We can still change the ending

Mike Berger writes on how countries can escape the fate apparently decreed for them

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” - C. S. Lewis

I read Prof du Toit's article "Re-negotiating the peace in a time of crisis" on Politicsweb (19 Oct 2020) with a degree of chagrin and much pleasure. The chagrin came from sitting on the first draft of a broadly similar proposal for a couple of weeks without being able to find the motivation to bring it to completion. But this was vastly outweighed by the pleasure of hearing the same thoughts (at least in outline) expressed with such precision and clarity. I would be overjoyed to contribute in any small way to seizing the political crisis to set our country on a new trajectory.

We all know the old metaphors "There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries" . But caught up in the passions and old habits of the time many states choose the 'shallows' condemning themselves to irrelevance and their citizens to misery.

It is precisely the absence of overt emotion which make's Prof du Toit's article so compelling, but it would be well for every reader to take a moment to look steadily at the human realities of current South Africa and to imagine the consequences of the failure which is staring us in the face.

Examples of crises recognised and surmounted are available besides Malaysia and I would like to look at two for inspiration rather than as models to copy. The case studies I use here, Finland and Australia, are taken from Jared Diamond's book 'Upheaval' and a rather good series of Wikipedia articles on their history and current situations. They differ in important details from each other and from South Africa but illustrate the power of making the right choices before too late and carrying through with them. They serve to emphasise that no nation gets success handed to them on a plate.

And maybe most important of all each nation must find its own unique solution to its unique history, dilemmas and constraints.

Finland is a moderately large, sparsely populated country on the Western border of Russia as well as bordering on Sweden and Norway. First settled in 9000 BC by hunter-gatherers, it remained pagan and tribal as late as the 12th century when it was subjected to repeated armed crusades by Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany. It became a vassal state of Sweden in the 17th century and was ravaged by severe famines in the 17th and as late as the 19th century. An outbreak of the plague in the 17th century did not help matters.

In the 18th century a series of Russian-Swedish wars decimated the male population of Finland until they finally broke with Sweden and were annexed by Russia in 1809. Following annexation Finland was given a significant degree of independence and largely ignored until Tsar Nicholas II attempted Russification which proved incompatible with growing national sentiment amongst the Finns.

Subsequent to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 Finland declared independence ultimately leading to armed confrontation between the communist movement in Finland (the Reds) and a conservative nationalist movement (the Whites) backed by Germany.

The bloody civil war which followed was marked by extreme brutality and loss of life (unmatched until the Rwanda massacre). Finland was then a relatively poor rural country known for its unique language, excellence in middle to long-distance running and a gift for design and music. In a remarkable act of reconciliation peace was made between the defeated Reds and victorious Whites and the former were readmitted to normal political life by 1926, though some residual bitterness apparently still remains.

Finnish misery, however, was not over. WW2 saw repeated Russian attempts at annexation to protect its Western Front from both Germany and the Allies. These attempts were repulsed by the heroic and brilliant use of guerrilla tactics by the absurdly outnumbered and outgunned Finnish forces. But the cost in lives and social-psychological damage was immense. By war's end the Finns acknowledged the harsh geopolitical realities of their position by seeking to understand and respond productively to the strategic and psychological concerns of their Communist neighbour.

They surrendered, temporarily, some territory, agreed to pay the Russians crippling reparations, and even tried and jailed their own wartime leaders who were ultimately released and returned to society. Through a finely calculated policy of selective appeasement the Finns retained the core of their independence from Russia while becoming a member of the EU and NATO and, following the Nordic model of a liberal social-welfare democracy, played to their strategic and human strengths.

Economic and social stability was achieved through an emphasis on education, social solidarity and high technology. The teaching profession in Finland is highly rewarded financially and eagerly sought by the ambitious and talented. Even the police are required to have university degrees. Finland now scores at or near the top of the global rankings on every measure of human capital, democracy and life satisfaction.

The point of this short history is not to suggest that South Africa and Finland share or even can follow the same trajectory; nor that Finland is now a Utopia with a glorious future forever assured. But the Finns escaped the pit that their history, geopolitical position and climate had dug for them by

- recognising a crisis before total disaster struck,

- realistically facing the constraints on their choices and adjusting to them,

- drawing on their sense of national solidarity and pride,

- not allowing their divided history to dictate their future,

playing to their strengths and resources and, finally

- retaining their core values while jettisoning those that would get in the way of resolution.

The second example is Australia, in some ways more like South Africa. Both are set in the warm climes of the Southern hemisphere. Both were settled by white colonists in modern times accompanied by displacement and conflict with the indigenous people. Both retained an attachment to their home countries for a long time and both shared the same beliefs in white racial superiority.

Australia's human history starts at least 50 000 years ago when it was settled by migrants from the Eurasian landmass. Like the South African Khoisan, the Aborigines are an ancient people with quite diverse genetic ancestry partly shared with Papua New Guinea Islanders. Although their population probably did not exceed 1 million when the first English convicts arrived in New South Wales in 1788, they spoke 250 languages reflecting the vast continental size, arid ecology and the relative isolation brought about by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and constant territorial conflict.

But for the present purposes, the history of what is now known as Australia was irrevocably altered by the arrival of the English followed by the displacement of the indigenous peoples and their near extinction. In the words of one historian "In a thousand isolated places there were occasional shootings and spearings. Even worse, smallpox, measles, influenza and other new diseases swept from one Aboriginal camp to another ... The main conqueror of Aborigines was to be disease and its ally, demoralisation".

As usual the story is more nuanced than can be conveyed in a brief summary or viewed through ideologically tinted lenses, but the upshot was the original inhabitants were rendered powerless to resist the spread of European civilisation throughout the continent. The local conditions were sufficiently harsh and unfamiliar that the English settlement itself only survived the next few decades or so through the provision of supplies from England.

