South African politics after Covid-19

Mike Berger says the cards are stacked against success

South African politics after Covid 19 revisited

9 April 2020

“[The pandemic] is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.” Novelist Arundhati Roy

Following on my earlier post on "SA Politics after Covid-19" I want to re-state the central issues and to express some critical second thoughts. Hopefully this will clarify points that were inadequately addressed initially.

I'm writing on the same subject again because it is of the utmost importance.  There are no final thoughts: reality is in constant flux and we need to continually learn and adjust. That is how humanity has survived and that is how it can turn this frightening challenge to its own advantage and build a better future for our children. It's the motivation for restating the central thesis.

My essential argument was the following: SA has rallied to face the challenge posed to its massively divided and unequal society by CV 19. The ANC, which must accept major responsibility for our parlous socio-economic status and consequent vulnerability to 'predictable' Black Swan events, has stepped up to the plate with unexpected maturity and focus.

In this time of crisis for South Africa our deep political and civic resilience has revealed itself but so have the vast social, educational and economic deficits in our society. Not only has this rendered us exposed to acute challenges like the one we face, it is a situation in which chronic political opportunism and immaturity flourishes.

Even when the CV19 epidemic is a historical memory we will still face the unsolved challenge of building a decent home for all South Africans. Covid 19 because of its global dimensions and the enormity of the threat it presents has opened up new political possibilities that we cannot afford to miss.

I am not talking here of short-term, expedient openings to strengthen ties with China and the Third World bloc but of a fundamental re-ordering of the South African political landscape to meet the dreams and aspirations of the vast majority of our citizens when the doors to democracy were opened and an inspiring Constitution was drafted by the architects of our freedom.

Over the past quarter of a century many of those dreams have turned to ashes as pointed out in my previous post. To fulfil them will mean building upon the current maturity demonstrated by most (not all) of our diverse political leadership.

Failure to grasp this nettle will doom South Africa to a long road of misery and possible ultimate collapse. Our choice could not be more stark.

More specifically we can unite around the concept of a capable state and a decent home for all South Africans. These two ideas go hand in hand. A globalised, interconnected and increasingly complex world demands a capable state if the material and spiritual hopes of its citizens are to be realised.

The world's experience has shown that these dual dimensions, material and spiritual, are best achieved within the norms and institutions of constitutional democracy founded on the dignity and rights of every individual, personal responsibility and social solidarity. To do this requires a strong sense of national identity overriding our divided history, past injustices and current differences.

I emphasise this point because the great Western democracies have been building towards a crisis for decades. In contrast to the transparent divisions and backbiting which have become rampant within parts of the West, closed, totalitarian China offers an apparent refuge to the fearful. This is a dangerous mirage but an attractive prize to the authoritarians and greedy amongst us..

For South Africa to pry itself loose from the opportunistic, incoherent and corrupt past two decades is an immense political task. The CV19 epidemic has provided the incentive to take the first steps in that direction and that is to be applauded.

But for it to continue over into the post-Covid era will only be achievable if a critical mass of our citizens and political and civil leadership fully understood both the need and the opportunity.

But let's be clear, the cards are stacked against success.

Humans are ill-equipped to make drastic changes in the absence of acute threat. It is extremely difficult to think outside our customary mental boxes especially when the incentives to do so are distant. We respond mostly to current pressures and opportunities.

For many amongst the elite the current situation suits them just fine and they will fiercely resist changes which could restrain their power and perks. South Africans are historically divided and, all too often, politically immature, and our popular media often exacerbates division and distrust for self-serving reasons. We are flooded with identity narratives which divide rather than unite but are globally disseminated by a mainly Western academic-media complex.

As already pointed out such chaotic situations invite totalitarian alternatives and many see communist authoritarian regimes as attractive, especially if they are either at the top of the heap or desperate.

In this context, my proposal must be seen as radical and over-optimistic. And it is if one pre-supposes a one-step quick fix. It is anything but that.

But I'm suggesting that within and between the political parties a conversation is started even now in which opportunities for a much better post-Covid politics are taken seriously and the process of operationalising this vision is commenced with all possible urgency.

Political reform of the scope and dimensions envisaged here will be a long and difficult grind. It will require faith in the power of idea whose time has come and the clarity and strength to withstand the mockery, diversions and provocations of political opponents while still remaining open to cooperation and dialogue.

These ideas are not new but the times are. It is at such critical junctures that opportunities for decisive change becomes possible as encapsulated in the quote at the beginning of this post. Charles Eisenstein put it this way "Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice."

Let's make this true for South Africa.

Mike Berger