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Analysis: The unknown unknowns of SA’s near future

Analysis: The unknown unknowns of SA’s near future

One could never call Donald Rumsfeld a nice man. But you could also never call him stupid, and he knows a thing or two about power. While much of the popular media may have ripped him off when he spoke about "known knowns" and "unknown unknowns", it was only because they hadn't bothered to listen to what he actually said. His statement, while now a few years old, still has an interesting bearing on our politics. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002.

Let’s start with the known knowns. We know Julius Malema wants to nationalise the mines, banks and just about everything else. We know Gwede Mantashe is close to President Jacob Zuma, or, at the very least, their political interests align.

Then we have the  known unknowns. We don’t know if Kgalema Motlanthe wants to be president, though he is awfully highly positioned for a politician without open ambition. We don’t know if the DA will ever get large numbers of black votes. We don’t know if the ANC’s and Youth League’s press statements are invariably badly misspelt on purpose or not.

But that’s almost boring. What’s more fun is the unknown unknowns. What will come from left field, what will shake us up, change the day-to-day life of our politics, perhaps even change the future of the country. So join us as we gaze into our crystal ball, and rub it and watch the mist turn to fog. Because we are groping. If we weren’t, they wouldn’t be unknown unknowns.

Firstly, something has to happen on the angry Left. No, not Blade. Perhaps a youngish angry stonethrower. Think about Malema, but the one who actually leads potentially violent protests himself. At some point someone is bound to realise there are votes for jam there. That potential leader better hurry anyway,  before those people just give up on the ballot box entirely. Who will this “somebody” be?

The first question is whether that unknown will be someone already in politics, who splits off, presumably from the ANC simply because it’s the biggest party, or something completely new. If from the ANC is it Cosatu? Much ink has already been spilt on that issue. If something new would have been created, then who is best placed to get an electoral machine going.

Religious groups, that’s who.

And not your run of the mill African Christian Democratic Party. He, and it will be a he, is probably currently running a Nigerian style evangelical operation. Possibly on the East Rand. He will realise that if he can fill a stadium for a “night of bliss”, it might be fun to do that long term, that politics could be fun. He will notice that he already has the money, the organisation and the bodyguards, all the necessary pre-requisites to jump into politics.

It would start slowly, a move to get a comment from the “preacher” into the political sections of the media. Then a speech about politics. The political party will already have been quietly registered. But the real moment will come when the “preacher” loses the cloak of religion and goes mainstream. At that point we will have something genuinely new with which to contend.

The other most likely unknown should come from the left. Someone who is similar to Julius Malema in many ways. Someone who’ll find a way to harness the anger that so many people feel even better than the Young Lion is able to. It’ll be someone who is able to get a crowd going, to make them roar. He’ll be an Obama of the angry left, with a gifted tongue. There will be more sophistication as well, the use of social media which the Youth League has simply insulted.

But this new force will face a critical problem, organisation. The role of organisation is often overlooked in our politics, but it’s crucial. What the ANC and the DA have are branches, a presence in many parts of the country. They also have mechanisms to manage themselves and to deal with disputes that may arise. We all know that when these structures go wrong, parties descend into Cope. To create these from scratch is hard. And we are too big a country it seems for one person to make it all happen on their own, they will need a strong team behind them.

Okay, so much for those now possibly known unknowns, what else could happen?

How about the rise of a socially conservative group around social issues. This may be distressing, but we are overdue for a bit of a lurch back socially. We have moved so quickly as a society to embrace issues and legislation around gay rights, female participation in the economy etc., that it’s forgotten that many people have been left behind. They do not believe this has been progress and winding the clock back would be just fine by them.

Obviously some of these people will back a religious leader, but there is still space for someone to exploit this frustration. First, pick an issue that is simple and not divisive, that won’t end with people saying nasty things about each other. Changing the liquor laws or stopping gambling would be a goodie. You can take aim at nasty capitalists who  are not loved by… well, anyone. The US went through this phase, it started with some socially conservative groups and ended with prohibition. These organisations were powerful. It could spin off from a religious movement, but could gain more traction if it’s just a single issue group. It appears this is an organisation more likely to get backing from worried parents than angry stone throwers. There is a strongish chance that this group could have a feminine touch in its leadership.

Of course, you don’t need my upside-down crystal ball to tell you the most likely next big thing that will shake our politics is not a known known or a known unknown, but an unknown unknown that will happen in the mainstream. We are a country where a court ruling can bring down a president. So just for fun (and so we can claim credit if it ever happens), how about a big merger between parties that currently exist. Or could something completely new happen with social media, cellphones and the angry youth. Could a flash mob, mobilised by Twitter messages in Xhosa, lead to the death of a child and demands that police take a tougher line on protests? Or could a flash mob spark an over-zealous police reaction, officers kill people on live telly and the opposite reaction occurs?

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what will happen, just that something does. No, this isn’t a dip at Zuma or Zille. It’s just that for us to grow and change as a society, change must come. And it will bring unknown unknowns with it. We cannot wait. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: Daily Maverick


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