history teaches us that may be premature: many ordinary black citizens may respond with relief and loyalty to a party which uncompromisingly promises the tangible incentives of opportunity, security and predictability within a constitutional democracy as opposed to the transient delights of ethnic chauvinism. The game is not over as we have seen and all of us, from whichever camp we originally come, HAVE to chose the imperfect over the catastrophic.

Mike Berger