Our arrested development

Thomas Johnson says we continue to place blame on the immutable past, instead of where it actually belongs

South Africa, a broken nation without visionaries

Events over the past year or so – Nenegate, disruptions and destruction at universities, the Nkandla judgement, State of Capture Report, manufactured outrage about colonialism and racism, the recent cabinet reshuffle and resulting ratings downgrade – prove South Africa is not a winning nation filled with bold visionaries, innovators and explorers, but continuously yearns to live in and remake the past.

Using the words of Consulting Engineers South Africa (CESA), which is dismayed about the reshuffle and its aftershocks, South Africa is a nation that “rewards mediocrity and punishes excellence”. In its statement CESA also said:

“The industry is experiencing difficulty amidst corruption, appointment of consulting engineering firms that have little or no track record of delivery and mafia style criminal activity halting construction activity. The junk status downgrade investment rating by Standard & Poor’s (S&P) limits investor confidence further and will hamper economic growth and limit the engineering industry’s ability to create more jobs.”

They said engineers are being retrenched, and criminal activity is risking lives and job security where limited employment opportunities exist due to low levels of infrastructure investment.

While the statement applies to the engineering industry, replace “industry” with “South Africa” and this description of serious, unchecked and terminal political, social and economic dysfunction and decay actually describes SA’s cancerous society. And the virulent tumours are President Jacob Zuma and ANC.

On Wednesday the ANC’s national working committee accepted Zuma’s explanations for the reshuffle, particularly for firing former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, and absolved him of wrongdoing. Instead, they apologised for the ANC’s “public disagreement” about it. And despite factions within the alliance calling for Zuma to resign, its secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said they would not remove Zuma, a man described as a “wrecking ball”.

The rand fell to R13.85/$ and bonds weakened after the announcement. Despite the immense damage he’s doing now (the downgrade, which Fitch and Moody’s will probably follow, political upheaval and currency and market losses), with Nenegate and generally his disregard for the constitution, facetiously or ironically, the ANC and government still calls on South Africans to stand behind Treasury and make SA work.

The ANC, and many of its supporters on the left, has constructed a reality that’s not shared by the rest of us. While civil society, business and the market, based on indisputable evidence, state “SA has lost its way economically and entered the political wilderness”, the ANC insists the tumult is only “noise” that should be ignored.

I said events over the past year show SA is a losing nation. But I really meant, specifically, its record over the past 20 years, almost entirely due to the ANC government’s ineffective, misguided or disastrous policies that failed to provide economic growth, jobs and livelihood opportunities for the majority of its people. Nenegate and Gordhan’s and his former deputy Mcebisi Jonas’s firing are merely current indicators of its deep-seated psychopathy.

Mistakes and failures are typically blamed on external (to the ANC) or exogenous (to the country) “forces”, or there’s a denial of reality that a problem exists. An example of this miasma is despite previously stating they were not consulted and aware of the cabinet reshuffle, to give Zuma and their support of him credibility, after the fact ANC leaders took retroactive collective responsibility and claimed they allegedly knew about it in November.

Seldom is blame for mistakes and failures apportioned where it belongs – responsible members of the executive and particularly the president. Where acknowledging a bungle is unavoidable, e.g., Nkandla or the grants crisis (but not even then as Social Development minister Bathabile Dlamini blamed Sassa’s CEO), the ANC has taken shirking to another level, i.e., so-called collective responsibility.

A person who served as a consultant on an ad hoc government committee told me no one in the department, including minister and senior officials, took responsibility when things went wrong, if they went wrong. He said they spoke of “collective responsibility”. But to illustrate its fatuousness he rhetorically asked, “What if a surgeon makes a mistake while operating? Does collective responsibility apply? It’s unheard of.” (Until then at least, he was an ANC supporter. He also spoke of how wasteful and inefficient the department was.)

In this way individuals are never judged on performance, ethical or governance considerations. This is part explanation – the other is party loyalty above all else, including to constitution and country – the ANC tolerates and excuses so many incompetent, negligent and at times criminal members in government posts. This is why people like Dlamini and former Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson never take personal responsibility and there’s no accountability in the party. This is why mediocrity is the ANC’s hallmark.

It’s often suggested the ANC has not fully transitioned from a liberation movement to political party and government, and experiences of that time still imbue party machinations. Indeed, almost admiring comment is made of Zuma having been its spy chief and using that experience to retain power. However, that does not explain the frequent questionable conduct of many current members who were too young or not directly involved in the ANC’s activities during apartheid.

Prosaically, even facetiously, I suggest many of its members have a form of arrested emotional development, a psychological disorder characterised by addictions, greed, immaturity, fear, blame, resentments, anger and confusion, and refusing to take responsibility for their actions and lives.

These descriptions exactly describe the ANC’s members: almost every day it’s evidenced in their conduct and language.

