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ThinkFest: Clem Sunter on SA’s possible future(s)

ThinkFest: Clem Sunter on SA’s possible future(s)

Forget the high road and the low road, that imagery is so eighties. These days scenario-planner Clem Sunter points to three potential courses for South Africa: all the ducks in a row; none of the ducks in a row; or the failed state. This is the man who pretty accurately predicted 9/11 six months before it happened, so he's worth paying attention to, as J BROOKS SPECTOR discovered in a chilly Grahamstown.

Clem Sunter’s audience is ready. Ready, that is, to file into a dark, cold tomb of a lecture room. The electric power has suddenly gone offline across the entire Rhodes University campus that is the site for much of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown – and in particular the Think Fest portion of this year’s gathering. Is the power outage a portent of the looming disasters Sunter is about to discuss? Well maybe not, but it certainly has an ominous, ironic texture to it. Fortunately, that lack of light doesn’t matter too much; Sunter is able to hold a capacity audience enthralled, even if it just his disembodied voice rather than Clem Sunter with an animated face and excited gestures underscoring his big points. It has become a lot like listening to a really engrossing talk radio programme with about 150 of your friends – but without a cup of coffee close at hand or a comfortable sofa to ease back into during the show.

Sunter, of course, has been renowned for years in South Africa as the country’s pre-eminent scenario planner – and as both its public cheerleader and scold for economic and social change. Before this he was a top mining executive with Anglo American and then he developed an in-house scenario planning staff and the popular presentations, articles and books that came out of the work of his shop. His public role now is to give politicians, business leaders, social activists – and all the rest of us – a way of sussing out the path forward in a world that constantly generates mixed signals about the future from the roil of social movements and economic decisions. That, and the good, bad or irrelevant choices made by political leaders – and wannabe leaders as well.

Sunter reminds his audience that he gave a presentation on South Africa’s policy alternatives in the late 1980s to both FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela – right before the negotiations that set the country on its new political course. In Sunter’s spectral presentation in Grahamstown, the name Julius Malema lurks in the mind of Sunter’s audience until he actually brings it up himself at the end. Tension relieved – or heightened.

In his guise as prophet, Sunter has adopted as his brand the title of one of his most successful books: “The Mind of a Fox: Scenario Planning in Action”. The metaphor comes from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay about leadership having either the traits of the hedgehog or the fox. But in his presentation, Sunter reaches back to a fragment of poetry by Archilochus from ancient Greek literature: “The fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.

Sunter clearly sees the fox as the right way to go, as opposed to the hedgehog who only understands the one great truth of its life: don’t get eaten. Or, as Sunter recasts it: don’t go over the cliff for want of understanding all the other choices. Sunter’s fox understands the world has many truths – and, crucially, many opportunities. For Sunter, then, scenario planning needs to be a disciplined process of identifying – and then quantifying – opportunities to make better-informed decisions for a more rewarding, more sustainable future. Works for businesses, and works for nations too. Sunter argues that for best results one wants a visionary hedgehog melded with the multivariate analysis of the fox.

Sunter notes, slyly, that his method and his results in “The Mind of a Fox” got a major boost when he drew attention to some weaknesses in the US political and security system; predicting the near-existential threat that could arise from a terrorist attack on a major American city six months before 9/11 happened. Sunter admits that his group didn’t get all the details right – his prediction was based on a attack by terrorists with a nuclear device smuggled into a major American city, rather than Al Qaeda’s now-infamous but preferred means of attack. Regardless, Sunter argues his prediction was close enough to be a template for the kind of disciplined, out-of-the box thinking necessary to weigh up the key indicators – he calls them flags, as in up or down. For the Americans, the heads-up points should have been the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the clear growth of international terrorism, those earlier attacks on two US embassies in East Africa, plus a group of Middle Easterners learning to fly planes but not to land them. In the event, as everyone knows now, the dots were not connected well enough to work their magic.

Still in near total darkness, Sunter leads his audience through scenarios for the global future. He serves up an unedifying vision of hard times that could run for five fallow years. Sort of like Greece on steroids – but for all of the rest of us. A key indicator for Sunter is the interest rate on US ten-year treasury bonds. If the interest on these bonds, a measure of how markets evaluate risk, goes up, a lot, maybe it’s time to head for the hills with that survival backpack. Sunter announces he checks the bond interest rate every morning on Bloomberg, just in case. He adds, with a slight reassurance, that it doesn’t mean companies can’t make money in hard times; that just needs a great deal more cleverness than trying to make money during the good times.

Sunter rolls out his next prediction, punctuated by his trademark snort-giggle-laugh. If the global economic future is to be that five-year recession, watch out for China to come roaring back into the economic lead as the bad years end. This is if China can make the domestic economic shift from being the workshop of low-cost replicators of other nations’ innovations to becoming a powerhouse of innovators themselves. Sunter seems intent on answering science and technology guru Joseph Needham’s puzzle as to why China relinquished the world economic and technological leadership five centuries ago. That period would be at an end.

