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Moving South Africa from VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) to Vuka

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Dr Michael Kahn is Extraordinary Professor in the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University, and a member of the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Scientometrics and Science Policy.

What is evident is that if our political class declares something to be true, or possible, then true and possible it is. We can fly near the sun, just do so at night. The rand may fall, we can pick it up.

Newlyweds love to honeymoon at special places, with latter-day survivors wont to pilgrimage back to the site of their nuptial joys. Starting late 1991, the newlyweds of our detente gathered, honeymoon-style, at Mont Fleur near Franschhoek, to foresight scenarios for the new South Africa. With the benefit of 25 years of hindsight, it is time to check in again at Mont Fleur to reflect on the scenarios, and perhaps rethink.

Scenarios are valuable tools for enabling change. To this end, they must be plausible, defensible, and implementable visions of our VUCA world with its volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Digitally speaking, we live in interesting times.

Guided by facilitator Adam Kahane, with support from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and Shell, the newlyweds (including Trevor Manuel, Saki Macozoma, Vivian Taylor, Christo Wiese, Dorothy Boesak, Johann Liebenberg and Tito Mboweni) crafted four scenarios themed on feathered things: Ostrich; Lame Duck; Flight of the Flamingos; Icarus. Happily, a cooked goose was not on the menu.

Ostrich envisaged deadlocked negotiations; Lame Duck anticipated ineffective coalition rule; Icarus imagined unbridled populism. Flight of the Flamingos was the most positive scenario, and with some accuracy, foresaw the Mandela-Mbeki period of fiscal prudence and growth. It is worth noting that the Mont Fleur group included three future Treasury ministers.

Then two black swans disrupted the Mandela-Mbeki “class project”. The first black swan, driven by the Cosatu/SACP/ANCYL coalition of the wounded, swept President Mbeki from office while the second black swan deposited the global financial meltdown. The Flamingos were left to forage in a dustbowl. The black swans mated and laid an egg.

Hello Icarus.

Before discussing Icarus and his many-feathered thing, a detour to another Kahane scenario beckons. In 1996, the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology commissioned a scenario process to inform the Research and Technology Foresight study. Whence four scenarios: Frozen Revolution; Our Way is the Way; Innovation Hub; Global Home.

The first two imagined populism that would erode research and technology capacity and isolate the country. Our Way is the Way foreshadowed AIDS denialism; Frozen Revolution anticipated vanity projects, such as the emergent Pebble Bed Modular Reactor project and the Joule Electric car. The other two scenarios echoed Flight of the Flamingos – manage the fiscus, ensure rule-based governance, and innovation will flower locally and across Africa. Readers must accept this summary, as for reasons unknown, these scenarios are no longer flighted on the Department of Science and Technology home page.

Now Icarus. Paraphrasing Johnson and Shaw, populism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. This was, and remains the stuff of the Zuma administration, through which the coalition of the wounded fattened themselves on state patronage and looting. Populist rhetoric was released, ranging from thinly veiled xenophobia, racist nationalism, avowed ignorance of accounting principles to the invocation of notions such as Operation Phakisa, borrowed from Malaysia’s big fast results (BFR) programme.

No worries that Malaysia’s BFR starts with functioning entities and seeks incremental improvement, Operation Phakisa (hurry up) will take a dysfunctional entity and achieve big fast results. Really? Take a look at the lower quintile schools across the land and think Phakisa. That may be the wrong word. Vuka (wake up) might be more appropriate.

What is evident is that if our political class declares something to be true, or possible, then true and possible it is. We can fly near the sun, just do so at night. The rand may fall, we can pick it up. In truth, we are aboard Icarus’ magnificent flying machine, out in Mpumalanga where the sun rises. The Icarus craft that the Mont Fleur scenarios feared are the future nuclear power build programme and the National Health Insurance programme, with the ill-conceived Medupi and Kusile coal power stations waiting in the wings, so to speak.

Where then to find plausible futures, based on rigorous scenario thinking? Enter the National Development Plan. The NPC Diagnostic precursor told us what was going wrong: “Our Future” set out a roadmap of hope. You may recall Saatchi and Saatchi’s skewering of the British left in the 1978 elections via its “Labour isn’t working” billboard. It may be no accident that National Planning Commission (NPC) chairperson Trevor Manuel (and deputy Cyril Ramaphosa) appeared under the canny byline: “Our future — make it work”. Expropriation received no mention, while “land reform” appeared 49 times. Great! How?

Getting to work is a great ideal. The visionary NDP hinges on “backcasting” from the desired future, making limited use of grand scenario thinking.

Realism is provided via the demographic scenarios of the Actuarial Society of South Africa. Implementation is understood to require a capable state redolent of Argentine economist Raul Prebisch’s call for an intelligent state, comprised of “a lean but strong public sector, capable of defining overall orientations for national development and supporting the private sector rather than suffocating its dynamism”.

As the NDP explains, the capable state “…has to be built, brick by brick, institution by institution, and sustained and rejuvenated over time. It requires leadership, sound policies, skilled managers and workers, clear lines of accountability, appropriate systems, and consistent and fair application of rules”. Such construction takes time. Destruction of systems is quick. Watch the Zondo Commission.

So how do the Mont Fleur scenarios resonate? Ostrich and Lame Duck were cast aside by events, leaving but two ways to go, the high road or the low road, as futurist Clem Sunter reminds.

Sunter’s latest prognostications rate a low road, or cooked goose outcome with 10% probability. That is encouraging. What then the high road? That gets 60% probability, if the government shows leadership, rather than trading in signs and wonders.

Moving up the high road requires a higher gear (pun intended), that calls for corporatism of shared interests. But we cannot wait for a long hill climb. Fostering an environment in which employment expands can be effected now. For example: backcast the NDP goal of increasing the area under arable agriculture. Enforce land title, provide soft loans to farmers and restore extension services. Add new crops on new substrates, and grow we can. The R&D and extension capacity to do this exists in part, so grow it we must.

New universities such as Mpumalanga and older ones like Walter Sisulu could be capitalised to meet these challenges, attracting agricultural skills from far and wide. Call this engaging with the potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution if you wish.

A last disclaimer: remember the goose that laid golden eggs. If the goose is cooked, no more eggs. DM

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