I am only too aware that “simple solutions to complex problems are invariably wrong”. However, as we also know, it is easy to write a long speech, the challenge is to write a short one.
So in the interests of brevity, and fully conscious of being ridiculed as simplistic and naïve, here goes.
The USA has long intrigued me as to why, after such modest and challenging beginnings, its people have achieved what they have. After all, in the relatively short time since the Declaration of Independence and writing of the constitution (1789) they have risen to be the world superpower that they are and have been for decades.
Clearly not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but their pre-eminence cannot be denied. After all, what if anything in the world is perfect, other than nature. Certainly nothing involving humans, other than one’s grandchildren of course.
As I firmly believe that principles help hugely in promoting objectivity and rational discussion, I have tried to distil what I believe to be the key underlying principles on which their “success” has been built. Amazing how often I find we tend to debate opinions but seldom principles and as a result end up blurring our thinking with emotion.
Seeking enlightenment as to these core principles, I took some time to study, as best I could, the history of the USA. From this I then distilled what I believe its key founding principles to be. Or at least some of them.
Democracy articulated by their founding fathers and enshrined in a visionary (certainly at the time) constitution. One so admirably defended by Thomas Jefferson in 1800 against his monarchist rival Alexander Hamilton.
Ambition, work ethic and fortitude as epitomised by the founding fathers of its material success between the 1850s and 1900 which you will note happened during and after the devastating Civil War.
In short order these people were:
The founders of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads including one Leland Stanford, who founded Stanford University.
These companies built the transcontinental railroad, rightly regarded as the greatest engineering feat of the 19th century. In the heat, the snow, the ice and the rain they did it. With picks, shovels, wheelbarrows and some gelignite along the way, Chinese, Mormons, former Confederate soldiers, African-Americans, Irish immigrants, engineers, quantity surveyors, financial innovators. Together they laid the backbone of the country’s infrastructure, the cornerstone of its trade.
JD Rockefeller who, when oil was discovered in 1858, at the tender age of 18 recognised oil for what it was and from the ground up built the Standard Oil company.
Cornelius Vanderbilt of railroad and shipping fame.
Andrew Carnegie, the king of steel.
JP Morgan, financier without peer.
Yes there were others but these were the giants of industry on whose shoulders the rest were carried. One and all, they started with virtually nothing. Not just among the world’s most successful capitalists, but also among history’s greatest philanthropists, proving that capitalism is not all about greed as it is so often accused of being. Such business acumen and generosity of spirit are not mutually exclusive. It is a function of personal values, not the system.
Principled courage in the interests of nation building as proven with the devastating loss of life in the Civil War. More than 350,000 Union soldiers, mainly white, fighting for the right cause and to alleviate the condition of those subjected to slavery in the South. And out of this sacrifice a sense of nationhood was born.
Ingenuity, with Thomas Edison as the shining light (you will forgive me), surely the greatest inventor of the 19th century, despite a prep school teacher dismissing him on account of his brain being “addled”. Doubtless on account of his abnormally large forehead.
An independent judiciary, as evidenced for example by the ruling ending Standard Oil’s monopolistic domination of the oil industry.
Luck – always need a little of this. Trick of course is to recognise it for what it is and capitalise on it. The outcome of the decisive Gettysburg battle for example turned on a dime at a place with the unlikely name of Little Big Top.
In my simplistic opinion these then are what comprised the foundation of the USA, tempered later of course by the humanistic vision of Martin Luther King Jr.
Yes, of course they had a sizeable population, resources etc but the simple fact of the matter is that without the above they would never have had a sense of nationhood or commercialised their resources as successfully as they did.
So what’s different to what we have right here, right now in South Africa?
Yes we have our issues, our problems, our past (you think the USA didn’t/still has?), but I am now talking about our future. Do not for one second tell me that we as a people lack a democracy, a visionary Constitution, an independent judiciary, ambition, work ethic, fortitude, principled courage, a sense of nationhood (albeit somewhat frayed at present), ingenuity, a latter-day humanist and, yes, we have had some luck for sure.
Just think of what might have happened if Mandela’s captors had executed him. Or, instead of sending him and his fellow comrades all to Robben Island where they could confer and bond, had dispersed them to various prisons all over the country.
No, I believe our country is populated by enough talented people with all the attributes described above, besides being endowed with natural resources and matchless beauty.
Surely nothing really stands in our way that cannot be addressed by recognising these simple truths. Only ourselves with our petty, political, self-serving, selfishness and lack of real will.
We blew it the first time round as statesmanship wilted in the heat of political opportunism.
Now again is the time for statesmanship, not just in the form of one person but in the form of us all. No cynical bystanders, thank you. They may have given up on their dreams but we will not, shall not, dare not.
All of us actively engaging with a positive intent.
No more largesse for the indolent, but rewards for the deserving.
Not the fruits of capitalism for the few, but the fruits of its bounty for the many deserving and those who languish through no fault of their own. After all, “the poor we will always have with us”.
But let’s have fewer poor people, less poverty. And let us do so without killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. After all, it did facilitate the growth of a black middle class in a remarkably short space of time. An unprecedented achievement.
This should be the new South Africa. We rewrote the rules once and as recent events have demonstrated our Constitution and judiciary are robustly alive, well and kicking. They united us and made us proud.
It is time to rewrite the rules again as we move beyond self-serving factionalism to principled nation building. I call it constitutionalism.
After all, the Constitution belongs to all of us so we should all be dedicated constitutionalists – if not in word then in deed.
With due acknowledgement to Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, one for all and all for one constitutionalists.
If Martin Luther King Jr articulated a great humanist dream and our own Mandela held out the hope of the dream’s reality, then now is the time for us to grasp this second chance and actually make a reality of that hope. Let’s prove the Afro-pessimists wrong.
That, South Africans, is what will define, reward and unite us.
And the good news is that it is ours for the taking.
Simple it will not be. But since when was living in South Africa ever a simple matter? So think rather of the rewards if we dare to succeed. DM