Indicators and Possibilities of Progress – by Prof Muxe Nkondo
Whether our problems will ever get to zero is a problem we will always worry about. Even if we make much progress, we will surely discover more hazards to rectify and new ways to enrich our lives and deepen our democracy.
Prof Muxe Nkondo, Chairperson, Collins Chabane Foundation and Rixaka Forum
If you follow headlines, South Africa appears to be sinking into corruption, violence, and chaos. But if you read closely, the trends beneath the skin of things, you discover that our democracy is becoming more vigilant and resilient. Such progress is no accident; it is the gift of a coherent and inspiring value system, a social imaginary that most South Africans embrace without even realising it.
With the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, the Arms Deal back in court, testimonies and representations before the Parliamentary Constitutional Committee on Land Expropriation without Compensation, the National Prosecuting Authority and the Hawks probing allegations of corruption in high places – all that after recalling two presidents in succession – the ANC-led government is giving democracy a chance. For all the gory headlines, lurid scandals of the high and mighty, unspeakable violence against women and children, sceptical Vision 2030 scenarios about a ‘floundering false dawn,’ there are accomplishments to savour (South African Scenarios 2030). The Constitutional Court processes are hegemonizing the rich tradition of ‘punishment and responsibility’ or ‘responsibility and fault’, and augmenting the rule of law (Hart, 2007; Honore, 1999; Sunstein, 2001).
Conflicts and contestations are channelled into consensus-building deliberative structures that allow government to circumvent flaws of human nature. Yet at the same time, millions live in extreme poverty. In poor communities, millions are malnourished, thousands die of AIDS, Grade 4 learners perform below international standards. Every year, hundreds are killed in car accidents, women and children raped, a number murdered. And one can only imagine how many people are clinically depressed, some of whom die by suicide.
Is the ANC-led government failing?
The United States of America suffers from more than three thousand hate crimes a year, and more than fifteen thousand homicides. Every year about 40 000 Americans become so desperately depressed that they commit suicide (Pinker, 2018). And, of course, the problems that span the entire globe are formidable. Almost every day a new study reports high and rising inequalities. The twentieth-century income distribution system has broken down. Oxfam estimated that in 2015 just about sixty individuals owned as much wealth as the bottom of humanity, against 388 individuals in 2010. These may be rough-and-ready estimates, but no one seriously questions the trend or order of magnitude (Standing, 2017).
My point in presenting the state of the world in this way is to emphasise that progress is not utopia, and that there is room – indeed, an imperative – for us in South Africa to continue the progress we have made since the democratic transition in 1994. If we can sustain the positive trends in the last twenty-five years, our situation will surely improve. Whether our problems will ever get to zero is a problem we will always worry about. Even if we make much progress, we will surely discover more hazards to rectify and new ways to enrich our lives and deepen our democracy. The ‘New Dawn’ is an ongoing process of discovery and progress.
- Sources and Forms of Resistance to Fundamental Change
- A serious threat to progress is the neo-liberal counter-movement that seeks to recolonise us in subtle ways: recolonization, sustained and carried by constellations of political, corporate, and knowledge elites. But isn’t it possible to make capitalism work for the many rather than the few? (Standing, 2017; Young, 2016). Perhaps the time is now to begin focusing on the central problem of neoliberal capitalism – the tendency of great wealth to transform itself into political power that corrupts the political process and generates policies, laws, and regulations favouring the rich – and suggest innovative and implementable solutions.
- The Fourth Industrial Revolution is ushering in an era of rapid communication as well as swift flow and exchange of ideas. But an opposite fear has risen, that the revolution provides too much development and freedom for the rich and information literate, as well as sophistication of inequalities against the democratic institutions that are designed to circumvent them. By valorising elite power – generated and sustained through elite knowledge corporate and political networks – the recolonization currents overlook the sovereignty of the people and the primacy of agency.
- Fortunately, by the design of the Constitution, power is mediated through a range of institutions. The President, for instance, is not a rotating monarchy. The President presides over a distributed network of power and influence that usher in individual leaders and carries out the business of government under real-world constraints which cannot be easily erased by reactionary and subversive forces or the willingness of “the big man.”
It includes elected legislators, who have to respond to constituents and lobbyists, judges with reputations of probity to uphold, and functionaries who are required for the management of their departments (Sunstein, 2001). Also constraining the President are provincial and local tiers of government, which are closest to the facts on the ground – involving, among other things, water, sanitation, housing, transport, electricity and security. The deeper question, however, is whether the reactionary forces, whatever the damage they do in the short term, represent the shape of things to come.
