As the State Capture enquiry rolls steadily on to what, one hopes, is not a cliff-hanger ending to the Zuma-years chapter of South African history, it’s tempting to call to mind the much-quoted line from Heraclitus: “Character is fate”. Sooner or later, the greedy and venal, who seek power for personal gain, will always get caught out by those with patience and a commitment to accountability and the truth.
They get the comeuppance they deserve.
It’s the eternal story of the battle between good versus evil, and in the archetypal hero’s journey, we’re getting to the end. The ordeal is over, we’re on the road back to redemption. The movie of State Capture is being written, and it will star Robert Redford and John Kani as daring journalistic duo, Scorpio and amaBunghane.
In the long term, character really is fate: corrupt politics cannot last because it will eventually run out of things to plunder. The self-interest of Make America Great Again is a popular short term policy, but without even paying lip service to the need for some sort of consensus, the same forces driving it will tear it apart.
State Capture, sadly, wasn’t a film script and affected the lives of too many poor South Africans to be treated lightly. But as Hans Rosling pointed out in his book Factfulness, our brains are hard wired for drama. We’re instinctively attracted to the grand narrative, with larger than life villains who must face the consequences.
“Uncontrolled, our appetite for the dramatic goes too far,” Rosling wrote, “prevents us from seeing the world as it is and leads us terribly astray.”
In reality, the story of cleaning up corruption in South Africa is far from over. It can be extremely demoralising to see the poor governance it has bequeathed us with everywhere: in the ANC, in the SOEs, in the main opposition parties. The great challenge in the forthcoming election won’t be whether or not the ANC will lose. It will be the manner in which it is fought and the impression that the behaviour of our current leaders leaves in the minds of voters.
There’s a strong expectation the elections will see depressingly low voter turnout. Disillusioned citizens cannot be blamed for looking from one party to another and seeing no appeal in any of them. In addition, it’s extremely likely that this election will be a misinformation war, as voters are bombarded with relentless propaganda via social media. The battle for short term political gains will make cynics of us all.
And this is arguably the greatest threat South Africa faces. It’s not just that we run the risk of letting in populism by the back door, it’s that 2019 will be another blow to the sense of optimism that once gripped the nation and which its people deserve.
What is the “factful”, hopeful, choice for optimists if we want to put the drama of State Capture behind us? Punish the ANC, and we risk strengthening the anti-Ramaphosa faction within the party, heralding a return to the glory days of looting. What then? Trust the inexperience of the red berets or a formal opposition which seems determined to squander goodwill by suing itself into oblivion?
Viewed from a certain prism the rational thing to do is follow the example of the French when given the choice between Emmanuel Macron and Marine le Pen andtenir le nez. Hold your nose and vote in the yellow, black and green. Is there a path back to rehabilitation for the ANC? It’s certainly not fair, the party deserves to be punished for the extreme inequality that plagues the country it governs and its reluctance to hold leaders to account.
Can we bring ourselves to admit that some of its members may still be the best people for the job?
Much has been written comparing the behaviour of Nhlanhla Nene, for example, to Tom Moyane or Malusi Gigaba or even JZ himself. Nene, caught out for misleading the press about the number of times he visited the Guptas, resigned. Would we accept Nene’s return to politics based on his reputation as a bulwark against the excesses of the Presidency?
Right now the leaders that South Africa really needs are those who are able to “cross the floor” and understand that the long-term solutions to South Africa’s problems cannot be solved by populist politics or short-term capitalism. We need a new politics, and a new economy to go with it.
Stephen Grootes wrote about the legacy of cadre deployment on the civil service and SOEs. I would go further and say that cadre deployment isn’t just a problem because it has prioritised political allegiance above competence. The greater problem is that it destroys the possibility for an independent civil service, full of flawed human beings of varying levels of competence, but who put service to the public ahead of personal gain. Those people, with that commitment, are there in large numbers. Can we give them a reforming voice too?
It is, perhaps, too much to hope for a government of national unity, ready to be neutral in all things, but reform could start there. And those of us outside politics must work to cultivate the leaders that the country deserves in the future. We have to bring ourselves to look beyond the drama, and acknowledge the facts about what is needed next.
As business leaders we do this demonstrating, in the way we do business and the way in which we engage government, that we want to build a country which has put the horrors of racism and extreme inequality behind it. If we can show that we understand this is the best outcome for everyone — including the politically connected or economically privileged — maybe then we’ll get the politicians who can help deliver it.
To return to the ancient Greeks, and the rhetorical arts that we will see out in force over the next few months, we don’t need leaders practised in the art of pathos— the ability to appeal to the emotions. What we need are leaders who can engage with logos(logic) and ethos(character). We’ve had them in the recent past. Can we find them again? DM