Defend Truth


On marginal gains made and revolutionary imaginaries of perfection in South Africa


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

A few years ago, I stood beside a student on campus. We looked at a slogan, high up on the main building: ‘For Tomorrow.’ The student shrugged, and said, ‘We are hungry today.’ I walked back to my car and wondered: when does tomorrow matter?

Of all the things that stand in the way of making South Africa a better place for all is the twin problem of sequencing and prioritising: which single policy is more important than another, and what policy and implementation steps should follow.

Important as that might be, there is an important, sometimes practical and almost always philosophical issue that we may place ex ante. This, presented as a question, is whether we have to wait for total perfection and ignore or dismiss incremental, apparently discrete marginal gains?

It was reported over the past few days that Saudi Arabia was going to send Rayyana Barnawi, a breast cancer researcher, on a space mission later this year. It would be the first time that the kingdom has sent a woman astronaut on a mission to the International Space Station.

The responses across a range of media were predictable. Most notable were voices about the lack of women’s rights in day-to-day Saudi society, and the implication that creating a perfect society, with all rights to all women and equal protection under the law at home, ought to take precedence over sending a woman into space.

Here is an example of two things being true at the same time: what vested interests (ideological, scientific or other solidarity groups) believe to be more important, and what the Saudi government ought to focus on.

Should the government not invest in breast cancer research, not send a woman into space because women across the country are denied rights? A vexing question. It should be stated over and again, that men have no business, rights or obligations to make decisions over women’s bodies, voice and representation.

Anyway, this apparent tension between the desire for total perfection and/or incremental gains will probably never be resolved. It is at the centre of all politicking, with politicians and political parties almost always promising more than what they can deliver by leading opinion towards “total perfection” and away from sufficing.

Marginal gains for a better future

It was refreshing, therefore, that Zackie Achmat, who intends to stand as an independent candidate in next year’s election, suggested that marginal gains (my words, not his) were necessary steps towards a better future.

“I don’t have a grand vision for the country. I’m not going to promise to end unemployment, because I think in our lifetime that’s virtually an impossibility…”, Achmat said.

In other words, if we focussed less on promising visions of perfection, and more on fixing the state, for starters, we may be on the right path. One counter-argument would be that the entire kit and caboodle ought to be overthrown in a massive revolution — never mind the details.

One of history’s most radical of revolutionaries, Mikhail Bakunin, accepted, in his Revolutionary Catechism, that there were short- and immediate-term objectives (of any revolution), which would be followed by one or more programmes of action towards a perfect utopian society. The details matter even to great revolutionaries…

For what it’s worth, the Bolsheviks should probably have listened to Leon Trotsky, when he warned that the marginal gains (my words) of socialism in one country (Russia), would not work until there was international socialism, the perfect utopia.

When does tomorrow matter?

What would anyone pick at any moment: marginal gains today or the promises of tomorrow? Do we have to suffice? Can we have a society where we are only halfway satisfied while others are more satisfied?

The answers to these questions are variable in time and place. At any given time and place, and in various permutations — combining forms of persecution mania, anxiety and notions of innocence and guilt — we always imagine that ours is the most painful plight, and that we are the most persecuted.

We run comparisons of misery and persecution as if it were a fairground attraction, and thereby seriously damaging real struggles against oppression.

It does not help that there are people among us who crave the time of injustice; the time when the enemy, or what was wrong with society, were so easily detected. We also imagine that what we suffer today is greater than the sum of all fears.

A few years ago, I stood beside a student on the campus of what was then Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. We looked at a slogan, high up on the main building on campus: “For Tomorrow.” The student shrugged, and said, “We are hungry today.”

I walked back to my car and wondered: when does tomorrow matter?

It takes a great effort, though it is not impossible, to place the expectations of tomorrow before the needs of today when today’s needs are painful, catastrophic or deadly. If satisficing is the art of the common good then satisficing is necessary.

The problem is, of course, that justice cannot be handed out in small measures at the whim and caprice of politicians. They need a vote today (to them a marginal gain), and the electorate, the publicum of public goods and services, expect a better tomorrow with its promises of imagined or actual perfection.

The idea of perfection is bigger than itself. The idea of a perfect society is intensely subjective. Almost everywhere in the modern world, except for remote monasteries, people rely on or at least look to the state to help secure a better society.

Road map shrugged

Some people would believe that individual efforts at personal enrichment and prosperity should not be constrained by a state or any authority. It’s not too much of a caricature to suggest that this group, ill-defined as they may be, here, would insist that the state remained neutral, that “the market” was always a better arbiter, and this would necessarily lead to optimal outcomes — never mind “negative externalities”.

What, to a second group, would be more important? Fixing the immediate problems caused by this “better arbiter,” chalk it up as a marginal gain, or overturning the idea and the practices of this arbiter and thereby reaching perfection? “Third way” politics might insist that it is possible to focus on tomorrow (with its promises of perfection), and ignore the problems of today.