- As with climate change sceptics who claim to be vindicated by a cloud burst, it’s easy to over interpret recent events. For one thing, the anti-corruption campaign is a referendum on the ANC. It is a depth-sounding for a sustained commitment to the rule of law and the sovereignty of the people. But far more important than the political events, are the social trends that have fostered a strong democratic temper, and foretell the future. Most of all is the likelihood that the inclusive and deliberative practises, when they do what they are supposed to do, instil respect for vetted fact, reasoned consensus, and mutual recognition across differences of all sorts, and so innoculate people against cynicism and scepticism.
- The Case for Progress
- Over a century ago the ANC set in motion a tradition of deliberation and mobilisation to improve our situation. At the time, cynics and sceptics said, “It will not work.” But now we can say that it has worked against massive local and global forces: electoral democracy and the rule of law vindicating the possibility of progress by charting ways in which South African society has been getting better. Certainly, change that takes place at the same time scale of the headlines, will always show more downs than ups. However, the last twenty-five years have shown that solutions create new problems.
- The democratic surge manifested itself in a variety of ways. The overall picture is that of a sharp increase in political activity. The proliferation of opposition parties, by providing alternative policy positions, broadened political participation. These years, of course, also saw an upswing in other forms of political participation in the form of marches, strikes, protests, rolling mass action, demonstrations, “cause” organisations (such as Landless People’s Movement, privatisation, Nothing About us Without Us, E-tolls, Not In My Name, Rhodes-Must-Fall and Fee-Must-Fall movements).
The expansion of participation throughout society was reflected in markedly higher levels of self-consciousness and self-assertion on the part of workers, women, students, and the Khoisan – all of whom became organised in new ways in an attempt to achieve what they considered to be their appropriate share of citizenship and its rewards. The results of their efforts, however, were testimony to difficulties that the government has had in responding to pressures of these groups to assimilate into the political, social, and economic system in spite of attempts to incorporate members of those groups into political leadership structures. This concern over equality did not, of course, easily transmit itself into widespread reduction of inequality in society.
- The causes of persistent inequality in the last twenty-five years could conceivably be, first, either permanent or transitory, or, second, either peculiar to South African society or more generally pervasive throughout emerging post-colonial economies. The democratic surge, on the other hand, might be the result of deep-seated aspirations that are producing changes in the South African political consciousness and that are affecting other post-colonial societies. Or it could be the product of rapid social and cultural change or upheaval consequent upon the demise of apartheid, which in itself is transitory and whose political consequences will hence eventually fade – that is, it could be the product of immediate and not necessarily lasting results of change. In addition, given some of the similarities which appeared to exist between the political temper and movements of the last twenty-five years and earlier apartheid periods, especially in the seventies and eighties, it is possible that the democratic surge may be reflecting a dynamic working itself out on a recurring or cyclical basis, the product of a mixture of factors, permanent and transitory, specific and general (Nkondo, 2014; Hyslop, 1999, Zuerin, 2011).
- But when we stand back from these setbacks, we see that the indicators of progress are incremental and cumulative: none is cyclical, with gains reliably cancelled by losses. Fortunately, improvements build on one another. A more deliberative society can better afford to strengthen its political and social institutions, teach children, heal the sick, and house the landless and homeless. A better politically educated and deliberative society cares about poverty, unemployment, and socioeconomic inequality, indulges fewer corrupt individuals and politicians, no matter how mighty, wealthy and well-connected, and reduces racial, ethnic, and gender conflict.
- With the political power that we have accumulated over a century, underpinned by the Constitutional Court and a vigilant electorate, we should facilitate radical transformation of our social and economic order. Of course, apartheid legacies linger in a few benighted backwaters, but not even the most worrying worrywart or worry gut, not even the most vicious cynic, expects a comeback of apartheid.
- The South African Social Imaginary and the Index of Progress: Critical Elements
- How deeply have the currents of the struggle for freedom flown since 1912? Can they suddenly come to a halt or go in reverse? The history of democratic struggles provides an opportunity to confront these questions (Deonandan, 2007).
Of course, the numbers in a dataset cannot be interpreted as a direct read-out of the underlying risk of deepening poverty, intergenerational unemployment, and enduring injustice. The historical reality is scanty when it comes to estimating any change in the likelihood of progress. To make sense of sparse data in a world where history plays out once, we need to supplement the numbers with knowledge about the creative energies for the arduous struggle against recolonization, since, in the spirit of deliberative democracy, progress begins in the minds and hearts of men and women.
- South Africans derive normative order from a deep understanding of the nature of their society and humanity. Starting from precolonial times, this idea has come more and more to dominate our political thinking, and the way we imagine ourselves in the world. It starts off as a conception of what political society is, that is, what it is in aid of and how it comes to be. (The Freedom Charter, 1955; Taylor, 2007; Khoza, 2005; Asante, 1996; Battle, 2009; Boon, 2007).