This leads us to a second version of a dismal future – a double-dip economic failure, or what he terms: forked lightning. And here he offers yet another red flag; China’s potential property bubble may well echo the American subprime crisis from three years ago and take the globe back down into the bad years. On the other hand, if the Chinese manage to surmount this and the globe goes into recovery, Sunter terms this the “New balls please” scenario, as in what happens in a tennis match as the lead switches. In this case, watch out as the Chinese lead a global charge for smarter energy use, some serious lifestyle changes – and much greater home-generated energy choices. Game changer, that one.

But what does all this mean for South Africa? Sunter presses on with the question of whether South Africa is going to be relegated from the economic Premier League to a lower division. This guy really loves to roll out a crisp image that crystallises his point – he is, after all, the originator of South Africa’s future choices back in the 1980s as being either the high road or the low one. This time around, however, he offers three possible scenarios: all the ducks in a row; none of the ducks in a row; and the failed state. If the country can get its metaphorical ducks lined up right, it has the chance to rise back up in the competitiveness sweepstakes – a roster where it has been slipping recently – from 44th out of 59 nations to 52nd at the most recent count. But, if those ducks are scattered all over the place, South Africa also loses out in the foreign direct investment sweepstakes to – wait for it now – Nigeria. Foreign investment will go where the opportunities are – not were.

Then, of course, there is the looming spectre of South Africa’s descent into becoming a failed state if it becomes too unpredictable or too violent. That sounds a lot like Myanmar, Liberia or Sierra Leone’s recent pasts – and here’s the key to what Sunter wants people to take on board. There is no natural reason why a nation won’t – or can’t – fall far into the lower leagues. Very far. For South Africa, Sunter puts his emphasis on four key flags: nationalisation, a clumsy national health insurance programme, the media tribunal, and land grabs. Nationalisation will be a serious retrograde step that could lead to major economic dislocations and international countermeasures. A poorly conceived NHI will drive the country’s professional talent out of the country while the media tribunal could underscore its descent from freedom and liberty. Land seizures would follow Zimbabwe’s example, even as some of that country’s own officials admit that these seizures were a major policy and economic mistake.

Instead, South Africa must foster an inclusive leadership style that brings the country’s population along – together. The country must identify and nurture its current pockets of excellence like SARS, the Cape Town Red Cross Children’s Hospital and the 5,000 schools (out of some 28,000 nationally) that are rated good to excellent – and extend their impact by example to other parts of the country’s society and economy. Saying things like this offers a window into the Sunter method: serve up some home truths and obvious statements – and then deliver the telling bits of deep data that lock in the sale of ideas. For example, in speaking about how to bring about a more balanced economy, Sunter notes that no nation has ever grown at a 7% growth rate that wasn’t outward-looking, and keen to create exports that continue to go up the value chain. South Africa can easily lose out on its goal as the gateway to Africa for investors if it isn’t careful. And this is no mean thing for the nation. Seven out of ten of the fastest-growing economies in the world are in Africa – not Asia, not Europe, not Latin America.

Sunter rounds out his presentation by pointing to the value of entrepreneurship. He says the country is mistaken in focusing so much intellectual energy on job creation. Better to focus on creating the entrepreneurs who will, by themselves, create the jobs the country needs. A key task, then, is the task of “Redirecting Julius” to get ANCYL head Malema focused on how to help the unemployed through a national effort of supporting entrepreneurial behaviour.

If all his conditions are met, Sunter says the country has a 50% chance of staying in that international economic Premier League, and even advancing. But, if his downside flags come true, there is a 40% chance of dropping down to the also-rans column – and there is even a 10% chance of turning into a failed state. The country needs an economic Codesa – a grand national agreement – to consolidate ways of empowering workers in their industries (larger share ownership), to promote public-private partnerships that really advance economic growth and to enhance that entrepreneurial climate to redress the current and unsustainable imbalance of five million taxpayers and 15 million welfare recipients.

Sunter sends us out from the darkness and into the light – its very symbolic – with the story of Siyabulela Xuza, a young man who should be a genuine national hero. He’s been so successful as a high school, then university chemistry student at Harvard with his rocket-fuel developments that he’s been celebrated by Nasa and even had a planet of a far-distant star named after him – an extraordinary honour. And yet Xuza is not a household name in this country to serve as an example for the country’s young people to follow. In a nutshell, then, this is Sunter’s challenge to the country as it tries to adapt to the avalanche of challenges of an unpredictable economic universe – liberate the talent and energy of a population so it can both survive and thrive. DM

Disclosure: The Daily Maverick is the media partner of the National Art Festival’s ThinkFest programme.

Think!fest is a space for leading thinkers from a broad spectrum of disciplines to share their insights in a series of lectures, workshops and discussions at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. topics range from question of disability and dance, the needs for land refom (and how to do it), the place and future of arts criticism, new developments in brain science and speakers discussing on issues of personal and social freedom. Think!fest ends with discussions on the role of youth and leadership for the future.

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