First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Book review: A Nation’s Fate?

Maverick Life

South Africa, Maverick Life

Book review: A Nation’s Fate?

J. BROOKS SPECTOR reviews the newly released Fate of the Nation: three Scenarios for South Africa’s Future, by Jakkie Cilliers.

South Africa can sometimes seem like the perfect playground for scenario planners and futurologists (of both the optimist and pessimist persuasions). There are still so many possibilities and alternatives to contemplate – from the fantastic to the apocalyptic – that almost any projection has been able to find a home.

For a while it seemed that despite all the problems, the projections leaned sharply towards the positive. Yes, with the collapse of apartheid, the country’s new government had found itself the inheritor of an infrastructure that was partially First World, but significantly Third World. There was some serious obvious technological prowess but that overlapped with vast, yawning human and physical infrastructure gaps that were deeply affecting much of the nation. While there was considerable national wealth, it was distributed about as inequitably as mathematics and economics can measure. And, of course, there was a deep-seated feeling on the part of many in the country and abroad that these glaring divisions still presaged societal clashes that could well generate racial civil war, or something even worse.

And yet, the early results of that much-heralded “Mandela Miracle” seemed to have largely tapped down any possibilities for open warfare along racial lines, especially after a more universal social compact came into being. In a remarkable evolution, this initial era of good feeling produced a liberal constitutional order, paired with the preservation of the nation’s prevailing economic structures and a significantly open economy. Underpinning it all, there was the bright, shimmering promise the country’s still-considerable wealth-generating capacities would actually be harnessed to demonstrate the truth of that old economic axiom: “the rising tide lifts all boats” – luxury ocean liners and leaky rowing boats alike.

In fact, in the early years after 1994, a number of comprehensive government plans actually did bring better housing and public infrastructure services to millions. This paralleled a new social grant programme that put an actual income floor (albeit a very modest one) underneath some 18-million people. Access to public education (even if not quality) grew dramatically as well. However, critics of government policymaking could still grumble that much of this advancement was being built on a foundation of sand. This was most especially true because the money was available by virtue of the increase in foreign exchange generated from the long commodity boom cycle. The critics noted that while commodity prices can go up, they could well go down too as well (as they did eventually) and that much more of that scarce funding should be invested in human infrastructure such as education while the going was good. Worryingly, too, as part of this expansionary government process, the size of the civil service workforce began to swell alarmingly and public debt began to balloon into the danger zone as well.

From all of this political, social and economic raw material, over the past three-quarters of a century, well before the new possibilities of the post-1994 period, the South African experience has provided ample opportunities for writers to offer their projections and predictions. Inevitably, this has usually meant marshalling data in support of a “sky is falling narrative”.

Perhaps the earliest in this genre was University of the Witwatersrand history professor Arthur Keppel-Jones’ dystopian future history, “When Smuts Goes”. Written in 1947, Keppel-Jones foresaw the collapse of the United Party and the political ascendency of Afrikaner apartheid, a vicious civil war, the migration of many of the country’s white population (to Argentina), UN intervention in the fighting, and then, ultimately, the rise of an ineffectual black government under a barely literate leader, nicknamed “Six Pence”, to preside over a ruined nation.

In more literary terms, in the late 1970s, a trio of deeply pessimistic novels – Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People, Karel Schoeman’s Promised Land and JM Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K – resonated with a sense of foreboding over a now almost inevitable collapse, perhaps just around the corner. While these were obviously fiction, as starkly predictive works they drew upon the growing signs of collapse that all three writers took as the increasingly likely trajectory of things to come.

But then came “The Madiba Miracle” – at least a political and ideological one. The country did not collapse, even as levels of violence remained unacceptably high for many. Heading into the two decades of non-racial democracy and with the inspiration that no matter how unlikely it might seem, success was possible, various individuals began developing scenario-planning exercises, often built along the lines of business planning and projection models.

Perhaps the most publicly recognised among them were Clem Sumter and his associates’ work and their reliance on what they termed “red flags” trip wires such as the rise (or fall) in sovereign debt interest rates. These might, on the face of it, be relatively small indicators but they could provide great predictive power for understanding the likely future. The methodology of another group, the organisers of the “Dinokeng scenarios”, posited three divergent paths for the future, based on the differential ability or inability of government to marshal resources, manpower and money in order to achieve a higher level of economic growth, to stumble along in the present trajectory, or to slide downward as a result of growing failures of policy and growth.

Meanwhile, the government itself, drawing on a wide array of people from academia, business, civil society and elsewhere, began producing (and revising) an increasingly thick volume – a call for national action to address the future needs of the nation – in the form of the National Development Plan. Sadly, it has increasingly become an impressive doorstopper of a book more cited and genuflected towards in speeches than actually read – let alone acted upon by government as a cogent plan of government action.

All of these approaches largely assumed the nation’s government was mostly in sync with the ideals of more inclusive economic growth, underpinned by serious investments in creating a reformed, effective civil service, an educational system designed to generate skilled individuals ready to take up opportunities in the burgeoning economy, and plentiful injections of foreign direct investment to make it all happen. What was less anticipated was the evolution, by the 2000s, of a regime that was increasingly designed to support – and be supported by – hyper-patronage networks that skewed capital allocations and that placed loyalty well ahead of competence or knowledge in managing a modern economy.

In the meantime, there has also been a growing list of volumes – by such varied temperaments as Raymond Parsons, Frans Cronje, Adam Habib, RW Johnson, and Justice Malala, among others – that spelled out a likely downward trajectory for South Africa’s political-economic space. In one version or another, these writers seem to have adopted variations of a stance that essentially argued: “If this goes on then the downfall becomes inevitable, unless government can be awakened from its deadly kleptocratic torpor.”

Into this contentious space, Jakkie Cilliers has brought out a new volume that sets out three competing scenarios he has named, respectively: Madiba Magic, Bafana Bafana, and A Nation Divided. Cilliers is a long-time researcher on South African political and economic developments, and he was the founder of the internationally regarded Institute for Security Studies, based in Pretoria.

Turning to Cilliers’ three scenarios, the first clearly refers to an inclusive, pro-growth government policy agenda that focuses relentlessly on economic growth and reforms in order to get out in front of demands on the economy from both natural population growth and rising expectations. The second, sadly, refers to the country’s ineffectual national soccer team, never rising to the hopes of fans, muddling along, seemingly indifferent to the requirements for sustained success. The third, of course, is the result of continuing poor economic decision-making, growing social and political stress, and ultra-nationalist, populist appeals that could resonate with many in the population.

Making use of a forecasting system model developed and maintained by the Frederick S Pardee Center for International Futures at the University of Denver in the US, Cilliers and his associates have created the three scenarios based on the predicted impact of certain key decisions. In doing this, the author cites successful efforts towards poverty alleviation, further growth and improvement in educational output, improved employment opportunities and prospects, and an effective, responsive government, as the fundamental challenges for South Africa’s success. Although he hasn’t specifically pegged such success on the end of the Zuma-led, captured state, nevertheless he has placed great emphasis on vanquishing what he has called “The Republic of No Consequences” and the evolution of the national political system into a truly competitive multiparty democratic polity that presents real choices to the electorate.

As a result, Cilliers focuses on such drivers of economic success as support for the sectors that have real growth potential and greater employment possibilities, and those that can act as generators of foreign income earners. He is especially forceful on the need to open up labour markets to absorb new employees (and breaking the hold of public sector unions on national employment policy), and on moving the country past its current likely trajectory of an energy plan that will consume vast amounts of scarce capital in the creation of nuclear energy generating capacity.

Given the policy proposals in Cilliers’ volume, it seems logical that a book like this would boast a promotional blurb from Cyril Ramaphosa. And indeed it does, thereby lining up Cilliers’ policy preferences – and his analysis – behind the need to get the economic fundamentals right in order to support the promise of real growth, rather than in support of a big dollop of the state capitalism of the developmental state model preferred by China, and so admired by many in authority today.

Cilliers is no doctrinaire “free marketer”, though. Towards the end of this volume, he acknowledges, for example,

There are instances where state control and leadership are needed, such as investment in strategic manufacturing sectors, state support of research and development, and so on. But state-owned enterprises in the mainstream economy, such as South African Airways, that perennially underperform should be self-sustaining or sold off. It means ending the subsidies whereby Cuban engineers and medical doctors are imported at great cost to the taxpayer instead of employing South Africans or encouraging skilled inward migration, which is free. It means cutting back on perks for government ministers and officials, whose earnings generally exceed those in the private sector. It means a state that is committed to quality.”

And Cilliers is certainly no naysayer to using the economic clout of government in the organised pursuit of broader social goals. He argues for using government procurement to support black economic advancement, and for government’s fostering of vigorous coalitions in pursuit of public-private partnerships for economic growth, such as making use of business’ financial support of teachers in schools across the nation.

However, the core of the Madiba Magic scenario, as Cilliers develops it, is one that international financial institutions, ratings agencies, foreign and domestic investors and most orthodox development theorists would easily endorse. Simultaneously, however, it is one that the mandarins of civil service unions, the doyens of the hyper-patronage networks, and obdurate traditional rural authorities (with their lock on communal land and their influence on traditional voters) would definitely not support. And here is the sticking point – how to break the hold such groups have on power now. For this, Cilliers is unable to offer definitive answers other than to say that this really needs to be accomplished as a matter of great and growing urgency.

One other challenge for a work such as this is to present the details of the forecasting model and a detailed sense of the inputs used, or how they were calculated. The reader is referred to the Pardee Center’s website instead. Inclusion of some of this more detailed information would have made Cilliers’ predictive model – and its three resulting scenarios – that much more compelling and convincing for the reader.

Nonetheless, despite this gap, because of its wealth of detail and thorough comparatives, for those interested in this nation’s future, or for those who wish to argue more forcefully and convincingly about what really matters for the country’s future, Fate of the Nation is an effective resource and an inspiration for further detailed arguments for needed policy changes – even if it hints at, but does not offer, a detailed political road map to make them so. DM

Fate of the Nation: three Scenarios for South Africa’s Future, by Jakkie Cilliers (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2017, ISBN 978-1-86842-797-0)


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted