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Reflections on Openness

28 March 2022

The rock you focus on is the one you crash into

I am not much of a mountain biker, but one thing I learned very early in my few outings on a mountain bike is that the more you focus on the rocks on your trail the more likely you are to crash into them. The alternative is not to ignore them, but to observe them and then identify the pathway around them – focusing your energy and attention on where you want to go rather than what you want to avoid. Of course, this is easier said than done, especially because failure typically comes at a painful cost so it tends to dominate your conscious mind; but the more you do it, the more you are able to rely on your sub-conscious mind to navigate you around the obstacles so that you can look further ahead and become increasingly adept at finding the right path that leads you safely on your journey. I believe that this is a particularly apt metaphor for us in South Africa at a point in our history for which there is no precedent, at least not in my living memory (I am 51 years old).

Lenses for viewing South Africa

Much of the writing about our current circumstances focuses either on our manifold problems and challenges, while a lesser – and possibly diminishing – proportion focuses on the steps being taken to tackle our problems. Focusing on the problems is really easy, because we hear so much about them and experience them so frequently in our daily lives. The list sometimes feels endless: deep and widespread corruption across both the public and private sectors; vast sums of money lost to State Capture; interminable loadshedding; high levels of violence (so high and entrenched, in the case of gender violence, that we have developed a social blind spot in our determination to ignore it); large numbers of unemployed youths whose lack of access to meaningful education has left them almost entirely excluded from mainstream society; roads that seem to grow more potholes with every rainstorm; polluted rivers and waterways; and an incumbent political party that has shown little to no interest in governing our country responsibly, combined with opposition parties that seem incapable of assembling any kind of meaningful political alternative – the list can seemingly expand for as long as one wishes to keep typing.

Despite this, there are occasionally journalistic efforts to document the steps that are being taken to solve some of our problems. Understandably, jaundiced South Africans seem derisively determined to dismiss any of these green shoots as meaningless but they are there nonetheless: a new commodities boom that has already delivered significant financial benefits to the South African economy and, given global geopolitical instabilities, can potentially persist much longer than most mainstream economists currently think; a resurgence of agriculture as a contributor to the economy during the COVID-19 lockdown; a growing list of successes in pursuing some of the beneficiaries of State Capture; reconstitution of the boards of several state-owned enterprises, leading to radical reductions in their dependence on the national fiscus; slow but steady progress on diversification of our energy supply and on the unbundling of Eskom; and sports teams that continue to defy the odds with their performances on the playing field.

These are the well understood aspects of our society that, from what I can tell, dominate our discourse. They provide a kind of ‘security blanket’ within which commentators feel exonerated that the social and economic direction of our country is following a slow (or sometimes not so slow), downward trajectory just as they had predicted it would. We might debate how much of what has happened to date was avoidable, but very few of our crises have been imposed on us by events that were beyond our collective control as a country. Whatever has happened in the last 15 years or so, we have truly done this all to ourselves (even if some unscrupulous international companies have helped along the way).

The growing influence of the Global

But what is new and lying beneath the surface of these ‘predictable’ trend lines is that global events over which we have no control will now influence us much more significantly than what we have done to ourselves in the last few years. The early signs of this came with the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, like other countries, we found it easy to blame the consequences of COVID-19 on our government’s actions, perhaps most bizarrely when the alcohol bans prompted outcries of how government was damaging the economy rather than honest reflections on why we have such an unhealthy relationship with the substance that it forms a keystone of our economy while its abuse fills our intensive care units with casualties.

But, looking around the world, everywhere that people are free to speak their minds, government-blaming for COVID-19’s effects has been so resounding and irrational that it seems to me safe to conclude that the real damage came from a natural phenomenon that was largely outside our control. In the long run, potentially as importantly as the economic and social damage that the pandemic has caused to date, it has also accelerated technological, economic, and political developments that we thought we had much longer to gets to grips with than we now do. This has wreaked untold damage, but it also began to introduce the whiff of an opportunity for a reset, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rebuild our society in ways that are inclusive, environmentally sustainable, healthier, and create meaningful work for everyone who wants it.

