The unlucky country

Mike Berger writes on the alternative to the 'jumping off the cliff' option before us


Between success and failure

We all seem to agree that the line between success and failure is a fine one; so fine we can't find it or agree on what makes the difference between abject failure and astounding success.

Maybe it is just luck as Malcolm Gladwell or Nate Silver might claim. Or maybe it's something closer to Gary Player's dictum that "the harder I practice, the luckier I get". That is, it's a bit of both: you need to get lot of things right before you get lucky.

Right at the moment South Africa is not lucky and not successful. We consistently punch below our weight. Every now and again we pull a rabbit out of the bag and defeat the All Blacks, but then we lose to the Japanese, Argentineans, Aussies... you name them.

All this is metaphoric you understand: I'm talking real world success not rugby. I'm talking economic stability and growth. I'm talking a massive reduction in social and economic inequality. I'm talking service delivery and a drop in crime, corruption and interpersonal abuse. Even less litter would be nice.

Mind you I'm not talking perfection. But please can we all still hope to hear less rubbish talked by our politicians and more simple commonsense within our voting community. Are you really serious you don't know whether to vote DA or ANC? Or DA or EFF? Or DA and any other political party in South Africa?

This is not rocket science or Utopia versus purgatory - though sometimes it seems that way. It's the difference between jumping off the cliff or taking a glider.

Why do South Africans have such a desire to jump off the cliff? Can't they bear the suspense of gliding, maybe to a better or safer landing spot? Do they have so little faith in themselves, so little concept of success they can't imagine themselves learning to glide - so they just jump.

Are we really so trapped by our angers, hurts, frustrations, our greeds and ambitions, our profound ignorance and our fear that we buy into any slogan, any identity trigger which is dangled in front of our nose? That is not a rhetorical question and the answer is YES.

Yes we are. We are victims of complexity, misinformation, change and our human limitations. It's not easy to write this because most of the options available are either very difficult or bad. South Africans are not unique. Others have done much worse than us. But we are teetering on the edge and then luck turns against you and down you go. Or you make a collective decision to jump and those that resist get swept up in the tide.

You can just see the EFF wanting to jump. If success is so hard and boring, spectacular failure is an option. Eish.

So here are my options for success, for what they're worth of course:

1. Plugging away.

South Africa, as I've pointed out before, is patchy: some pretty good patches, some borderline and a lot really horrible. So if we work away at extending the good patches then maybe we reach some tipping point and the wider population gets used to the idea of success. They get over the' jumping off the cliff' option and start thinking and working and voting intelligently with some sense of reality.

The problem is that much of the world is in the 'jumping off the cliff' mode and it's catching. So instead of focussing on economic growth and good, honest governance and some decent prospects for all South Africans, we prefer to fight over every red herring dangled in front of our noses: racism, sexism, EWCism, WMCism or whatever new bait some opportunist politician or journalist can think up.

2. There aren't any other options that are realistic.

You can of course dream about a South African Federation or the Cape of Good Hope fantasy or a Swiss type cantonal system or maybe (stretching it) a benign form of North Korea-Chinese colony or clone - but hey, how do you get there? And regarding the last option especially, do you really want to go there?

So it looks like 'plugging away' is the only alternative to 'jumping off the cliff' Not terribly inspiring is it? But maybe we need to think bigger and more independently. Again I have some thoughts for your earnest consideration.

Forgive me if I say this: become smarter. Read more, much more. Don't be so susceptible to every trigger stimulus fed to you. Don't go chasing red herrings and down cul de sacs and after every new academic fad. Don't, for pity's sake, believe everything you read in the media - especially if it fits with your own prejudices.

Try to find a decent balance between being honest and being stupid or simply repulsive. It really is not smart to call people the K word or any other term of abuse. It stops all dialogue, may get you thrown into jail and marks you for a fool. Similarly for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and so forth. If necessary seek treatment.

But it really is OK and essential to call out 'fake outrage' as over Zille's tweets and many other media-created 'news'. Be polite but frank - like me. Political BS is like plastic. It's toxic and pervasive. Let's use less of it and clean it up. Debate under the auspices of one-sided PC rules is like a crooked referee. It's just not fair and ruins the game.

Try to mix with and meet people outside your circle. It's really easy to get trapped within our own bubbles. It would help to remember that' identity politics' is different from honest redress of past imperfections. It is right not to harass women and to ensure that everyone in society gets a fair deal. While racist attitudes are human they're unpleasant, ignorant and contrary to the norms required for an entangled world.

But the use of 'racist' as an all-purpose political epithet or weaponised feminism to get special treatment, is blackmail. Outcomes-based affirmative action almost always deteriorates into rent-seeking by the 'aggrieved' group and is mostly based upon false facts. It requires smarts to fight it while retaining humanity and integrity. I read recently that we need a 'Geneva Convention' for political debate. This may not be achievable but we can do better than at present.

Finally 'organise': join some organisation or lead one. Alone we can do little. Together much more. Try to organise without becoming extreme or tribal or trapped within your own echo chamber. Will this succeed? Who knows but trying makes us smarter and more adaptable. It's better than the alternatives.

It won't be quick however.

Mike Berger

Relevant Reading

Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers: The Story of Success 

Nate Silver: The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't

Joel Kotkin: The New Class Conflict

Peter Limberg and Conor Barnes: Memetic Tribes and Culture War 2.0 (see here)