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A Strategic Mistake?

A Strategic Mistake?

Outsiders have little right to judge strategic decisions made by insiders who, having the inside track, do all the political running. But for what it is worth, an outsider opinion from distant sidelines may offer considerations which when weighed, might be worth taking into account (just don't say it aloud?).

The issue up for discussion isn't a small matter: whether SA should adhere to its inherited rule-of-law, a western concept guiding personal and property rights; or whether such rule should be ignored, in favour of something much more strong-armed?

It doesn't get more fundamental than this. For now the ruling majority is stuck with its Rainbow Constitution, probably unable in the short term to muster the two-thirds majority required to set it aside, or “transform” it out of recognition.

But if impatient, and unwilling to wait for a distant future moment of political realignment granting such a critical majority, it is still possible to get around the issue by simply appointing the “right” people as judges, after which rubber stamping of chosen policies by a next generation becomes a possibility.

With agricultural land policies, a media tribunal & “transformed” universities next on the rubber stamp list, with more institutions to follow in their wake?

At which point politics and life generally would no longer be quite what it has been in our young democracy unused to so much freedom as known in only very recent years.

Instead one is reminded of Putin & his Russian oligarchs, as well as many other countries around the world, today and also in pre-modern eras.

There was a moment in the early 1990s where budding Russian oligarchs had the chance of a lifetime, able to “steal” hundreds of billion rubles worth of state assets for a fraction of their intrinsic value. That clearly wasn't according to strict Westminister Rules. But the moment came and offered itself, and a few score grabbed the opportunity.

But low & behold Vladimir Putin, charming his way to Presidential power in the 1990s, and ere long having to stare down his out-of-control oligarchs. His chosen tool? Stealing right back some of those stolen state assets, in the process making a few examples out of targeted individuals, as an example to others thinking out of line. The message: stay out of politics which is my domain; but do understand I can enter your domain at any time, with the weapons of choice all mine.

So abandoning the rule of law, and eventually even a negotiated constitution is not a small matter. Every country and every elite will have its reasons, were it to make such a fateful decision. What would South Africa’s be in the 21st century? 

One notices in political dialogue a certain fatigue, and this extending deep into society, covering all walks of life. This matter of being saddled with each other in terms of the 1994 deal, but as with all real life marriages this not being truly something that will necessarily survive adversity.

Truth be told, for all to see, that 1994 event was a bit of a shotgun wedding. Everyone realising they had confronted each other to a standstill, nobody wanting to give up, yet this promising a very costly & prolonged conflict. Instead, statesmen of the hour cut the Gordian Knot and decided to reconcile, a much less costly proposition, or so it seemed.

It was agreed that South Africa belonged to all its people who lived in her. That the simple majority, not a qualified one, would rule. That personal rights were to be guaranteed by a constitution. And after that we were invited to eke out a future, to the best of our abilities, but with special attention to those who had been historically disadvantaged.

And for a while, say the first 10-15 years, this was the main storyline.

But three things happened that started to inject something quite different into the proceedings.

Firstly, there was the impatient & ambitious wish to change the country into a much fairer proposition than the past had ever endeavoured. This meant uplifting the poor & previously disadvantaged at a rapid clip, an agenda that whetted political aspirations, expectations & sense of entitlement.

Secondly, there was the clear failure to fully mobilise all of society behind an united effort to achieve a quick, impressive development breakout, able to provide the resources implied in the impatience & promises of the first observation.

The divergence between wants & means started early and grew steadily wider, to the point of delivering only for a very narrow connected elite, while the great majority had to accept a stagnant development reality with zero prospects, except minor handouts from a very rich centre.

The third dimension started to come into focus over the past decade, with the state unable to master adequate capacity to deliver, frightening off private risk capital, in the process making a crisis-prone and consequently global lost decade far worse domestically, and this increasingly inviting radicalisation of our politics, in a minor way to the Right, and in a very major way to the Left.

In the process, something very precious seemed to be lost. In a society known for very long for its confrontational ways, politically, socially and also economically, toleration was something very new and precious in our midst, invited in as part of the Rainbow Deal.

But as in any human relationship, adversity is difficult to live down. The greater the adversity & hardship, the easier a parting of the way becomes. And here we have to distinguish between absolute hardship (famine) and relative hardship (broken promises, failed ambitions, blocked arteries).

As time went by, and the collective disappointment deepened, one senses a loss of toleration, an unwillingness to stick with agreed rules, an inclination to rewrite the basic conditions of engagement.

Whatever protection was afforded by common understandings appeared to be weakening. In its place came something quite different. This basic question as to why certain people were still in certain positions? Why certain people were still here among us? Why certain people had not been punished more for their past misdeeds?

This deeper sense of seeking revenge for wrongs imposed.

This was quite different from the rules of engagement of an earlier generation, willing to fight for certain rights and prepared to die for it. If needing reminding, which increasingly the younger generation may be in need of, read up the things Nelson Mandela pledged from the dock back in the early 1960s.

Or is what then applied no longer convenient, and it is possible to move on?

The irony, already alluded to, is that this deep sense of disillusionment and wish for scapegoats, reminding of sniffers of old in rural pastures, has been entirely self-inflicted by the present generation. True revolutionaries will have welcomed such failure, for it meant a collective anger could come into being that could cleanse more effectively the foreign unwanted elements, including all western cultural vestiges, in favour of more traditional indigenous ones.

True humanists, adherents of democracy, will decry such sentiments, taking a much broader view of modernity in which tolerance of diversity prevails. But there are much narrower cultures that prefer to eject foreign influences, and their moment may come at times of hardship & disappointment.

In relative terms, when comparing with some other nations, either in modern or past times, South Africa today can hardly profess hardship, despite its 45:55 insider/outsider divide and extreme income, wealth & opportunity chasms.

But absolutes hardly matter when minds have been inflamed, hatreds flourish, deeds go unpunished, and where relative slights steadily balloon until truly overshadowing all else.

Not everyone has acquired such a radicalised mien. Those making the loudest noise certainly have, and may today have increasingly more followers, yet there remaining large pockets of tolerance. Something that can also today be observed inside Europe regarding Muslim refugees & other migrants from elsewhere.

South Africa finds itself on an increasingly slippery slope. Electing leaders whose notions of modern management are quaint, progressively losing the confidence of critical skills & capital, and leading the country ever deeper into a collective quagmire while promoting ambitions & aspirations among the broader populace that are quite legitimate, but out of tune with their ability to deliver, instead inviting growing anarchy.

Aikona, South Africa, this will lead to deeper tragedy, not to upliftment and a better life for all, presumably still the true wish of all.

We may have a very special civil society, better, stronger than in other parts of the world (or that Zim ever had), a major force with energy to defend its ideals, an important, critical corrective of things going wrong.

Also, like the American constitutional dispensation, we have fine checks & balances that make for a self-correcting system over time, even after the greatest missteps, something sadly lacking in ancient governing systems.

But our President has probably a few too many degrees of freedom under the Constitution in appointing anyone to his liking, with opposing actions possible only in response to misdeeds, through the courts, potentially saddling us with far too many inappropriate people in leading positions if these weren't appointed first & foremost with the interest of the country in mind.

Take a deep breath, South Africa, and reexamine the motives & ways of achieving stated goals. The contradictions are obvious, but none are so blind & deaf as those who don't want to hear or see. Is that the legacy to be bequeathed to future generations?

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