- This philosophy justified the revolution against settler colonialism, which made this a moral imperative (Mandela, 1995; Tambo, 1987; Lembede, 1669; Luthuli, 1962, Plaatjie, 1996; Biko, 1996; Pogrund, 1990; Mbeki, 2015; Maharaj, 2001 ). Later on down the line, the notions of order, obligation, and solidarity were woven into strategies and tactics, including their relations to land, as reflected in the current policy shift to land expropriation without compensation. In the process, they came to be intricate with a wide range of basic needs and fundamental rights (The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996).
- To be sure, the norm is sometimes honoured in the breach. This would seem to confirm the cyclical view that until we have a fully inclusive democracy, deliberative processes are insufficient and will be flouted with impunity. But laws within a democratic society are flouted with impunity at times. Indeed, laws within a democratic society are flouted, yet an imperfect democratic law is much better than apartheid law, no matter how efficiently enforced. The demise of state legislated violence is still a magnificent example of progress.
- But not so long ago it was border wars, assassinations, and unmarked graves that were considered worthy to die for. Apartheid state killings were glorious, thrilling, spiritual, heroic, patriotic, manly – cleansing rituals and purgatives for apartheid warlords. Today, the idea that it is inherently noble for the state to kill strikes us as the raving of a lunatic.
- Access to information and Knowledge as a Measure of Progress
- The ability to access information, in a knowledge economy, is central to mastering the intellectual environment and as such is a fundamental part of the concept of progress. However, despite preliminary surveys of information literacy in South Africa, it has been very difficult to measure the extent of access to information in South Africa. Castells has made some preliminary efforts to estimate how many South Africans can access information through available technologies. Abundant data exists on basic literacy and numeracy, but they don’t feature as traits in the progress index. The evidence of how many South Africans can access information, and using appropriate technologies is fragmentary and open to competing interpretations; and the need to make allowance for the partialness of changes. What Castells is firm about is that information literacy in South Africa is higher than in other parts of Africa, but quite below that of advanced economies (Castells, 2003).
- The coup de grace is legislation that makes education free for the poor. And that brings us to yet another indicator of progress, the expansion of access to knowledge. The supernova of information and communication technology will continue to redefine what it means to be South African in the world today, and what it takes to make things happen.
- Measuring Progress in Social Relations
- Quick surveys on racism, sexism, ethnicity, and elitism over the past twenty-five years would show that these attitudes have undergone a fundamental shift toward tolerance and mutual respect, with institutional prejudices fading.
- No form of progress is inevitable, but the historical erosion of apartheid is more than a change in rhetoric. It seems to be pushed along the tide of inclusive democracy. In an increasingly inclusive society, South Africans rub shoulders, do business together, and find themselves in the same boat with other kinds of people, and that tends to make them more sympathetic to one another. Also, people are forced to justify the way they treat other people, rather than dominating them out of instinctive racist resentment, and any justification for prejudiced treatment will crumble under legal and social scrutiny. Certainly, these forces cannot prevail over the long term against the tug of the democratic surge.
- To be aware of our country and its history, of the diversity and the potential integration of cultures and knowledge systems, of the limitations and triumphs of our constitutional democracy – such awareness will truly lift us to a higher place of consciousness. It is a gift of belonging to a social imaginary, to a people with a long history of courage, vision, public integrity, and reverence for freedom.
- The Way Forward: Building a Capable Developmental State
- Government plays a critical role in the developmental process, and constantly introduces policies, laws, and reforms to direct and regulate fundamental change. However, some of these interventions have had limited impact. Policy implementation failures reveal gaps in capabilities, and shortfalls in the process of building a capable developmental state.
- Going forward, we should address these limitations and policy gaps. Systematically, we should start by providing evidence of the capability gaps that currently exist, and show that the state lacks the requisite level and kind of capabilities – particularly related to technically exploitable knowledge and work ethic. As a matter of urgency, we should describe, in explicit detail, an implementation process that government can use to escape the capacity gaps. Such a process would empower both the state and the people working in government to find and apply solutions to current implementation challenges. The implementation framework should be structured in a practical manner – translated into all the official languages – so that most people can apply appropriate tools and ideas to the capability challenges they face in their own contexts (Andrews, 2017).
- Beyond mere critique of policy failure, we should formulate a strategy and set of tactics and mechanisms that we believe offer a coherent roadmap for nurturing policy effectiveness. We should propose mechanisms that begin with generating locally nominated and prioritised challenges, and that work iteratively to identify effective implementation practices, in the process working with an expanding community of policy implementation practice to share and learn to scale. Such an intervention would be problem-oriented, collectively driven, iterative, outcomes focused. The intervention would provide a detailed description of the implementation realities, a pragmatic and sustainable approach to the challenges, and a collective commitment to building a broad-based social movement that can adapt and respond effectively to current and emerging policy challenges.
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