Defend Truth


We need complexity theory, not conspiracy theories


Jon Foster-Pedley is chair of the British Chamber of Business in southern Africa. He is also dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, and founder and chair of MBAid, which uses the energies of MBA and executive education in business schools to help SMEs and NGOs.

The moment we sanctify Cyril Ramaphosa and demonise Ace Magashule, we’ve fallen straight into the old hole of reducing everything to a binary equation.

State Capture, as we know it, took 10 years to fully metastasise into the kleptocracy that is currently being unpicked in the various Commissions of Inquiry. Like a cancer, we know too now that this wasn’t a single aberration, but rather a Hydra-like syndrome; from the Guptas to the Watsons, with lesser larcenies and personalities interwoven along the way.

It took a decade to get to this point, but the public angst and rising impatience demands almost instant, millennial-esque solutions. There won’t be. In fact, there can’t be, not if we want to seriously get to the bottom of what happened to prevent it ever happening again and give ourselves the best chance of addressing the yawning Gini co-efficient between the ostentatious elites and the desperate masses that is coming to define us more and more.

To do this though takes hard work, it means seeing beyond the very syndrome that got us here in the first place. Rather than looking for conspiracy theories with one criminal mind orchestrating everything, we should be applying complexity theory. Conspiracy theories are easier though, they’re part of the reason we got into this mess in the first place. Conspiracy theories posit a mastermind, an arch enemy who immediately becomes the target feeding our natural impulses to find this societal threat and destroy it. Our impulses are triggered by our craving for emotional clarity to counter our anxiety, by giving us something to vector all our frustrations and fears onto.

All of this creates an enormous opportunity for malign operators to step in and obfuscate, demonising debate outside of accepted parameters. It’s a proven psychological mechanism to objectify a threat and externalise it. Because we don’t have the skills to think systemically about multiple perspectives, we immediately switch off our logic and let our primal instincts kick in as we try to make meaning in a chaotic world.

We know all about this in South Africa where the apartheid regime was buttressed by this precept: first swartgevaar (the black peril) and then rooigevaar (the red peril). Once we were liberated democratically, Hoggenheimer of the 1920s was reincarnated as White Monopoly Capital (WMC). Each time, anyone who doesn’t buy into the new mantra is dubbed a traitor to the cause. There’s fertile ground in South Africa for this at the moment; we have a lot of unhappy people, a lot of them desperately poor, all of them suffering. Channelling their anger in this way gives them agency which life otherwise denies them, but while this might be politically expedient it’s incredibly destructive for a society because it allows the manipulators to get away with anything – like legitimising industrial scale corruption and corporate collusion for example.

The other mistake we keep making is to objectify our leaders. As long as we create Marvel-esque arch villains, we will need to create superhero leaders invested with superhuman powers to vanquish them. It’s the Boris Johnson effect, people will forgive you anything; your peccadilloes, your wealth, your lusts and your appetites – if you give them hope. But the moment we sanctify Cyril Ramaphosa and demonise Ace Magashule, we’ve fallen straight into the old hole of reducing everything to a binary equation.

In this two-dimensional world, we externalise and objectify the situation and we don’t just disengage our thinking but also our agency. We allow ourselves to think that we can never become leaders in our own right because we have made the leaders that we have far too big and diminished our own opportunities to follow a path of leadership. By putting them on pedestals we allow them to break their links with the people, completing the endless cycle of the post-apartheid caste system of elites; who now tell themselves: “I’ve broken the spiral of poverty, I’ve broken out of the township, now it’s my time to eat”, but it’s all done on the backs of the people they have been ostensibly elected to serve.

A great leader can never do that, because a great leader serves humanity, not the other way around. Seeing people as humanity means not running away from our own shadows and never trying to perfect ourselves by externalising our weaknesses onto others. We need instead to create a nation of leaders who have walked that path with the communities they represent, who eschew the mansions and the blue lights and who fly economy as a rule to keep themselves accessible. They lead people around a sense of their own responsibility.

So, how do we start fixing the situation we are in? For a start we need to ruthlessly chart the cause and effect of how we got here and then we need to visualise the goal that we need to strive for. Lowering the Gini co-efficient is a robust enough goal to handle the vagaries of complexity theory, which is based on the premise that you can plan much, but there’s much that isn’t planned; much that is emergent, that you can never anticipate.

Complexity theory works on the basis of increasing probabilities, rather than certainties. It’s a bit like using a GPS versus a road map. If someone digs a canal across your road you can get totally disorientated, but a GPS never loses sight of your ultimate destination. It’s a bit like our insistence on teaching maths and science for the sake of it rather than understanding that we need to teach problem solving from a very young age, because if we become more resourceful, we won’t have to keep throwing resources at issues.

If emergent prosperity is our ultimate destination, we realise it’s built on multiple factors: a really good understanding of cause and effect, of economic fundamentals and of the importance of good understanding. It needs to be underscored by the realisation that the old model of continuous growth for the sole benefit of elites is both physically and morally unsustainable.

The one thing we don’t need is Rambo-like leaders; we do need leadership with meaning and purpose. A great example is what is happening in New Zealand at the moment with the recent introduction of the Wellness Budget. It’s a fantastic example of an alternative model, it’s probably full of flaws, but it is constructed on totally different parameters: a thriving society, mental health, quality of life, security… All of those are now measurable, as well as finance.

New Zealand might not become the richest country in the word, but it could well end up as the nicest place in the world to live – but then they won’t need so much money because they won’t have to sustain a hyper-paid elite. We could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of their book. DM

Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.


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