Taxi wars - the new politics and the DA

Mike Berger writes on GHL's handling of his first great crisis as Cape Town mayor


South Africans are used to bad news and we've had plenty of that in the last couple of weeks (decades, centuries?) That's my way of introducing the criminal insurrection which has come and gone, claiming innocent lives in the process, and further fraying the fragile fabric of our social cohesion, if I may be permitted such levity.

It went by the name of a 'taxi strike', but in reality it was old-fashioned criminal extortion by the taxi mafia, encouraged and abetted by ANC political agents. All this was nicely summarised by WSM in a recent edition of PW.

But out of bad, good can come and South Africans were treated to a display of gutsy and intelligent adult politics by the DA, especially in the person of young Geordin Hill-Lewis, the mayor of Cape Town. Considering the fact that part of the media commentariat has tried hard to paint the DA stance as racist, it's vital that the rest of us recognise and applaud their remarkably adept and courageous response.

To be specific, the predictably outrageous intimidation by the taxi mafia was an opportunity for the Cape Town municipality and the DA to fall into one or both of the following traps: firstly, by over-reacting with displays of kragdadigheid and inflammatory rhetoric or, secondly, by abject appeasement. Either or both of these reactions would have simply encouraged the taxi cartel (and others) to further encroach into lawless and criminal behaviour.

Amazingly, the authorities kept their cool given that the cards were stacked heavily against them. The DA-led municipality deployed sufficient force to mitigate the worst excesses of the taxi thugs, used legal instruments wherever possible, stuck to their bargaining guns and avoided rhetorical excess which could have stoked anger in otherwise peaceful communities. Mayor Hill-Lewis used the media effectively to project calm, resolute leadership which carried most of the population with him.

As important, the DA's approach left the door open to the possibility of productive dialogue with the taxi industry in the future. Our transport sector, local and national, is in tatters because of neglect, corruption and outright criminality. Reconstituting the sector, along with all the other dysfunctional elements of our society and economy, will need to be a painfully stepwise process.

However the taxi industry is incorporated into a rejuvenated transport sector will require communication between elected authorities, workers and their leaders. Let's get the ground-rules established at the outset. Lawless behaviour will not be tolerated. The interests of the public have priority. Reasonableness and fairness norms will take place through on-going discussion based on the above core principles. The DA put these fundamental principles across with admirable cool.

What has been said here with respect to the taxi industry and transport, is applicable across the board. It is the only form of politics which offers South Africa an escape from the trap of our history and circumstances. Efforts will be made by vested interests and cynics alike to confuse the issue and demoralise the public. Santaco is not defeated. It will look for ways to impose its will and interests on fellow South Africans.

In short, while this episode stands as a welcome testament to intelligent and principled leadership, South Africa is far too diverse and politically immature to see it as anything more than a welcome victory in a long struggle for South Africa's future.

It's important for South Africans broadly, and especially for the DA to bear this in mind. The tradition I'm referring to has been called liberal democracy, and other less flattering names.


I'm now going to deviate from the form book of expected debate in South Africa, and globally. I would like to see the usual basket of political ideologies consigned to the basement, if not quite to the dustbin of history. We can settle for the basement so that we don't forget the long struggle to get where we are and we don't relegate the great minds and ideas of history to oblivion.

But right now we're in the midst of an enormous transition in the human story and we need to jettison mental baggage and language that gets in the way of seeing reality as revealed by the past half century or so of scientific advance across multiple fields. The pioneers of this revolution dimly foresaw that everything is connected, and we would need a great coming together of scientists and other creatives to formulate a new paradigm uniting the multiple domains of existence.

I'm going to call this the new physics of politics. Physics has been regarded as the lodestone of scientific thought so the name seems right and proper. But it's not the physics most of the readers of PW are familiar with: the neat, deterministic Newtonian physics of our schooldays. That held sway to the end of the 19th century and powered the Industrial Revolution and the era of European colonisation.

But it collapsed under the impact of Einstein, the great quantum physicists, Darwin, information science around the middle of the 20th century, mathematics and the complex systems revolution. Along with the impact of digital and nanotechnology, nuclear power and artificial intelligence the foundations of our world view are collapsing around us and we simply cannot afford to continue rehashing the shibboleths of our ideological past.

This includes dropping much of the old political ideologies which reflect a bygone age and to reformulate our politics in terms which better describe the changing realities of he new world coming into being. It's very early days yet and we're just setting off on a voyage we are desperately trying to understand and control.

I'm going to call it the "emerging Minimal Democratic Package" or the EMD Package for want of anything better.

This is what it looks like. The State is to serve the interests of its citizens in terms of personal security and material welfare by maximising the opportunity for self-realisation and the freedom to have a voice in the political arrangements whereby these ends are brought about.

It's a minimalist prescription which allows the maximum flexibility for many experiments to run in parallel across the world as different societies grabble with their individual histories and contexts. Linked by a digital communication technology, in theory at least, such a complex system should have significant adaptive potential; that is, it should function as a complex adaptive learning system.

But here's the rub. And this is where we need to really pay attention. In nature, failure means oblivion. Failed experiments fill the dustbin of biology and history. In a global interconnected human system that can means extinction. We don't get a second chance to tweak the parameters of the experiment. For South Africans, local failure means dropping into the pit of failed states and considerable human misery.

Our top priority is to protect ourselves against global level failure. The first step in doing this is to be constantly aware of the danger and our own tendency to over-confidence and narrow vision. I have a long list of human characteristics which threaten our survival which can keep for another occasion. But let's start with simple acknowledgement of this real and very final outcome.

Secondly, we need to accept the desirability of a multi-polar world. We need to resist the tendency of ethnic and ideological differences to translate into disproportionate and potentially existential hatreds. In short, we need to persist with the domestication of humanity that has been going on for about 10 000 years and to learn how to learn from others.

Of course, as some self-domesticate it offers opportunity for predators and bullies as we well know. The lesson from the recent victory of the DA over the taxi mafia, is that pragmatic self-domestication can beat both. We need to get that balance right and the DA has shown us the way in the local context. How this will play out globally will be vital.

Politics is for the long haul. Nobody or single party has the monopoly on wisdom and insight. That perception is the first step towards survival.

Before I close, I want to draw two books to the attention of readers. I'm in the middle of "Colonialism: a moral reckoning" by Nigel Biggar. A brilliant piece of scrupulous historical research packed with erudition and insight. It should be widely read by anyone trying to get to grips with the moral confusions of our times.

I'm definitely going to buy Michael Muthukrishna's new book "A Theory of Everyone: The New Science of Who We Are, How We Got Here, and Where We’re Going" when it comes out in October. I don't think any of us can afford to miss it. if we're to understand our changing world. He together with his colleague (and mentor) Joe Henrich are amongst the pioneers of our times.

Mike Berger