Put in crude economistic terms, the market or political liberalism will, eventually, allocate resources in the best possible ways and laggards or the undeserving (“unreasonable” people) will be shaken out of the system. The best we can do, today, is satisfice because tomorrow will be better.

But, as the student reminded me, “we are hungry today”. As responses to the cancer researcher going to space would have us believe, women without rights in society (today) is a much more important and immediate concern than a woman going to space.

This returns us to the questions at the start. Which policies or processes should take precedence and be priorities, and what is the necessary sequence of policies? It is absolutely necessary to end hunger today, and tomorrow. It is absolutely necessary to remove men from decisions about the role, place, voice and bodies of women today and tomorrow. Where then, do we start?

Let us consider South Africa’s Constitution. It was, quite clearly, a marginal gain. Because of convenience, urgency, threats of violence, and decreasing alternatives, South Africans satisficed. In his evaluation of where we are as a country almost three decades later, retired Judge Dikgang Moseneke lamented the losses that followed our marginal gains of the mid-1990s:

“I conclude with a heavy heart that the revolution has failed. The quest to alter power relations in society in favour of the excluded and marginalised masses of our people has failed. The high political and social ideals of those of us who were part of our glorious Struggle have by and large come to nought.

“We all knew that we could not change the trajectory of inequality and poverty without a competent developmental state. We paid continuous lip service to the kind of state and governance we deserved and did little or nothing about it. Look at us now,” Moseneke said at a fundraising event in October last year.  

We have had the democratic republican Constitution for close to three decades now, and had to work our way to a perfect society, however elusive it may be. The promises that a revolution would be a perfect start suggest that we would have to reel back towards democracy.

A revolution would, itself, be a marginal gain because the perfect utopia remains elusive — until someone can provide evidence or a template of durable and intergenerational success. In fact, nobody has explained, not with any confidence or sincerity, what exactly would happen on the day after the revolution. Surely there will be a day after the revolution.

In Beloved, a marvellous novel on the awful legacies of slavery in the US, the writer Toni Morrison wrote about the debilitating effects of past traumas and regrets, and about a time after the present day. In the novel, the protagonist, Sethe, is controlled by emotions of guilt and depression (associated with past deeds). Paul, a former slave, urges Sethe not to let past regrets control her life: “We got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.”

It seems tomorrow matters. If then, we could only get past the hunger of today, or women’s rights, perhaps then we can have tomorrow and a woman, a breast cancer researcher, no less, into space. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Lagardien presents a false choice. There can be elements of both short- and long term at the same time, in fact must be. Good management requires developing a long term perspective, which forms constraints on short term actions for the sake of consistency. If you know chess, you will appreciate that the aim is not merely to take opposing pieces, but at the same time to develop strategically. Poor management lacks the strategic and becomes fire-fighting. Eskom anyone?

    • John Cartwright says:

      That’s exactly the conundrum that he’s grappling with.

    • Bruce Sobey says:

      Good comment. For instance take Elon Musk. He sells the long term objective, so people know where they are going to. But at the same time he makes detailed plans, and takes concrete small iterative steps, to achieve the objectives.

  • Lisbeth Scalabrini says:

    I am not sure if my comment has much to do with what you have written, Mr. Lagardien, as yours above is philosophical and mine is pragmatic.
    SA is in a deplorable state because the governing elite never thought ahead: Complete lack of maintenance and protection of valuable assets like working post offices, railways, electricity and saving for tomorrow instead of spending much more on public officials, ministries every year etc.

  • Peter Utting says:

    Today and yesterday are a human invention. Time is only a measure of what has existed and what will exist. The only place to be is now – in the moment.

    God does not exist in the moment! A figment of human imagination.

    I don’t believe in anything. If I don’t know, I find out. When I find out I know. I cannot believe that which I know.

  • William Stucke says:

    Talk of “revolution” is misplaced. I can’t think of a single (political, as opposed to technical) revolution that has improved the lot of society as a whole, in the medium term. or really, in the long term either.

    Generally, some people die, and we swap leaders. How does Joe Public benefit?

  • Rudd van Deventer van Deventer says:

    Lots of words!
    Essentially Ismail was never taught about the ‘Little Red Hen’, working today to provide for tomorrow.
    South Africa does not require a revolution and talking about one is irresponsible.
    Civil Servants are paid to do a job, they need to be fired if they do not know how to do their job or are too lazy to learn.
    Why bring in the Constitution? It has nothing to do with a bunch of fat cats intersecting every government transaction for their cut. This is not Democracy’s fault! It is a profound lack of leadership, imagination, ethics and putting the Party (ANC) ahead of the people.
    It is time for a change, YES, ANC out, that is not a revolution but might bring out some surprisingly good results.

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