Unsurprisingly, though, as we have emerged from the latest COVID wave and felt a sense of relief that, just maybe, Omicron’s rapid journey through South Africa signals the end of the worst of the pandemic, we have retreated rapidly into the familiar (dis)comforts of life as it was before COVID-19. The events unfolding in the global North are rapidly going to jolt us back out of this (dis)comfort zone, though. Already, inflation had been growing steadily across the developed world (I don’t recall reading many predictions that South Africa’s inflation rate would, in early 2022, be lower than the global average) and there had been grudging acknowledgements that the inconvenience of global supply chain disruptions was not just a temporary phenomenon but presaged something deeper, longer, and potentially much more economically troubling than we wanted to admit. And then Russia invaded the Ukraine, and so, as with COVID-19, we will find ourselves again caught up in the gale-force winds of accelerated global change over which we as a country will have no control. I have read many analyses from newspapers around the world of what is happening, why it is happening, and how it will end, all of which have led me to one inescapable conclusion: no-one really knows. But I think there is compelling evidence that the global effects will be felt much faster and will be much more disruptive than media commentary currently suggests.

This is not like our past

When Apartheid ended in South Africa, many people felt despairing about the future of the country, as many do today. Many of those who could do so left the country for ‘greener’ pastures, as many are doing again (though their belief that those pastures are truly greener might be more shaken this time by the reality that the instabilities will not limit themselves to the southern tip of Africa). But, as we ushered in a democratic dispensation in 1994, we also became the darlings of the world, ‘proof positive’ that countries could solve their problems peacefully. And, as a result, we received help and support from everywhere as we tackled our challenges. This made us feel special but I think it also created a false sense of security. It papered over the cracks (deep fissures, really) in our society and I believe much of the help we received did more damage than good, certainly in the field of education in which I work (for reasons that will need a separate article to explain). I see strong parallels in how Western governments and companies engaged with South Africa and what happened in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as they pursued economic opportunities and pushed social agendas without really paying attention to what kind of political dispensation they were enabling through their naïve actions.

Different ways of viewing our future

This time it’s different, though, for South Africa. We are moving into a new phase of deep and persistent global instability and the rest of the world has no interest in our affairs. And again, we can pursue two broad scenarios. In scenario one, we continue down an accelerating pathway of social and economic decay, already burdened by our locally created problems and then being drowned by the tsunami of change that these global instabilities will unquestionably bring. We are all so well rehearsed in this scenario that it seems unnecessary to discuss it further.

Alternatively, in scenario two, we see, in these global instabilities and uncertainties, the seeds of our own redemption. Global inflation and increasing mistrust will accelerate the commodities boom and allow massive growth in our agricultural industry. As global supply chain disruptions deepen and widen, they create an opportunity to rebuild our self-sufficiency through investment in manufacturing and infrastructure, but this time for the whole country not just for a small segment of our population as happened under Apartheid. And we all double down on the early steps of diversification of our energy supply systems to harness the abundance of renewable sources of energy with which we are blessed. We recognize that we need to harness our full human capability and start to see unemployed youth as a solution to our problems of stagnant economic growth and not just as burden and a problem to solve. Thus, we use them to grow the economy rapidly instead of trying to absorb them into the limited economy we currently have. As part of this, we shift our education systems towards real learning, instead of delivery of the rigid, outdated curricula that dominate today. And, as we push ahead with the above, we take real steps to diversify the economy so that it is no longer dominated by small numbers of large companies but is instead driven by entrepreneurs and innovation (who, in all societies, exist in good numbers when they have the freedom to flourish). And, above all, we do this by recognizing our common humanity and our common destiny; it’s easy to fight amongst ourselves as we so like to do, but ultimately we can only succeed in this if we all succeed together.

Scenario two appeals to what makes me proud to be South African. When everything seems to be against us and everyone else has written us off, we have a unique ability to regroup, reorganize, and surprise everyone by what we can achieve. And the global shocks that we are witnessing, and that will gather significant momentum still, can be just the catalyst we need to shift our focus towards social success.

Where we focus is where we will go

As I learned in mountain biking, though, it is easy to give into fear and fixate attention on the rocks in our pathway, indulging in self-fulfilling prophecies about what will go wrong. It’s easier, at least in the short term, to relinquish our sense of agency and blame all the forces we can’t control for our hardships. But, then we are sure to crash into those rocks, as I learned the hard way on my bike. Alternatively, we can focus our energy and attention on where we want to go and then pedal steadily towards it. Doing this does not make the rocks magically disappear, but it shifts our energy and will move us in the direction we really need to go as a country. If, every time that every one of us feels tempted to proclaim on our woes and how they inevitably lead to disaster, we shift that energy to belief that this disaster is never inevitable and to consider how we can help to manifest the future we want, we will help to steer our country around the rocks on our journey. And, just maybe, if enough of us effect this shift of energy and focus in our own small ways each day, we might just surprise ourselves and the world by what we can achieve.