Still searching for hope in South Africa

Mike Berger reflects on the DA and liberal democracy, in the post-election aftermath

As I was writing my preliminary draft for this post Helen Zille announced (PW, 26 Sept) the plans and purpose behind her appointment as the new Policy Fellow in the IRR: to "fight the battle of ideas".

Besides the formal terms of her appointment, Helen herself defined her mission more specifically as to "position the principles of classical liberalism where they belong: in the rational, pragmatic centre of South African politics."

I personally cannot think of anyone better suited to this task. And in the process of explaining her own programme she also serendipitously presented me with the an opportunity to define more succinctly the primary intent behind my column "From the Margins"* which I have also managed to whittle it down a mere 5 words, "to expand the idea space".

That deserves a brief justification though the proof, as always, will lie in the reading.

To explain my purpose let me tackle head-on one immediate criticism which could go something like this: "PW is a site already committed to the values and policies of a liberal democracy implemented within the unique historical and demographic setting of the Southern tip of Africa. It is our government's failure to implement these values with vigour, imagination and integrity which accounts for the predicament we find ourselves in."

"It is, therefore, your task to point this out using concrete data and to hold the ANC galaxy of cadres responsible for the unnecessary suffering they are inflicting on the peoples of this country. That should include presenting workable alternatives backed by convincing evidence to bring about change. You do not need anything as grandiose as the mission you have set yourself but rather simply join in the fight to rescue South Africa from those destroying our collective future."

I have no problem with that formulation and it's what I've been trying to do much of the time. On the 23rd April I wrote "For the next couple of weeks all that matters politically is how we respond to the real world situation in which we find ourselves. There is no purpose in me further belabouring the severity of the crisis which is now upon us or the dire nature of its potential consequences."

I also stated what I believed (and still do) was the best available response to the challenge of that (pre-electoral) moment in history "(Choosing) the DA and the prospect of a steady grind towards returning to the constitutional and inclusive state which many had hoped the end of Apartheid and our new democratic dispensation would usher in." That is, essentially, the very same rational pragmatic centre Zille is referring to.

I have no idea whether my arguments and supporting evidence convinced anyone but certainly not enough to make a material difference to the outcome which saw the DA weakened and the ANC still casting its shadow over our collective future.

In fact many argued that it was precisely the failure of the DA to unambiguously champion the cause of a liberal meritocratic democracy which led to its rejection. In my view that choice reflected the pursuit of unattainable platonic perfection at the price of a messy success; my working definition of 'fundamentalism' or perhaps even ideological fanaticism.

I'm all for the defence of liberal democracy, and its corollary "free speech". But I'm also suspicious of quixotic crusades. Liberal democracy can, theoretically assume a variety of forms. Right now liberal democracy's limits are being cruelly exposed within its chief citadels in North America and Europe. Besides the impact of external challenges it has proved remarkably vulnerable to internal tensions generated by the constant flux of ideas interacting with technology.

One could continue to explore this theme and the allied one that the historical and human soil of Africa is unsuitable for such exotic growths as "liberal democracy" - which has flourished relatively briefly, in gentler and more nurturing climes.

Possibly we need to find better ways of nurturing it here or seek alternative varieties better adapted to local conditions. Or it's a question of time and the necessary ecological changes in the political and cultural environment. I don't have these answers at my fingertips but am perfectly willing to seek them out - along with others less visible.

Thus my preference is to widen and deepen the lens we bring to the conversation. In part that reflects a personal choice based upon an inherent addiction to transdisciplinary cognition. It is not for nothing that brilliant generalists like EO Wilson and Jared Diamond have exerted a disproportionate influence on my own intellectual choices.

At the same time, I have a profound respect for deep expertise and a lingering mistrust of the public intellectual and polymath. In the last analysis one needs both breadth and depth; very few exceptional individuals have the energy, focus and talent to be both. Some humility is therefore in order.

To sum up I believe that the continued introduction of fresh ideas coupled with critical and robust but civil debate is the best foundation for responding to the adaptive challenges which currently beset humanity both at global and local levels.

There is nothing like political conflict for narrowing the emotional and intellectual horizons of those embroiled in its tribal dynamics. This human tendency is further magnified by the all pervasive and addictive media of the digital age whose power derives from deep, often unconscious human predispositions amplified by the dynamics of conflict.

There is no sure means of regulating the destructive potential of human passions and self-interest. But as a species we have within us opposing tendencies towards cooperative and even altruistic behaviour. The fundamental purpose of this column is to bring human reason and a wider spectrum of ideas and information to bear on our collective behaviour.

In a sense, I hope to widen the space for the interaction of ideas and information in order to loosen the mental logjams arising from the fears and furies of our political environment. If it contributes in some measure to fresh ideas and even initiatives in others it will be an additional reward.

Mike Berger