How judging undermines SA

Shawn Hagedorn says a focus on judging rather than solutions blurs both goals and metrics

Today’s young people are programmed to judge. Many older people have been similarly reprogrammed. Going through life with a solution-focused mindset is radically different.

Baby boomers grew up in a world where survival pressures had always caused societies to prioritise solutions. Then, with famines and world wars losing relevance, defining success became more arbitrary and people eventually migrated toward media outlets which validated their views and choices. Such clustering amplifies the political consequences of prioritising judging over solving. Meanwhile, news organisations compete with entertainment options by frequently reinforcing audience biases.

Democracies need judgmental citizens but across the West, and particularly in SA, judging is now injudiciously overindulged. Consider how with AIDS, the economy and today’s war in Gaza, the ANC has consistently prioritised judging at the expense of solving.

The ANC’s anti-capitalist, anti-western biases helped to deter our ruling party from supporting pharmaceutical companies by buying antiretrovirals - despite our having the world’s highest HIV prevalence. Rather than focus on growth, our ruling party chants about inequality leading to SA having the world’s highest youth unemployment. The ANC’s ICJ case against Israel continues its long-standing obsession with judging and its detachment from solutions. 

But the ANC is not alone. Countless international articles have fed desires to judge Israel’s response to Hamas’ barbaric 7 October attack. The few news organisations which focus on how the long-simmering conflict could be solved sacrifice mainstream appeal by favouring reasoning over reacting. 

As we can now easily access news curated and framed to validate our biases, media executives are commercially motivated to transition a person’s desire to stay informed into a ‘validation addiction.’ With geography no longer dominating how news audiences are constituted, people now choose online communities which reliably endorse their biases. As media companies monetise our having been conditioned to click “thumbs-up,” the resulting increases in political polarisation further impedes solutions.

Consider how few news accounts of the horrific situation in Gaza explore how Gazans and Israelis share mutual interests - even though this step is crucial for developing solutions. Neither the Gazans nor Israelis can be safe unless both groups are. In this important sense, their core interests are tightly aligned. Why is this ignored?

Acknowledging such shared interests clearly identifies Hamas as the central obstacle to peace and this doesn’t suit media companies. The deaths in nearby Syria have been vastly greater but Israel-as-oppressor narratives are far more effective as “click bait.” News outlets profiting from sensationalising events is not new, but as media audiences have fragmented along political lines, the negative political consequences have compounded.

Developing a worldview

SA has been an extreme global outlier for so long that this now seems normal; but it shouldn’t. The success of national economies now relies on carving out niches so that a large portion of young workers add value to exports. We adamantly reject this path - this era’s up-escalator - in favour of isolation and localisation. Consequently, our extreme youth unemployment and nearly flat growth trajectory have become mutually reinforcing. 

Appreciating, or at least recognising, the root causes of major trends and events is an elusive, though worthy, quest. It takes much time and humility to objectively develop a sense of how the world evolved. Fairytale moments when good conquered evil were lacking. Very nearly every step forward was flawed.

Part of judging’s appeal is that it requires little knowledge or effort - particularly relative to interpreting events within the context of a well-informed and up-to-date worldview. Judging’s appeal is further boosted when it provides instant gratification through validating shared biases within a group. This has never been so easy.


One way to escape the learning disabilities which fester by routinely judging instead of seeking to understand is through intermittent fasting. Not by skipping breakfast, but rather by committing to resist judging - initially, say, for one morning a week. 

An early payoff will be the realisation that some people just never stop judging and that many of them are severely stressed, routinely miserable, or both. This observation should further discourage unhelpful judging thus unleashing greater empathy and an upgraded capacity for solutions. As the alternative, seeking to understand people while judging them, doesn’t work, taking a break from judging can even seem to improve hearing.

A related observation is that those conditioned to constantly judge can't cope with the reality that sometimes no one knows what to do. Nonetheless, some paths will be better than most. Imperfect compromises are usually better than ongoing conflicts.

A related consideration is that sometimes no one can be certain of how some key issues should be framed. Designing solutions requires being cognisant of a society’s hierarchy of goals and the tradeoffs involved. 

The top economic goal following our successful 1994 political transition should have been to eradicate poverty through providing upliftment paths for the historically disadvantaged. Instead, patronage flourished through exploiting the politics of inequality and this has left a majority of today’s black South Africans entrenched in poverty.


The ANC is still able to frame issues around ideals. While the goal of all South Africans having access to high quality health care is laudable, promoting NHI is largely about the ANC fanning false hopes to distract from its failures. 

But telling the majority of voters who are poor what they can’t have is not an electorally robust strategy. Instead, opposition parties and their supporters mostly rely on criticising the ANC’s performance. This sounds reasonable unless you are among SA’s millions of relatively recent school leavers who are locked into life-long poverty.

Our ruling party is expert at judging, particularly regarding racial and inequality issues. Opposition voices respond similarly by judging the ANC as corrupt and incompetent. It is not that the criticisms are without merit. 

The core problem is that our political discourse suggests that overcoming these issues would achieve a successful political economy. This is profoundly bogus and it traces to an obsession with judging at the expense of focusing on solutions.


Democracies are designed to balance, and where possible, align competing interests. When groups routinely use their values and biases to validate themselves while seeking to delegitimise the valid interests of other groups, democracies struggle to function. Ours isn’t the only country with this problem but SA is exceptionally vulnerable to its debilitating effects.

Focusing on judging rather than solutions blurs both goals and metrics. Talk of inequality continues to exert much influence on our national dialogue notwithstanding a nearly flat growth trajectory amid tremendous poverty and unemployment. 

As survival pressures have rapidly eased, pragmatism and a solution orientation have given way to judging events and people using a different metric: what should be. Providing governments a licence to indulge fantasies is very different from having a national dialogue which establishes a hierarchy of goals while debating the various tradeoffs involved. 

Today, people with similar interests and values intoxicate themselves by criticising incessantly rather than countering with powerful solutions, such as seeking far greater global integration.

To identify and advance solutions we must restrain the impulse to judge.