Slowly sheep farming was established and Australia became the world's wool capital. But the essence of this brief narrative is that the six Australian colonies, initially populated by rejects from British society, became more British than their mother country and whiter than white. To the original convict settlers were added some free British and German immigrants who assimilated into the Australian pioneering white community. The unified country called Australia only emerged from the six colonies of the time in 1901.

This account understates the economic, often bloody ethnic and class tensions and underlying harshness of Australian society which produced an assertive, tough and conflicted people torn between their deep-seated British ties, their rejection of English attitudes of superiority and their fear of and contempt for Asians and non-whites in general.

But by the end of WW2 there was no escaping the facts of their history, their vulnerability to rising Asian power backed by vast numerical superiority and the fact they were no longer a key British strategic asset.

These realities were finally acknowledged with the election of a labour government in 1972 with Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister. Within a few weeks he and his government introduced radical changes which set Australia on a new path as a racially and culturally diverse modern nation, independent of Britain while still retaining much of its historical symbolism and colonial structures. To summarise from Jared Diamond's book (pg, 283) within couple of months Whitlam:

Ended the military draft and brought the troops home from Vietnam.

Recognised the People's Republic of China.

Announced independence for Papua New Guinea under Australian mandate.

Banned visits from racially selected sports teams (targeting SA explicitly).

Abolished the nomination of Australians for the British system of honours and establishing an Australian alternative.

Officially repudiated the White Australia policy.

Reduced the voting age to 18.

Increased the minimum wage.

Gave representation to both the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory in the Senate and representative councils to both.

Increased spending on Aborigines and legislated equal pay for woman.

Required environmental impact statements for all industrial developments

Instituted a comprehensive medical insurance scheme.

Introduced no fault divorce, boosted financial aid for schools and abolished University fees.

These changes, breaking longstanding racial stereotyping and recognising the role of the state in building national social solidarity, were introduced half a century ago - 25 years before our own radical political restructuring. But the Australian past and historical affinities were not denied in the new cosmopolitanism. Australia is a federal constitutional monarchy with a Governor-General and the Union Jack is part of the new Australian flag.

The Australian population at the time was about 13 million rising to 26 million currently. It is now one of the most highly urbanised national populations in the world with a per capita income of 64 000 Aus dollars (12th globally) with a low Gini Coefficient of 0.34 (we have the highest at 0.56), a life expectancy of 83 years at birth, a human development index of 0.939 (3rd globally), high levels of political freedom (tied for first globally), excellent universities and low levels of corruption. Less than three-quarters of the population are 'white Australian' with Asians approaching 15% of the total population but 50% of the students at the top universities. Its main export markets are China and Japan followed by the USA.

To repeat what I said earlier, there are important differences between Finland and Australia but in neither were the outcomes assured - unless you subscribe to a strictly deterministic view of the world. The outcomes were ultimately made by choices in the face of uncertainty.

We need to ask the counterfactuals: what if the Finns could not overcome their ideological differences with and immense suffering at the hands of the Soviet Union to acknowledge legitimate Russians concerns? What if Australian conservatives could not set aside their racist views and their anger at the Japanese brutality Australian soldiers experienced during WW2? The choices made were not a priori givens and significant opposition existed at the time against the radical decisions made and implemented by the political leadership. Had such ethical realism not won the day it is highly unlikely that Finland and Australia would look remotely like the successful and confident countries they are today.

South Africa has to make similar hard choices urgently, but it's not what we're seeing. The ANC still consistently prioritises party unity above the national interest. Its ideological contortions and economic and developmental prescriptions are reflective of its factional and psychological paralysis.

But under the radar the tectonic plates are shifting, opening up space and motivation for reform. An economic canyon looms ahead and the scale and pervasiveness of State corruption has shocked even hardened observers while alienating the ANC base. The aura of ANC impunity is wearing thin and the reality that South Africa is now within the gravitational field of a failed state is coming through more loudly in the media. Reformist black voices both within and especially outside the ANC are being heard with increasing insistence.

Prof du Toit suggests electoral pressure is needed to bring the ANC leadership to the re-negotiation table, but I'm wary of sole reliance on traditional power politics. The DA has an image and media problem from which it seems unable to escape despite its success in the Western Cape. To seriously breach the ANC comfort zone the DA will have to sacrifice ideological purity to scoop up as many alliances as possible. This will require leadership flexibility and media support which so far has not been forthcoming.

Furthermore, simply increasing electoral pressure may serve to harden ANC reactionaries and weaken the reform faction to oversimplify somewhat. Diplomatic skills and empathy may serve the national interest better than confrontation.

And that brings me to the vital final point I want to make in this article, one that goes strongly against the tide of classical liberalism. The liberal paradigm in the West is showing the limitations of rampant Enlightenment 'reason' in the face of more traditional forms of human community and even outright authoritarianism. Much greater psychological and anthropological wisdom is required than demonstrated by the ideological tribes rampaging through the USA right now.

This goes to the fundamental question as to whether the adversarial structure of liberal politics in practice actually undermines the social solidarity needed to bind communities - especially historically, ethnically and culturally diverse populations like South Africa (and the USA/UK) - into cohesive, functional nations. Perhaps in the new model we need to build in far more consultative and consensual mechanisms and weaken the power of political parties.

To sum-up, If re-negotiation in South Africa is approached in a zero-sum spirit it will be doomed from the start. We will need to listen and engage to have any hope of building a genuine South African unity out of the diverse histories, traditions and lived experiences of its people. If we can do that we will become not only a successful country for all its people but a model for other democracies struggling with massive ethnic diversity and a conflicted history across the globe.

Mike Berger