Time for hard-headed idealism?

Mike Berger says a Ramaphosa 'get out of jail free' card is not going to cut it if we continue on our current political trajectory

Most sane South Africans breathed a sigh of relief when by the narrowest of margins Cyril Ramaphosa squeaked through the door into the Presidency's antechamber. But few are under any illusions.

To start with the South African socio-economic fabric is too friable to sustain any Utopian visions of radical redemption. The spiralling problems of urbanisation, rural poverty and isolation, crime, violence, economic stasis, inadequate education, multi-dimensional inequality and chronically high unemployment are too advanced to be easily reversed. Ramaphosa does not have the reputation of a visionary (which is not necessarily an entirely bad thing) and additionally he bears the burden of the current ANC's factionalised and corrupt culture.

Even if he grasps the nettle of a radical transformation of the ANC into a modern technocratic, democratic party attuned to the needs of all South African citizens, especially those in whose name it claims to speak, he will be opposed by a substantial portion of his own party for whom such a political environment would be anathema.

Furthermore, a wired world ensures we are subject to the passions and currents sweeping the rest of the planet however relevant or irrelevant they may be to the South African context. When one sees the toll ideological polarisation and media partisanship is taking on stable and prosperous Western democracies, it is fair to wonder how we will withstand its centrifugal force. We already see its impact in the Universities and in public rhetoric and it will complicate our political discourse for the foreseeable future.

Under circumstances of severe inequality and scarcity we encounter the Hobbesian reality of a low-trust, insecure society at every stop street or traffic light, in the high walls and electrified fencing of the wealthier suburbs, in the form of a burgeoning security industry (one of the largest in the world on a per capita basis), in the pervasive reckless driving and other forms of anti-social behaviour including theft, vandalism, rape and murder. This is happening to a variable extent in all our communities, the rich and desperately poor alike. Corporate indifference and chicanery is part of the same behavioural complex. Such self-sustaining emotional and behavioural spirals are not easily broken.

It is with this background in mind that I consider briefly what the next 5 years may hold for South Africa and the role of the DA in a hopeful but realistic programme of national renewal.

It is fair to say we're in dire straits in the longer term if present trends are not decisively reversed. A Ramaphosa 'get out of jail free' card is not going to cut it if we continue on our current political trajectory. Since failure is much easier and more rapid than success this basic asymmetry makes 'incrementalism' or 'holding the fort' a highly risky option

That's the big picture which is more-or-less self-evident. In some quarters such prospects elicit dire predictions of inevitable doom or a debilitating cynicism which is almost as bad. The next 5 years may well be decisive in determining whether South Africa will make the quantum leap into the orbit of successful states or will remain stuck in the political shallows.

This presents an immense challenge to South Africans and an opportunity for the DA, especially, as the torchbearer for an inclusive liberal-socially progressive democracy in South Africa. There is simply no other party in this country with its proven credentials of delivery and commitment to transparent, honest governance; and its occasional fall from grace serves mainly to underline the wide gap between it and the South African norm. It has a proud, though not entirely unblemished history, and its recent electoral successes attest to what it stands for in the public mind.

Nevertheless, the task ahead is formidable. While the DA's merits are acknowledged it does not carry with it the liberation aura, albeit tattered and soiled, and gut-level ethnic appeal of the ANC; nor its avenues of patronage and informal projection of power through control of many rural and township streets.

Neither is the media deck stacked in favour of the DA. Even where it has support, journalists are still unduly respectful of ANC claims to moral authority and deferential to its populist messages. The Cirque d'EFF is another example of the power of populist theatrics. The politics of pragmatism will always be a hard sell in a country with our history and in the light of global trends towards identity politics and the clash of tribal ideologies.

The election of Mmusi Mainane and the changing demographic profile of the DA leadership structure was both morally and pragmatically essential in South Africa. Nevertheless, the Party faces a number of massively conflicting imperatives:

- sticking to its liberal, multi-racial principles and retaining the confidence of its core white and coloured constituencies while establishing its credentials as an authentically African party

- retaining its commitment to meritocracy within an enormously unequal society

- sticking to pragmatic realism in the economic arena while undertaking the redress of inherited inequality with the urgency it deserves

- countering predictable barrages of fake news and accusations of selling out to WMC.

This will require the DA to recast and market itself as a truly revolutionary African-Western hybrid uniquely designed to lead South Africa within a re-vitalised continent embedded in a wired, global community of trade, technological progress and economic prosperity.

Top priority will be to rid South Africa of its massive, imbalances of economic power and embedded social-individual capital. That is a tall order and few, if any, multi-ethnic societies have succeeded in such far-reaching fundamental reform through peaceful means. But it is a task we cannot shirk: the juxtaposition of multi-million rand homes in Camps Bay and Constantia with millions of overcrowded shanties cannot be the foundation of a decent society.

The way our politics is playing itself out may well initiate an era of coalition politics. While it is tempting to see outright electoral victory as first prize this may neither be possible nor even true. Coalitions have the potential to confer legitimacy and to short-circuit populist recourse to the politics of violent disruption. If coalitions turn out to be the future of South African politics the experience gained by the current DA leadership in Johannesburg, Tswane and Nelson Mandela Bay will stand them in good stead.

In a recent article, the social psychologist and political activist, Jonathan Haidt, wrote the following (shortened and edited for clarity):

the hypothesis...that human beings are unsuited for life in large diverse secular democracies, unless we can get certain settings finely adjusted, I think is true and...we (the USA) have stumbled into some very bad settings. I am pessimistic about our future, but let me state clearly that I have low confidence in my pessimism. It has always been wrong to bet against America...My libertarian friends constantly remind me that people are resourceful; when problems get more severe, people get more inventive, and that might be happening to us right now." See here  for full article.

I believe that what is true for the USA is true for South Africa. There is no room in this country for mindless optimism but surely there is space for hard-headed idealism.

Mike Berger