Ridding ourselves of the ANC albatross

Mike Berger on what needs to be done to break our descent towards social breakdown

Urgently required - New Management

It is possible to study Man as one would study any other species. As pointed out by Suzana Herculano-Houzel in 'The Human Advantage', our brains are straight primate in basic biology but much bigger - thanks largely to bipedality and cooking, plus a bit of luck here and there. Given that basic equipment, plenty of time and, again, the agency of chance, we find ourselves in our present predicament: masters of all we survey but not of ourselves.

Rather than further self-laceration with the latest atrocity or stupidity it may help to take a step back and examine our species and the world it has created in the same way we would scrutinise ants, alligators and Aberrant Bush Warblers (look it up). For that we can start with the tools of the scientist: detachment, logic, empirical evidence and the flashes of intuitive insight without which we would not be human.

Take Peter Turchin, for example, on predicting cycles of instability. Turchin first came to prominence as one of a new breed of historian willing to use the tools of science to look at collective human behaviour. This is not everyone's cup of tea, but the new field of Cliodynamics has already yielded some provocative and fruitful hypotheses.

Using historical data on episodes of instability Turchin and colleagues have identified two cyclical oscillations in levels of political instability with differing periodicities: the more prominent 'Secular Cycles' with periods of about two to three centuries and a lesser, so-called 'Fathers and Sons' cycle of approximately 50 years.

To understand the major Secular Cycles, he based his analysis on the structural-demographic approach of Goldstone which Turchin summarises as follows

"The theory represents complex human societies as systems with three main compartments (the general population, the elites, and the state) interacting with each other and with socio-political instability via a web of nonlinear feedbacks'"

The periodic crises Turchin describes depend upon cyclical systemic structural factors which precede the relatively unpredictable precipitating events which attract media and public attention. The systemic factors in turn are located in the first 3 components (the general population, the elites and the State) but ongoing political instability is an essential element in the overall feedback system.

From studies on various agrarian and early modern societies around the world, the fundamental instability drivers underlying the major secular oscillations relate to the demographic dynamics of labour availability (relative to the number of jobs) and its reciprocal relationship to wages. Excess labour leads to falling wages, poverty and high levels of economic inequality since elites are relatively protected from such fluctuations. Together these constitute the substrate for instability.

There is no reason to suppose that the periodicities observed in Turchin's work are set in stone. The world faces many changes, some potentially massive. These range from climate change and nuclear war to the effects of computerisation and automation on employment (see 'The Lights in the Tunnel' by Martin Ford) and the free market system to global conflict facilitated by the spread of social media and the proliferation of radical ideologies. In some senses every society is unique as well as being part of the whole.

Many of these new threats are the product of largely Western cultural-political evolution and its subsequent techno-economic success story. This provided the time, physical and intellectual resources for an on-going explosion of innovation in science, technology - and also for new ideologies hatched in the sheltered groves of academe - which have impacted the less developed world in ways both good and bad.

For instance, Western health and agricultural know-how has increased life spans and decreased infant mortality, and, in an ironic twist, has also lit the fuse of vast population explosions in less developed societies. Likewise, cultural diffusion has stimulated an appetite for Western material consumption in regions which have not developed the skills and cultural institutions to support such tastes.

Coupled with histories of conflict and exploitation and absent the evolved democratic culture and praxis of established democracies, many regions within the non-Western world have been unable to manage internal and external conflicts and some have become incubators for radical and violent doctrines.

But, even within Western societies like the USA, new ideas hatched in the fertile imaginations of academe, are agitating tribal loyalties and threatening social cohesion. Coupled with wage stagnation, increased intra-elite competition and the 'migrant threat' we can see the effects in heightened political polarisation and unease across the entire globe.

With that in hand, it is apparent that South Africa is a special case of a more general phenomenon. There is little question that the fundamental destabilising dynamic within South Africa relates to our massive levels of economic inequality, economic stagnation and pervasive corruption leading to feelings of hopelessness and cynicism on the part of the general population and feeding factionalism within the governing elite.

While global trends and Apartheid have both contributed to our own situation, a powerful factor in our predicament is the disastrous turn initiated by Mbeki and consolidated by Zuma, resulting in the patrimonial, corrupt state which we currently inhabit. Predictably, this is generating high levels of social violence linked to low levels of inter-personal and between-group trust, accompanied by vicious factional conflict within the ruling alliance and against outside competitors (like the EFF and various Fallist movements) for the diminishing spoils.

Such trends are deliberately amplified and sustained by a narrative of white exploitation and threat encapsulated in such constructs as "white monopoly capital" and "whiteness"; the latter being an inherited socio-political disorder which comes along with a white skin. When combined with historic ethno-racial faultlines we are trapped in a spiral which threatens our fundamental democratic institutions.

