South Africa

South Africa

Two of the most uncomfortable words: Contingency Planning

An off-the-cuff Facebook question to the writer about Southern Africa’s economic future and what happens next stirs some uncomfortable thoughts for J. BROOKS SPECTOR.

Years ago, a Japanese friend who shared a love for the “what-ifs” of history gave this writer a copy of Gustav Eckstein’s 1927 admonitory book, In Peace Japan Breeds War. Eckstein was a thoughtful, observant journalist and psychology professor and he wrote his book to alert people to the new, military-linked extreme nationalism he had observed taking root and increasingly flourishing in inter-war Japan. This was meant to be in opposition to the still-prevailing, still-popular view of many of a Japan as a quaint nation, more in keeping with its ancient tales of warriors and ghosts as retold by the Irish-American writer, Lafcadio Hearn; Gilbert and Sullivan’s tuneful but picture post card Japan in their operetta, The Mikado; or the increasingly popular imports of that country’s wood block prints, silks, and cheap but handy manufactured goods.

In fact, in a fascinating mirror image of the Japanese military’s own planning for the future, the US navy had also already prepared a series of contingency plans for a titanic battle with the Japanese over control of the Pacific Ocean. The various iterations of this American plan, repeatedly code-named “Plan Orange”, postulated vast lines of powerful battleships that would meet mid-ocean and then slug it out for control of those waters – thereby sealing the fates of all of the nations along the Pacific littoral.

Military contingencies have, in fact, been a standard of defence establishments around the world for centuries. World War I rushed forward, to a significant degree, because of the combatants’ military plans – based on the mobilisation of men, machines, horses and supplies via modern rail networks. These plans then fed millions of men into the charnel house the war quickly became – in part because diplomacy and the diplomatic mechanisms for conflict resolution was no match for the respective national military plans. In fact, almost unbelievably, even after World War I, both the US and the UK had actual military contingency plans for warfare, based either on an effort by the US to conquer Canada or for Britain to seize control of the Atlantic to isolate America.

In the post-World War II, Cold War period, a growing appreciation for the new landscape of nuclear deterrence – that astoundingly accurate acronym, MADD – brought about a new way of thinking about defence planning and a very different kind of contingency planning to prevent the outbreak of all-out nuclear war between the US and USSR, eventually bringing in the UK, France and China into this approach as well. Presumably, such contingency plans and balances have now become an integral part of the always-tense Indian/Pakistani military balance as well, given the fact those two nations are similarly armed with nuclear arms.

Increasingly too, beyond the military angle of creating responses to the barbarities of no-holes-barred insurrections, the acts of pirates or of groups like IS, international contingency planning must now run towards plans to deal with natural disasters as well as those created by people. A growing number of international and non-governmental organisations also have made it their core business to be prepared for such disasters – bringing to bear all manner of assistance when a massive hurricane, earthquake or tsunami devastates broad swathes of a nation, or when a famine or civil conflict forces whole populations to flee across borders in search of food or safety.

And that, of course, brings us to our own neighbourhood. Over the past couple of decades, South Africa has been the destination for perhaps millions of African migrants. Some have come for economic advancement reasons, some in response to political unrest and challenges, and some simply to avoid starvation or death. Many, perhaps most of these, have come from the country’s northern neighbour of Zimbabwe. This has occurred even though that country has had a relatively stable government since 1980. But President Mugabe is now 91 years old and he is certainly not going to be around forever. No one does that.

If the histories of many other nations – in Africa as well as elsewhere around the globe – can serve as a guide, the end of multi-decade rule by a single leader frequently leads to civil chaos, especially where there are multiple antagonistic contestants for the new vacuum of political power, where political power has been monopolised in few hands for a long time, and where the economy is already headed onto a downward trajectory or spiral. In some cases, that turmoil, in turn, easily generates vast population flows as desperate people seek stability, safety and basic sustenance – especially if or when the ensuing conflict begins taking on an ethnic complexion.

Concurrently, over the past several months, it has become increasingly clear serious contingency plans in South Africa for dealing with xenophobic violence only came into being after that violence flared out of control. And a coherent (albeit controversial) response to illegal foreigners/undocumented immigrants and criminality was hastily cobbled together, well after the fact of the initial violence. All of this might well generate a less than a secure sense that the national government has become well prepared, well-coordinated and well organised to respond to the kind of large-scale eruption of difficulties across a border in a neighbouring state that places intense, unplanned-for pressures on South African government and social structures.

The difficulty, of course, is that the South African government has uttered not a single word about preparations to be able respond to what might ensue, for example, once Robert Mugabe’s decades-long leadership draws to its inevitable conclusion. Accordingly, have there been any joint response exercises – whether they are real in-the-field or merely “table top” simulations only to give the public confidence in the government’s capabilities – drawing together military, police, Home Affairs, humanitarian NGOs and other appropriate agencies and groups to check on readiness? Of course it is the usual style of governments (including their military establishments) to be rigorously prepared for a previous war or national crisis, rather than the one coming right at them from just over the horizon. (For further clarity on this, one can read up on the French military’s development of the Maginot Line in response to its initial failure in what became World War I).

But, a potential crisis right around here somehow seems almost totally predictable (if not totally inevitable), and it cries out for some serious, rigorous preparation and coordination – and lots of it, and publicly. If civil order across one of this nation’s borders does break down, there will be refugees, lots of them, even if they are only in that status temporarily, and if for no other reason than their obvious and rational needs for feeding of families and protecting them from civil commotion until danger is past. But temporary can be a pretty fungible term. To get a glimpse of this, one merely has to look at the vast, desperate and continuing migration across the Mediterranean Sea from Libya and the vast African hinterland beyond it, or at the seaborne migration of the Rohingya from Myanmar to anywhere that will let them in. But if such a migration occurred, it might well put yet further impetus to the country’s current social pressures – given South Africa’s own shrivelling economic realities. Weren’t these some of the things that gave birth to the past eruptions of xenophobic violence? No one really knows just how South Africa would pass such a stress test.

And that, of course, brings up yet another aspect of this overall topic. If, as some doomsayers argue, South Africa itself is edging closer to a total electrical power grid meltdown, the resulting economic agonies might well make today’s pain seem like a minor tummy upset. Accordingly, one wonders what kinds of plans exist among South Africa’s neighbours (and the larger international community) to cope with this nation’s own movement of (hopefully temporary) refugees, streaming across the same problematic borders in search of urgently needed food, shelter and security?

Twenty-five years ago, while the new South Africa was still struggling to be born out of the older political order, one can easily imagine various foreign embassies and business associations had begun to draw up their own contingency plans to carry out emergency evacuations of their respective fleeing nationals, desperate to leave the burning cities, as in the disturbing passages in Nadine Gordimer’s dystopian novel, July’s People. That day, thankfully, never arrived in South Africa. But it already has in other places. And now, perhaps, it is the time to begin such discussions and to carry out the planning to deal with such tragic human movements – before some local variation of the current tragedy of the Mediterranean Sea unfolds in Southern Africa as well. DM 

Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (L) walks with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at Harare International airport, March 16, 2010. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo