Opinionista John Clarke 2 February 2015

Beyond E-tollgate: A ‘walk ahead’ to wisdom

It was clever for the GFIP E-toll Advisory Panel to use the National Development Plan to contextualise and frame their report and recommendations to resolve the e-toll impasse. But was it wise? It would have been wise for the panel to couch their analysis in terms of the wisdom generated from the Dinokeng Scenarios back in 2008, when an inclusive group of 33 high profile leaders explored what South Africa might look like in 2020. Three possible futures were imagined, each depending on how the State and Civil Society chose to relate to one another. Now that six years have elapsed, in the light of what has actually happened, revisiting the scenarios is a very startling experience. But the anti e-toll movement provides some hope.

There is a witticism doing the rounds that says the difference between knowledge and wisdom is that knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to add one to a fruit salad.

The National Planning Commission under Trevor Manuel’s leadership was not lacking in knowledge, brainpower, imagination and resources – even wisdom. However, to those of us who toiled to bring the New South Africa to birth in 1993-96, inspired by the Reconstruction and Development Program, the NDP was sausage without sizzle. It failed to inspire, despite using all the latest social media communication methods to get the challenges and vision of the NDP across to the public at large. Trevor’s Nine challenges facing South Africa: diagnostic report video on YouTube used the rapid animated hand drawing technique very effectively to try to persuade that the NDP was worth supporting notwithstanding misgivings and scepticism from development diehards like me. The ten-minute film is brilliantly done and worth watching. Note the viewing stats. Since it was uploaded in November 2011 it has registered 37,267 hits (at the time of writing).

Compare those to those of OUTA’s YouTube video, uploaded on 7 October 2013, before OUTA announced that it had decided it would not be taking their case against e-tolls back to the Constitutional Court, but would instead work to educate and encourage the public to protest against e-tolls. The film unwittingly employed the same rapid hand drawing animation used by Trevor Manuel to explain the NDP. It overtook the volume of NDP viewer hits within a mere three days, and currently stands at 348,547 hits. That’s almost ten times more hits in less than half the time.

“But you are comparing apples with oranges,” I can hear Trevor protesting.

“But read the rich variety of insightful comments posted on each” I retort, “this about the complexities of good fruit salad, Trevor. Not about a pre-cooked meal of apple pie.”

As a creature of Government the e-toll Advisory panel probably had to serve up helpings of the NDP apple pie. It has been formally adopted by the governing party, and does contain much well crunched knowledge. However it has failed to provide a unifying social vision to get South Africa back on track. To understand why that is so, the Dinokeng scenarios shed light.

With funding from Nedbank/Old Mutual, in 2008-2009 an impressive inclusive group of 33 public intellectuals, political, trade unionists and business leaders gathered at the Dinokeng conference centre for a series of workshops to imagine three futures for South Africaas alternative scenarios of how South Africa might look in 2020.

The group was not short on authoritative participants: Graca Michel, Jay Naidoo, Antjie Krog, Frans Baleni, Reuel Khoza, Mamphela Ramphele, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, Vincent Maphai, Aaron Motsoaledi, Mathatha Tsedu, Raenette Taljaard to name but a few.

Although Sanral was already well advanced in its e-tolling plans, back in 2008 few of the participants appear to have registered that. (Not surprising to OUTA. We argue Sanral were deliberately keeping their e-tolling plans below the radar). If they did, no one anticipated just how much of a political hot potato ‘e-tollgate’ was destined to become.

The scenario planning methodology is a good way of distilling wisdom, managing differences and building trust. It value hinges around getting a foundational agreement on the two dimensions that form the logical matrix upon which the methodology relies to open up space for generative thinking.

The two dimensions used were: Capacity of the State on the horizontal axis and Character of civil society on the vertical axis.

Dinokeng Scenario graphic 

We all know about “thinking out of the box”. The scenario planning methodology requires thinking ‘inside’ the boxes. The Dinokeng website explains the process and reports the content of the “three futures for South Africa”.

Curiously there is no explanation as to why only three imaginary scenarios were fleshed out. As the illustrative diagram above shows, a fourth theoretical possibility exists. “Engaged Civil Society” and “Ineffective Capacity of the State.

Was the “Walk Ahead” scenario just too ghastly to contemplate?

Nevertheless the three ‘boxes’ that were filled with alternative scenarios make interesting reading, especially given the benefit of hindsight.

2020 is the year that everyone was/is hoping would culminate in ‘Walking Together’ to cross a metaphorical ‘River Jordan’ into a promised land. However it could also mean a ‘Walk Behind’, with a dependent and compliant civil society being led back to re-cross the metaphorical Red Sea back into oppressive bondage to an autocratic, extractive State. Worse still it could mean a ‘Walking Apart’ with civil society fragmenting into ideological, racial and religious factions and fractions, each wandering off into the desert just to get away from each other, but with nowhere to really go, and a corrupt State bereft of all legitimacy and authority, unable to create the conditions for social cohesion.