The ruling party – the party the majority of people support (although that is dwindling) and instrumental to our fate – is a metaphor, or symptomatic, of South Africa as a nation and many of its people, and all that’s gone wrong since 1994: narrow-minded, angry, envious, aggressive, the absence of personal responsibility, lack of respect for the common good, and lacking vision and innovation. Like the ANC, SA is riven by past insults and present resentments but too immature to see beyond its mistakes and failures and take responsibility for its actions and destiny.

One disheartening manifestation of this psychosis is it disproportionately places colonialism, apartheid and racism at the front and centre of SA’s socio-economic problems. In his recent Politicsweb article Rian Malan refers to the work of psychologist Helene Lewis Opperman, an “adherent of psycho-history”, as an explanation for the present “bad situation: millions of black people psychically disfigured by humiliation at our hand”.

This is a variation of the patronising “blacks, including those who were not born then and who are well-off, have an understandable poor racial self-image due to colonialism and apartheid” argument punted by many of the liberal-left, including, disappointingly, those in the media and academia.

While individuals (and nations) are the sum of their good and bad experiences, I have difficulty understanding how, with nations, past collective “humiliation” – in the case of colonialism, a time few living people today experienced firsthand – irrevocably defines their present decision-making and future possibilities.

Having trained in the numerical disciplines and applying basic philosophical insight, I take a pragmatic view of SA’s situation: it’s due to the ANC’s (and where applicable, the business establishment and many in society, which takes its cues from them) arrested psycho-social development that deprives them of making rational political and policy decisions, thereby preventing economic growth, development, innovation and political maturity for the country. Instead, colonialism, etc and other irrelevancies are used as excuses, scapegoats, proxies and sops for self-made failures and missed opportunities.

I can confidently state SA is no special case and exception because there are countries – Rwanda and Vietnam are examples – that overcame far worse, in fact, catastrophic circumstances, including colonialism, genocide and war, than we experienced until 1994, and are rapidly advancing into middle-income status.

In the meantime SA, which, unpalatable as this will be to many, inherited sophisticated and world-class educational, infrastructure, business and legal systems, has lolled about with lack-lustre long-term and recently, short-term near zero growth. And the self-caused ratings downgrade with its negative outlook has damaged the tentative recovery SA was making and setting it up for short- to medium-term recession and stagflation.

In their book Rwanda Inc: How a Devastated Nation Became an Economic Model for the Developing World, Patricia Crisafulli and Andrea Redmond (2012) write:

“An ICT [an advanced, information technology-based] economy cannot happen without education. Education needs strong, stable communities. Stability requires reconciliation to continue healing on the community and individual level, between perpetrator and victim and children of each. Stability is enhanced by a sense of well-being, with access to health care and programs that improve the ability of families to feed themselves. It is a virtuous circle that cannot be broken or the entire cycle will be disrupted, which could threaten Rwanda’s stability and reignite old tensions below the surface.”

I wrote before SA’s fundamental post-1994 problem is lack of growth, development and jobs, not racism (and now allegedly colonialism), a fake “problem” that’s presently being exaggerated by irresponsible politicians, academics, well-known members of the media and social media provocateurs (note, all privileged middle-class). Under President Nelson Mandela we called our virtuous circle “The Rainbow Nation”.

But from former president Thabo Mbeki to Zuma the project that encompassed health, education, social and economic development and a tentative racial acceptance was dismantled, piece by piece, by denialism, theft of state resources, corruption, negligence, incompetence and demonising real and imagined racists.

Reconciliation – remember SA had a formal truth and reconciliation process 20 years ago –among groups and individuals cannot happen because the ruling party and government persists with divisive race-based national policies and with the racialism and tribalism narrative – colonial-era crimes and criminals, land expropriation, the white monopoly capital bogeyman and an allegedly unreformed, racist white population – to hide its failures and suit an agenda Anthea Jeffery calls “legalised looting” to benefit an elite.

So like a person locked into self-perpetuating post-traumatic stress, not forgiving or at least accepting and letting go, SA continues to transfer blame and anger for 20 years of missteps and failures onto the immutable past rather than where it actually belongs: its leadership, and why it persistently elected leaders who want it to fail.

The ANC won’t change. It can’t, and evolutionary science informs us it has guaranteed its eventual extinction. Instead of once believing South Africa might be great, an idea we once had during those halcyon days of Mandela’s, and briefly, Mbeki’s “I am an African” period of leadership, we are now under the thumb of an unashamedly tribal president and an enthralled, broken party. And under them SA continues satisfying immediate, base desires under the illusion knowledge, wealth and success comes without effort and responsibility.

I am not really disillusioned though, because I never believed that myth. But I take no pleasure in having my worst fears proven correct. Today especially I’m not proud to be a South African.