Clem Sunter

Looking over the edge of a cliff

2012-10-10 14:08

Just over a year ago, Chantell Ilbury and I were giving a 70% probability to South Africa staying in the Premier League, 30% to a peaceful decline into the Second Division and zero to a Failed State. With the tabling of the Secrecy Bill, we changed to 50% for Premier League, 40% for Second Division and 10% for Failed State. Gagging the media would remove an essential pillar of democracy, precipitate a massive increase in corruption and terminate our brand of being a model for the rest of Africa to follow. Accordingly, we went more negative.

With the Marikana tragedy ushering in a period of industrial turmoil which, aggravated by the lack of service delivery, can escalate into a full-blown South African version of the Arab Spring, we have revised the probability yet again. While we are keeping Premier League at 50%, we now have amended the chances of a peaceful versus violent, anarchic decline from 40:10 to 50:50 and therefore accord the Second Division and Failed State scenarios each a 25% probability.

We have been saying for several months that South Africa shares the same characteristics as those existing in all Arab countries that have experienced or are experiencing a popular uprising: an abnormally high youth unemployment rate; combined with active social networks; combined with a growing alienation towards the state by young people. All these uprisings were triggered by a random event and maybe in our case it was Marikana. One senses a change in mood among the workers in this country. They no longer trust authority whether that authority is exercised by employers, the unions or the government. If that deep distrust and anger continues and merges with the total desperation felt by the unemployed, then we have a recipe for a revolution which nobody in authority will be able to control.

Hence, it would be foolish for Chantell and myself to continue backing peaceful decline into Third World status as our favourite downside scenario. Events of the past few weeks have shown how quickly the wheels can come off when the mood turns ugly. However, we are at pains to emphasise that the incidents so far are relatively isolated and we are still a long way from the violence that engulfed Libya and is destroying Syria.

The whole point about scenarios is to recognise when the chandelier in the ballroom is beginning to tremble. The way we are programmed is to stick our heads in the sand and go on enjoying the party until the lights go out. Like everyone else, neither Chantell nor I wish to raise the probability of a terrible outcome. But the flags say otherwise and the purpose of flags is to take emotion out of our judgement on the probabilities of desirable and undesirable futures.

We are still holding the odds at 50:50 on Premier League versus Second Division and Failed State. We still maintain that the country is at a tipping point where it can tip either way. What we are saying, though, is that the penalty for not tipping in the right direction has just become a lot more extreme. Have we as a people got a sense of crisis to remedy the situation? You decide.

As for Chantell and I as two seasoned scenario planners, we sense a perfect storm approaching which could blow us over the edge of the cliff. All around the world, inequality is increasing as technology drives a stake through traditional job creation and human greed ensures the rich get richer. South Africa just started higher up on the inequality scale. We need a new economic accord which gets rid of the waste, inefficiency and corruption. We cannot afford it anymore. We need to tighten anti-monopoly legislation to create the space for millions of new small enterprises. We need to return to a stable industrial relations climate by creating greater wage parity, better living conditions for workers and a greater sense of common purpose.

All this can only be achieved by setting up an Economic Codesa to come up with a new economic blueprint involving measurable outcomes for all the parties concerned - and to which they are held accountable by each other. We are in a state of emergency. Collectively, we have to resolve it.

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