Time is not on our side

Mike Berger says South Africa is a triumph of human will over the disintegrative forces of human nature

In "Jihad vs McWorld", Benjamin Barber writes as follows: "Differences are held in suspension in successful communities of difference - what civic nations are when they succeed - and that entails a certain amount of studied historical absentmindedness. Injuries too well remembered cannot heal."

Barber's "successful communities of difference" are thus nothing other than an inclusive democratic nation to which status South Africa aspired in the heady post-liberation days and the unveiling of our liberal, democratic but restorative Constitution. Barber touts an inclusive, ethnically-sensitive, national identity, rooted in the ethos and institutions of democracy, as the most viable alternative to the seductive attractions of narrow tribalism (or Jihadism as he calls it) on the one hand and the shallow consumerism of McWorld on the other.

To understand this, we need to remind ourselves of a few basic psychological-sociological features of intergroup conflict which are familiar to social and anthropologically inclined scientists but are, unfortunately, either unrecognised or unacknowledged by most political commentators in the media. So, at the risk of being both reductionist and pedantic, it is worth stating these fundamentals again:

- Humans are a highly socialised species strongly adapted to small-scale societies.

- Such adaptations rest upon a set of so-called "tribal instincts" which include a predisposition to coalitional action based upon group conformity, a range of empathic or altruistic behaviours often highly selectively applied and powerful moralistic reactions to perceived deviance from group norms.

- Such tribal instincts and identities can be readily recruited to serve as rallying mechanisms to mobilise groups against perceived "enemies".

- Especially effective in this regard are appeals to the "fairness" instinct in which an in-group, or currently favoured allies, are perceived or depicted as the victims of injustices of varying kinds. Such appeals may be simple or extremely subtle and complex but, irrespective of the degree of nuance, they can be used as fuel for tribally-based conflict.

- Humans are, however, nothing if not complex creatures and such "instincts" are subject to a host of modifying influences ranging from cultural norms and dominant narratives, local contextual and contingent factors as well as more "rational", calculated evaluation of personal or group self-interest.

In short, human nature in all its complexity, nevertheless reliably manifests repetitive patterns which reflect the underlying functional architecture of human thought despite changing historical eras and local conditions. While the precise forms and intensity of expression vary with the times and context, the substructure remains more-or-less consistent - and poses the central obstacle to cooperative mutually beneficial political adaptations.

At a minimum, democracy is a largely Western evolutionary political product which allows a robust but regulated engagement between different historical and existential histories and differing worldviews to take place without descent into bloody conflict. At its best it encourages the productive exchange of viewpoints to take place within a safe, but sometimes abrasive and hectic, space so that optimum or near-optimum outcomes can emerge through the so-called "wisdom of crowds"; especially if the "crowd" is generally well-informed and agrees on the basic rules and obligations the democratic freedom of expression and protest entails.

So democracy is itself a continually evolving system. Its highest expression requires a great deal of deferred gratification, critical thought, mutual tolerance and respect, self-regulation and a healthy wallop of simple "commonsense", whose absence is keenly experienced though difficult to define.

In the light of these realities the mere existence of South Africa is, in a sense, a triumph of human will over the disintegrative forces of human nature, history and circumstance. Our innumerable ever-shifting faultlines are too laborious to recount and our history is a series of all-too-often bloody clashes between warring ethno-racial groups with vastly different historical memories, cultures and customs. There is a reservoir of too-well remembered historical injustice sufficient to fuel an endless cycle of tribal conflict and hatred.

It is impossible here to trace out all the ways in which these dynamics express themselves in this country. These range from crude racist stereotyping (like the monkey meme of Sparrow) to the "monstrous (white) Beast" of Brian Molefe's fevered outpourings. "Tribes" can include subtle blends of "race" with other ideologically constructed socio-biological categories like gender or socio-economic categories like class and other increasingly abstract sociological- metaphysical constructs such as "whiteness".

This reality, and its expression in outrageous identity politics, cronyism and corruption, disastrous governance, economic stagnation and persisting inequalities lends to South African political life its corrosive sense of crisis and transience. Hence the rash of books and recent articles documenting the multiple social, political and economic trends converging on an impending crisis which could precipitate South Africa into one or other non-democratic trajectory towards state failure of some kind - some combination of tribal fragmentation and tyranny.

There is an enormous terrain to cover if we need to stave off various forms of serious state failure. They include, at a minimum, the need for economic growth, the urgent reduction of severe economic-social inequalities, the control of corruption and crime in general, an investment in expertise rather than cadre deployment and a serious commitment to good governance. There is a fairly broad consensus within all sections of the population on this, though other concerns may trump such knowledge when it comes to voting.

Time is not on our side and the main hurdles to the needed turn-around are the huge investment by the ruling party in the retention of power, the rise of opportunistic tribal leaders also invested in zero-sum politics and a set of ideological narratives, heavily borrowed from the past few decades of Western anti-colonial, post-modern academic activism. These centre on "too well-remembered injuries" suffered by an endless array of victim groupings.

This is already being dismantled in the West by an angry and frightened electorate in the face of the Jihadist catastrophe and challenge. But it continues to appear in full flood within major segments of the academic-media axis in this country.

At the core of these narratives are "injuries too well remembered" - or simply exaggerated, systematically inflamed through propaganda and, if necessary, invented. Down that road lies the warring tribes of the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa, much of sub-Saharan Africa and the borderlands of the late, unlamented Soviet Union. This is the domain of Jihad and it is no stranger to South Africa.

In the eternal battle between the disintegrative-integrative forces of politics, democracy has shown itself to be hardy, adaptable and liberatory. The best substrate for democracy is the nation-state in which tribal histories, injuries and ambitions can be transcended by the rewards of competitive-cooperation within the ethos and institutional constraints of democratic freedom. It is worth fighting for but it must first be understood.

This needs to be accomplished sooner rather than later if we are to hold our post-liberation promise alive.