At one point, after the first industrial revolution, and at least until the middle of the 20th century, there was a job called a knocker-upper. In Britain someone would walk around the village every morning, and knock on the windows of homes to wake people up so they could get to work on time. Then at some future point alarm clocks became more reliable and ubiquitous. The alarm clock was a step into the future.
It is difficult, at the best of times, to be optimistic about South Africa’s future. A few years ago, Justice Malala wrote that South Africa had begun its decline. At more or less the same time I, too, speculated (on these pages) about what I described as lost hope for the country’s future. There has been no shortage of predictions and speculations about the country’s future. It is very difficult to disagree with the most negative of statements, forecasts and speculations.
The difficulty is compounded when commentaries or speculations and forecasts of imminent collapse emanate from eternal Afro-pessimists, those people who lost power in 1994, and who harken back to the day when they were in charge. These are the “we-told-you-so” and “take-your-money-and-get-out-while-you-can” crowd. I try to ignore them, as best I can.
Nonetheless, almost five years since writing the commentary/opinion, I have no faith in South Africa’s future — I have found no reason to change my mind. At the time, my observations were based on parallels and homologies between political-economic policies and patterns in South Africa, and those I observed first hand in Guyana — and to a lesser extent in Haiti. Writing the piece was one of those times when you wish you were wrong. I should stress, also, that I tend to stay away from predictions about the future; I leave that to economists, financial planners, boardwalk fortune-tellers and prelates.
Come back to see the future
I recently came upon a piece written by Prince Mashele, (described as the Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research) in which he drove home the point, in his characteristically strident manner, that South Africa “is just another African country, not some exceptional country on the southern tip of the African continent”.
The stand-out passage of his commentary is this: “What we need to do is to come back to reality, and accept that ours is a typical African country. Such a return to reality will give us a fairly good idea of what SA’s future might look like.”
When I read Mashele’s piece, I was reminded of something written by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in 1940. He said England was most fortunate a country, and that the English had “always reached the future first”. Paradoxically, and instead of repudiating the past, England held on to it, without being held hostage to it, and displayed the “past in full force”. Ortega y Gasset praised the English for “possessing” their past, for being at ease with it, and for being able “to continue one’s yesterday today without thereby ceasing to live for tomorrow; to live in the real present since the present is only the presence of past or future, the place where the past and future actually exist”.
I remembered Ortega y Gasset’s comments when I read Mashele’s article on South Africa’s need to “come back” to have a glimpse of the “future”. To the extent that it is possible, imagine development and modernisation on an unproblematic linear trajectory. This imaginary goes something like this. At one point, after the Industrial Revolution, and at least until the middle of the 20th century, there was a job called a knocker-upper. In Britain someone would walk around the village every morning, and knock on the windows of homes to wake people up so they could get to work on time. Then, at some future point alarm clocks became more reliable and ubiquitous. The alarm clock was a step into the future.
Among African countries, South Africa reached the future first
Now imagine a country like South Africa, which by the end of the 20th century, had the most developed economy, the best road, rail and telecommunications networks, the cleanest water supply and the most efficient electricity generation (though uneven distribution) in Africa. Imagine this as an advance, or a modernisation from impassable roads, lack of potable water, erratic electricity supply and a general state of under-development to a future where things are, generally, better. To the extent that moving from candle-light to electricity, or from no roads to some of the best road networks in the world, represents a step forward, it may be considered as a step towards the future.
In this sense, when compared with the rest of African states (not the people), South Africa had reached the future first — as Ortega y Gasset wrote of England in 1940. But there is a problem in that South Africa is, actually, moving “back,” as Mashele wrote, and has become “just another African country”. As a parenthetical point, I don’t recall a time when South Africa was not an African state. This discussion is essentially about development, modernisation and “movement” into the future. Surely it is a twisted mind that believes a shift from candle-light or paraffin-lamps to illumination by electric bulbs is not a step forward (into a future).
And so, South Africa seems to have regressed and turned its back on the future. Other than the financial sector, the South African Reserve Bank and the National Treasury, South Africans cannot rely on state-of-the-art medical, technological, scientific, infrastructure, energy generation, the provision of potable water and roads free of banditry and lawlessness. In this sense, South Africa is, as Mashele suggests, “just another African country” and we have to accept this reality.
Whereas Ortega y Gasset praised England for avoiding revolutionary ruptures and preferring instead to embrace its present, and go boldly into the future. I’m not sure what he would say about Brexit. Never mind.
South Africa, it seems, remains hostage to its iniquitous past. I should add, in haste, that this is not to suggest we should forget the past and move on… Life must be understood by looking back, but it has to be lived forward. In South Africa, a growing number of revolutionary populists would insist on reaching into the past to mete out punishment for wrongdoings of over 300 years (and there is no getting away from the very many injustices), as part of their passage to some prelapsarian paradise.
While there is talk of more purposeful implementation of the recommendations of the National Development Plan 2030 (which surely is a turn towards a better future), factions in the ruling elite, apparently in cahoots with the Economic Freedom Fighters and the National Union of Metalworkers, want to take the country back to something akin to the Bolshevik Revolution — when the future looked bright.
Indeed, American journalist Lincoln Steffens summed up the general sentiment in the Soviet Union during the 1920s when he said:
“I have seen the future and it works.”
The American economist Walt Rostow, who produced the “Non-Communist Manifesto” in 1960, was not exactly enamoured with communism, yet he envisioned future convergence between the American and Soviet models. We know how that worked out. The Soviet model has collapsed, and the American model is on life support.
And so, there is often very little reason for optimism in South Africa. One of the first lessons I gave young journalists more than three decades ago was to understand, as best they could, the difference between politics and government; between what politicians say, and what the government does. For now, President Ramaphosa may have emerged from the past weekend’s gathering of the ANC with a bounce in his step, but the decline that Justice Malala wrote about, Prince Mashele’s reality check — as well as the next episode of load shedding, a child drowning in a pit latrine, the dire state of STEM education in the face of a future that will be dominated by robotics, artificial intelligence and advances in information technology, physics and medical technology — suggests, at least in my mind, that South Africa has turned its back on the future. DM