OPINION | Terence Corrigan: Resolving challenges - perhaps this is what it takes?

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Dr Oscar van Heerden is mistaken in presenting Rob Hersov as having confined himself to finger-pointing and insults, writes Terence Corrigan. 


In his piece, "Hurling insults, Mr Hersov, won't help us resolve our challenges", Dr Oscar van Heerden makes some worthwhile points about Rob Hersov's outspoken attack on the government and on President Ramaphosa.

READ | Oscar van Heerden: Hurling insults, Mr Hersov, won't help us resolve our challenges

In his highly critical assessment of Hersov's choice of words – "useless", "spineless", "clowns" and so on – Van Heerden writes: "Is this really how we would want to resolve our challenges in South Africa? Pointing fingers, insulting each other and ultimately coming loose at the seams by retreating into our identity politics?"

I hold no brief for Hersov and have already written on this matter. I agree on the tonal matters, at least in the sense that putting things in those terms is not something that I am comfortable with, and I hope that I wouldn't do so myself. It's one reason I avoid Twitter.

Tolerate a great deal 

Yet it occurs to me that condemning Hersov for the manner in which he expressed his views sits uncomfortably with the fact that South Africa's political culture has been willing to tolerate a great deal that is a great deal worse. This runs from paranoia in the ANC's party documents in the 1990s to the designation of its opponents as "enemies", to the promiscuous accusations of racism, to the sinister and bombastic platform rhetoric from the Economic Freedom Fighters, to name but a few examples. Brian Pottinger once referred to (from memory) a "dangerous strain of emotionalism in our politics".

Those looking for a succinct and depressing account of the state of public debate could do worse than looking at a section of Judith February's Turning and Turning, entitled "Fraying of Public Discourse".     

I'd go further and say that we often lionise this sort of behaviour. It's hardcore and uncompromising. It's "speaking truth to power". It's hardegat. It's intrinsic to those "uncomfortable conversations" that we have to have – at any rate, until those conversations become rather too "uncomfortable" and therefore disagreeable.

ALSO READ | Terence Corrigan: To get SA governance right, the full extent of problem needs recognition

So, does this help to resolve our challenges?

Well, that depends on how one defines that resolution. I'd suggest that understanding the nature of South Africa's problems is a bone of major contention. Sure, we can agree (broadly) that the symptoms of our malaise – poverty, unemployment, failing municipalities – are "bad", but not about what has caused this, or how to deal with them, or even a step back, how to begin to negotiate solutions.

My sense of things is that business and government have never been able to establish a properly cooperative relationship, and the idea of social partnership, or social compacting, has been a very poor substitute.

Beyond frustration 

Partly, this is historical and ideological – a ruling party whose members have historically not been able to enter the business world, and many are deeply opposed to anything smelling of capitalism. Partly, though, it's because the ruling party has all too often showed scant interest in the pedestrian business of governing, keeping its attention firmly on the question of power, and all that this could make possible.

Businesspeople, in my experience, are beyond frustration with the state of the country. It's not that the government is not "doing enough" for business, or that there are bad policies – though there certainly are – but that the government can be strikingly indifferent to the execution of its own responsibilities.

That's pretty much where the corruption epidemic has come from, and more importantly the failure of so many government and state institutions. Think of the widespread dysfunctionality of municipal government. Think infrastructure. Think the collapse of state authority in July last year (I wrote that the police were less impotent than irrelevant).


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For the ANC, the solution seems to be clear: maintain the main features of the existing system, just do it better. So, a mighty developmental state will lead "development". A ruling party (nay, liberation movement) will continue to deploy its "cadres" to whatever positions it deems fit, the recommendations of the Zondo Commission notwithstanding. In fact, the president has made clear that the commission's recommendations are not binding and that cadre deployment is fine and uncontentious. It will continue. (He told the commission that it actually added another "filter" to appointments, so was a positive good for accountability).

This is the ANC's position, and it shows no interest in wavering on this, however much the party may be willing to entertain "engagement". I've certainly heard from businesspeople just how repetitive and typically pointless this turns out to be.

Offering a solution 

Dr Van Heerden is mistaken in presenting Hersov as having confined himself to finger-pointing and insults. (Hersov avoided identity politics and, to be honest, this is something that could better be identified with the ANC, and is looked upon favourably by many in the commentariat).

Hersov was in fact offering a solution: remove the ANC and replace it with a coalition of broadly reformist parties. He even produced a possible Cabinet, a statement of commitment and a set of governance priorities to flesh this out. His position was forcefully, even crudely, articulated. Certainly, the ANC would baulk at it.

But a call for specific action to resolve our challenges it certainly was.

It is up to the viewer or reader to decide whether this is a necessary and beneficial solution. But with South Africa gripped by a crisis that could well turn existential, perhaps these are the kinds of sentiments – hitherto probably unsayable for a businessperson – that need to be placed on the table.

- Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations


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