A dying ANC is a danger to us all, but...

Mike Berger reflects on the opportunity offered up by the passing of one-party dominance

"If you're looking for a comprehensive and engrossing account of the political landscape of ANC-led South Africa, De Ruyter's book is an essential read. What you will not get is an attempt to get to grips with the culture from whence such behaviour has emerged and its implications for our future." - "De Ruyter's travels in ANC-land", Politicsweb, 3 July 2023

This article is a attempt to fill that gap as best I can in the space of a Short Take. South Africa is a Lego nation constructed in bits and pieces essentially over the past couple of centuries following the discovery of diamonds and gold.

The Khoisan lineage, once the sole indigenous population resident in Southern Africa, has been eliminated by successive waves of initially Black and especially later White migrants. Nevertheless, Khoisan genes persist within the Coloured, Black and White ethnic groups of present-day South Africa.

Historical narratives are often agenda driven in the course of political contestation. Thus it's important to establish the basic historical facts of ancestry.

In the light of historical and genetic research it's fair to say that all ethnic groups, African, European or broadly Asian, currently resident in South Africa are migrants, derived from external sources roughly over the last 1 000 years, with the notable exception of the Coloured community who emerged from the admixture of Khoisan genes with those of recent migrant populations.

Thus, on a strictly factual account, our Coloured populations would seem to have the greatest claim to authentic South African ancestry of all the extant groups within our borders. But I make that comment simply to highlight the pointlessness of mining history to claim special consideration or benefit. We'll return briefly to this theme later

All of human history, until perhaps the last few centuries, has been characterised by constant intergroup violence over territory and resources. Temporary peace has been achieved by moving away from contested areas, by submission, by marriages of convenience, by paying tribute or by temporary peace treaties to allow for trade and other interactions.

Elites controlled territories from which to wage war against other elites and to exploit for their own use. Some societies were more enlightened than others, and the partial rule of law and ideas of universal humanity, in the form of religious and secular philosophies, surfaced briefly to mitigate the hardship and injustices of existence for the majority.

But these arrangements broke down under the onslaught of internal divisions and external warfare. This pattern was more-or-less universal until some combination of Christian marriage edicts, geography, social structure, wider literacy, naval exploration, colonisation, scientific and technological innovation and constant inter-elite warfare in the European arena gestated two massive political revolutions.

One was the idea of nation-states rather than territories. The fundamental difference between the two is that nation-states represent to a variable degree the common histories, languages, customs, values, aspirations and interests of all its citizens. Inherent in the idea of a nation, as opposed to a territory, is the concept of a commonweal in which all participate, though not necessarily equally.

The second revolution was the emergence of liberal democracy with its formal institutions and informal values based on the rights, freedoms and dignity of all citizens. The fusion of the nation-state with liberal democracy was in sharp contrast to the recrudescence of authoritarian, collectivist ideologies in the early 20th century which concentrated power in the hands of ruthless elites acting in the name of 'the masses' or 'the Aryan race'.

These latter ideologies were modern re-incarnations of ancient tyrannies claiming divine rights. By the end of the second millennium though, it was not altogether unreasonable to believe liberal democracy had won the global battle for moral authority and economic-military dominance. Subsequent events have rendered the optimistic assumption of historical inevitability moot, however, and the struggle between the two poles of statehood is global.

The rise of liberal democracy came with a new mindset (WEIRD*): ambitious, competitive and individualistic, analytical, impersonally pro-social and rule-based. Included in this package came win-win politics and high levels of social trust.

Together these individual and social level factors (the nation-state, liberal democracy and the WEIRD mind) drove the enormous, self-sustaining acceleration in scientific and technological innovation and economic prosperity of the last 75 years. It's useful to point out here that this cultural-political package, spawned in Europe, has proven transplantable to very different societies.**

Passing from the general to the South African case, in a Politicsweb article, dated 29 May, I stated:

" South Africa ... is a construct dating back (to) ...The South Africa Act, 1909,...(which), created the Union of South Africa (formally proclaimed on 31 May 1910)".

The new constitution excluded from full citizenship most of the non-White population of the newly-created State except, to a limited extent, in the Cape and Natal Provinces. These democratic rights were systematically stripped away by the Nationalist Government which came to power in 1948. Thus all avenues for a gradualist extension of full citizenship to the non-White sections of the population were walled-off.

In the ensuing 4 decades of struggle for political rights, South African black activists were heavily supported and influenced by the Soviet Union and by other radical left-wing movements with disastrous consequences. The final capitulation of the Apartheid project and the drafting of a new 'Liberal Democratic' Constitution, which came formally into being on 4 February 1997, created a hybrid State with one foot in the liberal traditions of the West and the other mired in the authoritarian Marxist-Leninist-Maoist political camp.

A new South African State had been created with full democratic rights for all together with a free entrance ticket into the Minoan labyrinth. Although South Africa is officially designated as a democratic nation-state with the sovereign rights such status entails, it has virtually none of the pre-requisites for success: shared language, ancestry, history, culture, customs or political commitments. Fundamentally, it lacks the vision of a commonweal***.

The fundamental task of leadership was to heal and transcend the wounds of our past and create a national vision and shared identity from the diverse fragments we had at our disposal.

It's no secret that after three decades we are worse off in many respects than when we started. Whatever reformist zeal, pragmatic caution, intellectual and moral capital and spirit of reconciliation the ANC bought to the task of leadership has long dissipated. Red line after red line was crossed until it has been reduced to a factionalised cartel beholden to criminals and bereft of ideas, skills and vision.

The dying ANC is a danger to us all but at the same time it offers the opportunity of a new start. The task of new leadership is two-fold: firstly, to acknowledge and transcend the traumas of the past to create an inclusive, new South African identity and, secondly, to decisively alter the downward spiral of corrupt and incompetent governance and economic stagnation. These go hand in hand and both need to be tackled with equal vigour and dedication.

We have models, both local and overseas, on which to build. Rassie Erasmus, in a remarkable display of inspired leadership, constructed a cohesive sense of solidarity within a rugby team that transcended deep-rooted ideological, racial and cultural divisions. It brought us the World Cup. but did much more.

It showed that in an intensively competitive and complex environment, beset by personal and political agendas and squarely in the public eye and media spotlight, inspired but pragmatic leadership can achieve wonders. And the DA has shown in areas under its jurisdiction, that honest, pragmatic and creative leadership based on the principles of fairness, merit and opportunity can also achieve wonders.

South Africa has yet another opportunity. Surely we can muster the collective clarity, wisdom and resolve to turn the tide and change our trajectory.

Mike Berger


*WEIRD - acronym coined by Henrich and colleagues in 2010 for Western (initially White), Educated, Industrialised Rich and Democratic in the course of their groundbreaking work on culture and mind.

** Japan, for instance, for the greater part of its history has been a highly stratified, traditional culture, which modernised in part following its back down in the face of USA demands in 1853-4. The humiliation and fear caused by its encounter with Western power disrupted Japanese internal stability for decades and led to limited Westernisation and military modernisation. Japan switched from being an isolationist to an expansionist power and, after a spate of successful military adventures,, it entered WW2 by way of its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. This of course ended in a devastating defeat. Out of the ashes, following American-led and funded reconstruction, sprang the first Asian democracy: a technological and cultural powerhouse pioneering the way for South Korea and Taiwan and other South-East Asian tigers. The comparison of South and North Korea, identical twins in every way except in culture and politics, is a lesson in history and biology. See Jared Diamond, 'Upheaval' - chapters 3 and 8

***Commonweal - simply means the common good. It has distinctly Christian (Catholc) connotations and origins