It is interesting and useful to consider the various scenarios to which the current spiral of corruption, factionalism and socio-economic deterioration may lead, and plan accordingly. But to remain with the original hope of the majority of South Africans for a non-racial, democratic, South Africa committed to human rights and transformation, we need to ask what essential step is needed to break our descent towards social breakdown?

In my view an essential pre-condition to serious reform is to rid ourselves of the ANC albatross. But we must first divest ourselves of certain red herrings which serve only to dilute our attention.

Firstly, that there are 'good people' within the ANC Alliance (AA) and that if the Zuma cabal was replaced with one of these South Africa could seriously tackle its national problems. However, it has become quite clear that whatever potential for contributing to the broad national good may once have resided in the AA, it exists no longer. The unambiguous turn was taken by Mbeki with his denunciations of allegedly ingrained white racism and his avid adoption of a heavily mythologized black African history and identity. If anyone living through that era needs further validation, see Dene Smuts 'Patriots and Parasites'.

The immediate and catastrophic consequences of Mbeki's re-racialised narrative were hundreds of thousands of black deaths from AIDS and, arguably, the collapse of the fragile Zimbabwe experiment into the unspeakable Mugabe tyranny - adding many more lives lost or blighted to the continent's long list. If any doubt still existed, it has been dispelled by the history of the Zuma term to date in which the full effects of a corrupt, racialised ideology have manifested themselves in a kaleidoscope of social and economic ills.

This diagnosis is backed by international surveys (and here), and is reflected in the violence in our townships, in our homes on our roads, in our Universities and in the rise of the EFF and the incoherent and anarchic Fallist movement. The seat of power is now heavily defended by a dominant corrupt faction concerned almost exclusively with power and its perks, with little interest and time to devote to the national good.

Thus, hopes pinned on Gordhan and Ramaphosa are misplaced. The rot has long permeated the entire AA and whatever good intentions new leadership may possess will founder on the embedded culture of corrupt factionalism within the ANC and its partners.

The second red herring is the assertion that the ANC is set to dominate the political scene for the foreseeable future so that, for good or for ill, we must pin our hopes on reform within that party. This may well turn out to be the case but the disillusionment of the black population is deep and real. Nor does the racial rhetoric of the factions competing for space at the public trough find a consistent answering echo in the wider population, whether white or black.

No doubt considerable effort will be expended on creating the perception of intractable white racism and the occasional bigot or intellectually disorientated academic, with the eager assistance of elements in the media, will be happy to oblige. But this outcome is not assured and the high ground of racial inclusivity is there to be articulated, convincingly and consistently.

The corollary to the thesis that we can only escape a slow or rapid spiral into political decay and mass immiseration, is that the ANC must be replaced with something diametrically different. This excludes the EFF or old-left relics like the SACP, or various clones and combinations of these entities.

We need a party which forcefully and consistently represents the inclusive, democratic South Africa which the majority of South Africans would undoubtedly choose given freedom from political manipulation and pressure. The legal option is a holding tactic. At root our fundamental problems are political and the solution must be political. This leaves only the DA with the necessary public profile, ideological substructure, experience and skill set to step into this role.

Time is limited and the next few years may well be crucial in setting our trajectory for decades if not longer. The DA will need to articulate and embody not only good and honest governance but an inspiring vision for a different South Africa. It must tackle head-on, and unapologetically, the racial strategy of its opponents and must dump traditional liberal dogma for a more flexible economic model which will prioritise redress while retaining the idea of an adaptable culture rooted in a skilled population, political freedom and law.

It will need to listen to its critics but not be confused by noise from special interests, insatiable ideologues, malcontents and political opportunists. There will be no short road to recovery. Our problems are too vast and intertwined and entangled with global trends to disappear with a change of government. But we can alter direction. We can create a new Zeitgeist based on realism and hope.

Failure will almost certainly condemn this country and maybe large parts of sub-Saharan Africa to an uncertain and painful future. But even if one doesn't fully buy into the full doomsday scenario, why should South Africa accept the chronic misery, blighting of lives and uncertainty implicit in the current dispensation?

Turchin put it this way " Our society (the USA), like all previous complex societies, is on a rollercoaster. Impersonal social forces bring us to the top; then comes the inevitable plunge. But the descent is not inevitable. Ours is the first society that can perceive how those forces operate, even if dimly. This means that we can avoid the worst — perhaps by switching to a less harrowing track, perhaps by redesigning the rollercoaster altogether."

Our rollercoaster is reasonably well-designed but we desperately require new management.