Clem Sunter

The chart that says it all 30 years later

2016-08-08 10:00

Clem Sunter

In July, 1986 I gave my first public lecture on the future of the world and South Africa. It was based on research done by two Anglo American scenario teams, one located in London and one in Johannesburg. We had two consultants, Pierre Wack and Ted Newland who were the finest scenario planners in the world at the time, overseeing the project.

The collective purpose of the two teams was to compose the narrative of unusual futures that might flow out of the trends identified in the mid-1980s. On the global front, the London team painted a scenario called ‘Imperial Twilight’ in which the intensification of the arms race between America and the Soviet Union would bankrupt the latter. It was therefore an unsustainable scenario and could lead to major surprises. History confirmed this scenario with the dismantling of the Soviet Union which happened in the early 1990s under the leadership of Gorbachev.

The two other scenarios they produced were ‘Industrial Renaissance’ where the revolution in information technology would continue unabated and be succeeded by a new wave around biotechnology. As a consequence, the world would experience a period of high economic growth into the next decade and further on into the new century. The last scenario they called ‘Protracted Transition’ where protection and the rise of nationalistic tendencies delayed the beneficial impact of the new technologies and caused the world economy to malfunction. That is more or less the state that we are in now.

However, the gem among the slides that I carried around with me in my briefcase related to the political evolutionary paths which South Africa could take. The chart was put together by two of my colleagues at Anglo’s head office in 44 Main Street, Michael O’Dowd and Bobby Godsell. They in turn drew their inspiration from a Frenchman named Edouard Parker who was an expert on country risk analysis and assisted the team. The chart is shown below:


I would now like to quote directly from the text of the book The World and South Africa in the 1990s which contained the chart as well as the entire content of my talk to audiences during those tumultuous times. It was published in 1987.

“In order to write scenarios, you have to build up a model which shows how the system is driven. This chart shows our engine room. On the vertical axis we have high, low and negative economic growth. On the horizontal axis the section on the left of the dotted line denotes a situation where the group dominates over the individual; the middle is a transitional period of unknown duration, and on the right you have a state in which the individual matters more than the group.

”The first thing to pick out on the chart are the two stars: these are wished-for states which will never come true. Many people would like to go back to ‘Old White South Africa’ with a high growth rate. This is not going to happen. Others would like South Africa eventually to become ‘Switzerland’, with its canton system: that will not happen either. In the end South Africa will draw up its own system which works for the people here.

“Now for reality. A crucial assumption of the model is that South Africa cannot go backwards. It will enter the transitional phase. But it is a hard and challenging voyage across the top of the chart, probably without precedent in history. The centrifugal forces, with the potential to rend this country apart, will be strong. Sacrifices will have to be made on all sides in the short term. In return the ‘common pie’ could grow at a rate which increases everybody’s standard of living in the long run.

“The chart implies that after the transition South Africa will be non-racial. Individuals will ally with one another on ideas rather than on the basis of groups. Nevertheless, group consciousness will remain as a factor as it does in any of the developed nations of the world (think of the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Cornish). It is as illegitimate to force people to drop their culture and background as it is to force people into ethnic groups. The degree to which an individual wants to associate himself with or disassociate himself from his background must be left up to him. He must have the freedom to decide.

“One potential disaster during the transitional process is a failure of economic growth for external or internal reasons. Such a shock could precipitate South Africa’s descent into the tragic cycle explained below.  South Africa goes round and round in the circle in the middle of the chart- each time wrecking the economy that much more.There is a small possibility of returning to the virtuous option, diminishing with each completed loop. The more likely alternative is for the country to be turned, after one or a few loops, into a military fortress isolated from the rest of the world. It can then descend into a regional conflict and eventually end up in a state we call the ‘Waste Land’. Growth will be negative, and some group- we do not know who- will emerge to dominate everybody else”.

Fast forward to August, 2016

That second parting of the ways shown on the chart is exactly where we are today. In last Monday’s column I said the following concerning the treatment of corruption: “The push back by the public is there and could be reflected in the outcome of the municipal elections this week. That could be a flag of note in terms of indicating the general degree of exasperation with the lack of commitment being shown by the authorities in handling this problem”.  The people have spoken and the political game has changed for the better as we enter an era of more competition and accountability.

In contrast, as good an indicator as you can get for future economic growth or lack thereof in South Africa is new car sales which recently hit a seven year low. We are in danger of undoing all the political progress we have made if we do not reshape our economy. Finding a new formula to do so requires an Economic Codesa based on putting the principles of the Freedom Charter into practice. Meanwhile, the newly elected municipalities can start the process from the bottom up.

Let’s do it. To repeat the final six words of the book in 1987, “it is only action that counts”.

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