Pragmatism in a time of panic

2019-05-08 15:18

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We like to talk of failure. The economy has failed. Reconciliation has failed. The ANC has failed. The government has failed. In our despair we flail around, looking for salvation, sometimes from the first snake-oil salesman who happens along. Somewhere, surely, there has to be a political holy grail, pure and simple and principled and gloriously suited to fix everything from the plumbing to race relations to empty wallets. One ring to rule them all. One silver bullet. One Excalibur. Pick your metaphor of magical thinking.

No one needs reminding that expectations of democracy have not been met. But democracy is not an Ikea kit. It cannot be static. It is not an end point.

It is an organising principle, one of whose aims is to create sufficient conditions for consensus for a society to support an elected government. It is a framework of governance which steers affairs away from imposed laws, oppression and direct confrontation among citizens.

Consensus — there lies the rub.

We are a fractured society. We were a broken one in 1994 and we’ve spent the past 25 years looking for some of our missing parts.

Thabo Mbeki spoke of two nations, divided by race and class. While that still holds true, things have become more complex, there are more cracks, and as a society we are so lopsided we can hardly propel ourselves without cavitating. We are also exhausted and the political solutions being offered are paltry or improbable.

Politics in this situation has proven itself to be the act of fracking an already fracked environment. Witness what has happened in the United States and in Britain. Both societies have unravelled spectacularly, and bewilderingly given their democratic auras, because politicians have sought not to gain consensus or serve the interests of the nation or society as a whole, but have driven divisions to secure privilege and resources. Due to Brexit, for example, and the law of unintended consequences, parties themselves are now divided and leaders flip-flop around. The government of England has been destabilised and finds itself unable to contain or channel mounting anger in productive ways.

The same applies here. Evidence of disaffection is the proliferation of political parties.

In an ideal political environment, in a stable society, an abundance of choice would be a flowering of democracy, a chorus of conscience. Here it is a sign of panic as people sell their shares in a common vision and mutual commitment. It represents a proliferation of points of friction, a precursor to a free-for-all in which it’s everyone for themselves.

There is a logic in this. It stands to reason that if someone tries to steal what’s yours you’re going to grab what you can and run. But it is also illogical in that it speeds up the very fraying of the body politic it hopes to arrest.

What happens when we vacate the centre? We implode. Then we will have failed. We will be a failed state. There will be no possibility of consensus because anarchy resorts to bullets, and they won’t be silver.

But we already live in a mafia state, don’t we, in which state bureaucracy has been weaponised to hijack wealth? Yes, but it is far from a total system failure. A complete breakdown of society is a state of civil war in which we take orders from armed militias who will have seized all the vital resources: water, minerals, energy.

This sounds apocalyptic. Yet is this not the very fear which drives us to irrationality and dire existential dilemmas when we are faced with such an abysmal set of options at the ballot box?

We fear that the wrong choice will bring about just this dystopia. Eskom on a quantum scale.

Avoiding it will require more than politics alone could ever offer, and it’s about more than corruption, serious as that is. All our social institutions have to be buttressed: party politics (petty as it has become), a democratic franchise, the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and a free press.

What we need from politics is a stability which enables political reform and the substantial restructuring that has to happen to put this broken society back together.

The “take back” and “fight back” campaigns mobilised during these elections, accompanied by threats of armed insurrection in some cases, do not offer the possibility of stability. The politics of fear is intended to erode the centre, to weaken the whole.

To avoid becoming a failed state calls for a consolidation of the centre, to vote in a government which has real authority, moral and practical, derived from a strong mandate.

It’s lovely to imagine that we’re free to be frivolous and vote for the Monster Raving Loony Party. (Would that we had one, you might dream, although it does have a few cousins bouncing around.) But we’re not.

Building a nation, as we have found out the hard way, takes resolve and a fair dose of pragmatism. We’re all in this together, and a peevish or vengeful vote won’t get the job done.

It’s time to stop flirting with futility and commit. And then hope for the best.

Read more on:    opinion and analysis

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