Their job done, the 33 participants went their various ways leaving the facilitation team with credible and authoritative material to inspire, challenge, alarm and interrogate so that the rest of us might wake up and realise that ordinary citizens had some measure of freedom and discretion to choose how to respond, despite the objective constraint of prevailing global political and economic circumstances. With the protection of the Constitution and Bill of Rights to create the ‘Walking Together’ future, it was exciting stuff. With the fact of South Africa hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup providing a launch pad into a new decade, it was hard to be a pessimist. To voice any misgivings about whether the World Cup would in fact deliver the long-term benefits it promised was like swearing in church.

To emboss each scenario with a sense of tangibility the teams had mocked up imaginary newspaper ‘articles’ written at different points along the path to each of the respective ‘futures’ for each of the three scenarios. The FIFA World Cup featured as a pivotal opportunity, and many articles reference that as one ‘fixture’ in what was then still one year ahead into the future. That event is now nearly five years into the past.

The following summarised selection of ‘press clippings’ from ‘What the Newspapers say’ from each of the three scenarios gives the gist of each of the three futures. My selection features only stories which have now passed into history or are on the near horizon for 2015.

For the ‘Walk Apart’ scenario:

  • November 2010. No Accord yet in sight for Crisis Group. “Govt, Business and Labour locked in talks… No agreement in sight for how to deal with the threatened stalemate over 50,000 striking miners from the Midas platinum mine”.
  • Feb 2011. More to Public works. “National Treasury will allocate an extra R3 billion to Expanded Public Works Programmes…”
  • October 2013. Public Works Millions Missing. “… more than R100 million allocated to Home Based Care projects in KZN has not been spent… more than R350 million allocated to Eastern Cape Road Works cannot be accounted for.”
  • March 2015. Drugs Run Dry in Mpumalanga Clinic. “The Treatment Action Campaign says this is the fourth provincial clinic that has run out of ARV’s in the last four months”. (Whew! Mark Heywood will be consoled that TAC hasn’t folded).

For the ‘Walk Behind’ scenario:

  • October 2010. Key Ministries to report to Deputy President to fast track skills development. “The Super Ministers Council has announced that the Deputy President will take responsibility to ensure that there is tighter coordination between the home affairs, industrial strategy and education departments…”
  • January 2011. Massive boost to PBMR/Eskom. “Govt to pump more than R10 billion extra into the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor next year…over and above the R22 billion already spent… and more than R15 billion into Eskom.
  • February 2011. Social Grants, UIF get big boost in budget. “…the sharp increases in social welfare and unemployment insurance are due to large increases in unemployed…”
  • July 2015. Business Outcry over Prescribed Assets. “Business objects to proposed Bill on prescribed investments…. Into industries… believed to be Road Construction Programme, PBMR and Eskom.”

Ingeniously for the ‘Walk Together’ scenario, there are no ‘milestone’ stories between 2010 and the present. One supposes this was deliberate. The whole point of the exercise was to try to steer things away from one or other of the two bleak scenarios that were already looking pretty likely given the prevailing state of the nation at the time. But not irredeemably so. There is also no point in such exercises if there was no possibility of altering the course of history. Thus the earliest story in the press clippings for ‘Walk Together’ is dated 16 June 2015, six years into the future then, but now almost upon us. The story proclaims The Birth of a Citizens Charter, and gloriously records how “the fabric of a renewed country” arose (will arise?) out of the ashes of the bleak stories featured in the two negative scenarios imagined above.

The reports that still lie in the future from the ‘Walk Apart’ scenario are chilling. Four stories are featured between now and 2020.

The headlines suffice. Readers can fill in text adapted from actual stories that have filled/ are currently filling newspapers.

  • March 2017. Drugs trade finds new avenues in face of state failure
  • July 2017. Three dead in battle over ‘tax’.
  • May 2019. Big victory claim by Ruling Party.

Then comes the shocker: an imaginary story dated April 2020.

  • 35 Gunned Down in Jobs Protest: “Policemen opened fire yesterday on thousands of protestors who gathered outside the President’s holiday mansion…”

If the irony of that blend of two actual stories hits home, no further explanation is necessary. If it doesn’t, then no explanation is possible.

Perhaps the Dinokeng participants deliberately left the fourth possible scenario blank because they intuitively knew that by definition, when a corrupt State turns in on itself, only an active and engaged citizenship could give that scenario real content.

Hence instead of invoking the National Development Plan to domesticate, had the e-toll Advisory Panel remembered the Dinokeng Scenarios, they might have thought differently about ‘civil disobedience’ and concluded it was entirely justified given prevailing circumstances. They might also have heaved a sigh of relief that an active citizenship movement had in fact emerged from ‘OUTA space’ to join with Cosatu (both factions), religious leaders (all faiths) and ordinary people (all backgrounds) and political parties (all shades) to expose the irrationality and unworkability of e-tolling. Civil Society has mobilised to show the State what it means to ‘Walk Ahead’. ‘E-tollgate’ has lifted the boom for a new consensus to be forged for a much more efficient and transparent alternative source of public finance. DM

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