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21 March 2018 20:08 (South Africa)
South Africa

New ISS study charts SA future and presents a fable of the three choices

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa

For as long as South Africa has been around, it has tempted soothsayers, journalists - and, now, increasingly, scenario planners to give us a glimpse of what will happen. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the work of the newest scenario planners - this time from the Institue for Security Studies.

Historically, back in the middle of the 19th century, the country's most famous soothsayer and prophet, Nonquause, had predicted a redemptive future for her people (and the demise of the invaders who had been torturing her nation) if they could but accept her guidance and rid themselves of all their cattle and other possessions. Thousands, of course, did just that, but, like the predictions of most such oracles, sadly, things did not go precisely according to plan.

Virtually every journalist since Winston Churchill who has visited South Africa has, after completing his time in country, written a volume that follows the trope: South Africa was fissured, angry society, posed on a knife edge or the lip of the volcano (depending on which metaphor they thought of first) and awaiting an explosion. This writer's bookshelves hold many works of this type, some beautifully written with evocative, poetic moments, others dark and angry like the warnings of an Old Testament prophet.

A subset of writers, novelists, rather than journalists, per se, have also been greatly tempted by the potential South Africa has presented to allow them to deliver severe apocalyptic warnings as well. Works like Nadine Gordimer's July's People, JM Coetzee's The LIfe and TImes of Michael K and Waiting for the Barbarians, and Karel Schoeman's Na die Geliefde Land - along with an earlier volume, historian Arthur Keppel-Jones' When Smuts Goes, have delivered the dystopian warning with fervor as well. The purpose of such novels seems to have been a kind of secular warning in the manner of the secret writing interpreted by Daniel to the Babylonian king - just before the warning was implemented by the invading Medes and Persians.

And there is now a growing legion of scenario planners as well. Something more rigorous than soothsayers inhaling mysterious gases from Delphi and uttering ambiguous guidance, scenario planners are akin to business and financial risk analysts or any other social scientist trying to take on board the relevant data and extract logical trends on the basis of the inputs - plus a hunch or two. Here again, South Africa has proved to be fertile ground. Chantell Ilbury and Clem Sunter have made a good living doing this for businesses, investors and others keen to know which way to jump - with their money - or their lives.

In theory, the methodology is deceptively simple. The scenario planner identifies the crucial make-or-break variables, seeks out key long term trend lines and then determines when one of those crucial variables has become a flashing red light, or what the Ilbury/Sunter team calls red flags. In theory, that is. The difficult parts are in identifying what constitutes a crucial variable, and what represents a long term trend line - as well as what equals the phase shift moment for those variables - or, put another way, which variables represent a societal canary in the coal mine. There is the little matter of having the right hunches about trends - which ones will continue without disruptive changes or sudden disjunctures.

Along the way, too, a few years ago, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, before she fell in and out of love with the Democratic Alliance, had helped organise and carry out the widely reported-on Dinokeng Scenarios project that had also tried to define South Africa's possible future. Like almost every other planner, her scenario exercise saw three different possible futures - walking apart, walking behind and walking together.

Apart represented a drift towards a universe Thomas Hobbes might have recognised; walking behind pointed towards an increasingly authoritarian government that does all the allocations of resources and sets all the courses; while walking together was something rather more positive - a state where government, business, ordinary citizens and civil society all were party to the process of making decisions for the greater good. No points for guessing which one of the alternatives those preparing the Dinokeng scenarios were rooting for to come about.

There must be something magical about a triplet. One finds them as a central feature in most religions and they seem to resonate comfortably with advertisers as well. There is the trio of Judeo-Christian patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - as well as the old American commercial refrain - courtesy of Superman - of truth, justice and the American way. Or maybe things just rightly and naturally do fall along into three choices when it comes to people and their choices in life - even if the binary world -  on or off, yes or no, black or white - operates the computers.

And so it has been, too, with the most recent scenario exercise - this time provided from the Pretoria-based think tank, the Institute for Security Studies, entitled South African Futures 2030. In their study, released over the weekend, the ISS outlined three distinct choices for South Africa - Bafana Bafana, Madiba Magic - or a Nation Divided.

You have to hand it to ISS, they've figured out a very clever way to encapsulate the three choices - Bafana Bafana speaks to a nation - and a football team - that continues to perform well below its capacity, let alone the hopes of its fans. Madiba Magic obviously harks back to that increasingly mythic time when the country was seized with a sense of common purpose and made progress on many fronts. A Nation Divided, of course, is the great national nightmare come to life, as things truly fall apart and we're heading back on the road to that nasty Thomas Hobbes country again and its war of all against all.

This scenario exercise is written by individuals who provide a nice potted history of scenaio planning in South Africa, as well as a good, tight survey of the nation's current problems and possibilities. And the writers of this study pull very few punches - the current glide path, they believe, is the Bafana Bafana one - a South Africa punching well below its weight. As they argue: "This is essentially a forecast of ‘more of the same’. It is important to emphasise that South Africa is not doing badly compared with international standards. Bafana Bafana is simply the well-known story of a perennial underachiever, always playing in the second league when the potential for international championship success and flashes of brilliance are evident for all to see.  ‘Mandela Magic’, on the other hand, is the story of a country with a clear economic and developmental vision, which it pursues across all sectors of society. In this scenario, Team South Africa play to a single game plan and are consistent in execution during every match, refining and harmonising their strategy as they go along. Changing the productive structures of South Africa’s economy is complex and challenging, however. Competition is stiff and the barriers to success are high."

By contrast, A Nation Divided " reflects a South Africa that steadily gathers speed downhill as factional politics and policy zigzagging open the door to populist policies. It is not one set of decisions or developments that might cause the former Rainbow Nation to spiral down to even worse levels of social violence, unemployment and poor performance. This is a story of the absent coach, no game plan and individual players who rely only on themselves, sometimes passing the ball, but only when absolutely necessary."

The researchers for ISS who drew up this study are very clear as to where the current difficulties lie in getting out of the second division with the country's current lackluster play. Specifically, they point to the well-known failures of the country's educational system, despite the major resources devoted to it. South Africa spends more per capita on education than any other African nation besides Morocco, and a higher percentage of its GDP than either the Netherlands or Canada - but the output is weak and this can fatally compromise any efforts - regardless of political cohesion or national will - to up the country's national game. As the study's writers note:

"South African state schools generally rank at the bottom of the pile when compared with education in other countries with schools in poor areas (therefore largely black) doing worst of all. The grade-12 pass rate has steadily improved year on year to a figure of 78,2 per cent for 2013, but this is not only due to improvements and stability in the system and comes with a dropout rate of 60 per cent from grades 1 to 12. In a process known as ‘culling’, weak pupils in grade 11 are dissuaded from continuing to grade 12. Meanwhile, about half a million learners who started in grade 1 failed to reach grade 12, despite efforts to reduce pass rates to 30 or 40 per cent in some subjects. Key subjects such as mathematics have been dumbed down to a choice between mathematical literacy (simple maths) and ‘normal’ maths. Even so, only 3 per cent of grade-9 pupils scored more than 50 per cent in maths, with a disappointing national average of 14 per cent in this key subject. Recent studies calculate that with a 50 per cent pass mark on all subjects, the actual matric pass rate for 2013 would be between 22 and 24 per cent."

The ISS team has not been a bunch of Pollyanas. As they, themselves, calculate it, "Bafana Bafana is probably the most likely scenario to emerge, in the sense that the current disaffection with the ANC leadership may result in a steady decline in voter turnout, but, simultaneously, none of the established opposition parties are able to capitalise on this disgruntlement and none are able to galvanise South Africans into voting for them in sufficiently large numbers."

Naturally, too, the study's creators offer recommendations which, ultimately, boil down to a case of what is to be done to avoid the pitfalls of a nation divided. As the authors argue "The NDP 2030 notes three first-order priorities and lists them in appropriate sequence: 1.Raise employment through faster economic growth; 2.Improve the quality of education, skill development and innovation; and 3.Build the capability of the state to play a developmental, transformative role."

They go on to argue, "As the country heads for elections in 2014, there is much that the South African government can build upon, including the Treasury’s counter-cyclical budgets, the recent focus on investment in infrastructure, the effort to revitalise industry, measures to create an enabling environment for small and medium-sized business, success with encouraging tourism, broadening economic empowerment of the poor and dispossessed, and the move towards monitoring service delivery across departments."

"The promises and agreements made in the run-up to the 2014 elections, including the implementation of a clear growth path, will determine the future prosperity or poverty for many South Africans. South Africa’s current pathway, ‘Bafana Bafana’, partly reflects the lack of a systematic, determined implementation of a clear growth path. Despite this, ‘Bafana Bafana’ still brings steady growth in South Africa at rates well in excess of its European and North American trading partners, since the fundamental drivers of growth, such as a large demographic dividend, are all in South Africa’s favour. If, in accordance with the ‘Mandela Magic’ scenario, the government implements the NDP in a determined and focused manner, drawing upon elements of both IPAP and the NGP in the process, a very different future is possible – one that sees the economy expand significantly and, consequently,ushers in higher employment levels and better opportunities for many. On the other hand, in a ‘Nation Divided’, government discards the NDP and succumbs to populist policies as its focus is directed at the internal political battles within the TripartiteAlliance with attendant higher levels of unemployment and social turbulence in the longer term."

While no one should expect that the ISS' new publication will wrench the country away from its current far less than optimal path, it could actually provide the kind of material needed to energise the current election campaign, helping provide a real set of ideas for discussion. At the minimum, it would help replace things like the astonishing statements heard last week that the country's rising tide of civil protest is simply the  final kicks of malcontents among the remaining 5% who have not yet gotten their ration of piped water or electrical reticulation. That addition to the national dialogue alone would be a signal service to the national debate, but the authors clearly hope for more. In that sense they are trying to emulate the way of think tanks in America that make a regular practice of issuing policy discussions in advance of an election, in an effort to have an impact on the debate - and on the poicies adopted by the electoral winners. The ISS seems to be aiming for that same place in the South African political universe - and good luck to them! DM


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  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. Spector is a Writing Fellow of the Unit of Johannesburg’s Institute for Advanced Studies. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • South Africa

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