OPINION | Deon Pretorius: How do we manage South Africa's 'culture of destruction'?

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A suspected looter pulls a few items along the ground outside a vandalised mall in Vosloorus.
A suspected looter pulls a few items along the ground outside a vandalised mall in Vosloorus.

Short, medium, and long-term development processes need to be implemented by a capable government of a coalition of agencies to ensure that conditions that feed frustration, anger, and destructive conflict are removed if we are to get rid of the 'culture of destruction', writes Deon Pretorius.

What can be done about the "culture of destruction" in South Africa? This is a question I have been asked following the publication of my recent article entitled Changing Mindset and Conditions that Feed Destructive Protest. 

The article makes two points about what to do about the destructive protest, looting, and rioting. One relates to mindsets, and the other the context in which they develop and within which people conduct their struggles.

Firstly, we must understand that there is a set of ideas or a particular mindset that inhabits our political landscape that seeks to justify destructive protest, and it could be argued that some people see that as licence to proceed towards looting and criminality.

Class-based structural inequality

The mindset I am referring to is associated with revolutionary change and the Marxist class conflict as the means of change. Where does it come from? It is based on the 19th century thinking of Karl Marx, and has been modified over time, but is still very much alive throughout the world. It is still propagated by most Sociologists and many Social Scientists, leftist politicians, and trade unionists as the only solution for the class-based structural inequality.

Marxist analyses of a country like South Africa are of value even though it reduces the multi-faceted complexity of social reality to class relations. While Marxists assists in identifying and understanding some of the structural strains and sources of conflict in contemporary society, it is now widely acknowledged that the solutions they offer are not realistic and sustainable.

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Marxists and their followers are doing us all a significant disfavour by hanging on to this one-dimensional and deterministic view of the world and human beings that over-emphasises the human inclination to conflict. They underestimate the much more powerful tendency towards cooperation and collaboration. It is time that my colleagues at the universities start looking at the world and at their fellow human beings through eyes that make it possible to recognise the potential of making the world a better place and to stop this endless and pointless agonising about the tragedy of victimhood.  

Long term plan

Thus, what is the alternative? The alternative is a "developmental mindset". A mindset that understands that the undesirable situation can be changed but is not going to be transformed through a dramatic short-term cathartic action but that it requires a long-term plan and strategy. It must be a process that requires a staged, cumulative build-up of social agency and systemic capacity to become more inclusive over time.

The only way to shift minds is to get people to understand that the revolutionary approach is destructive and self-defeating. The developmental mindset will allow them to work with others to transform society from the current undesirable to a better society over time.  

This is not a naïve view of the world. It is the only realistic and pragmatic option that we have! 

The second point is that such mindsets and actions occur in a context. They do not happen in a vacuum. People’s actions take place in a context that have an influence on their actions, and if these contexts are not going to be transformed, the conditions for a culture of destruction will prevail. This is not an excuse but an explanation for why something happens. There are understandable reasons for people to be frustrated and angry in a deeply unequal society.

Short-term satisfaction 

However, besides that it does not justify destruction it is vital to understand that such destructive action will only bring short-term psychological satisfaction and shift the power and ownership from the "haves" to the "have nots". The challenge is what happens next! The questions and challenges are: How to ensure that the reasons for destruction are decreased? How to prevent that power lead to corruption? How can the system be maintained and even boosted so that the promises to the previously excluded sectors of society can be met? The study of Marxist-inspired revolutions shows that they do not provide an adequate answer to these questions. It is not a long-term solution. It will not solve the problem!

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The only solution is a short, medium, and long-term development process that will remove the conditions that feed frustration, anger, and destructive conflict. That means a plan or a strategy that is either implemented by a very capable government or a coalition of agencies that collaborate to combine their capacities to make it work.

This is what happened in every country that found a way to escape from large scale poverty and socio-economic exclusion. This includes China (since it began to open up and reform its economy in 1978), the Nordic Countries (from 1930 to the 1970s) and the Southeast Asian Tigers (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong between the 1960s and 1990s). The same process happened over a period of almost 100 years during the industrialisation of Europe and the United States between 1760 to 1820 and 1840.

Cases to learn from 

We can disagree with much of what happened in these contexts, but the point is that they are all examples of development over time. Indeed, we can pick and choose from their experiences to work out our own path (like the Nordics and the Chinese did), but there is an alternative, even for South Africa and other African countries. It also seems to me that there is more good news in terms of the timeframe in that it tends to become shorter as one can learn from the experiences of others. The industrial revolution of Europe and the USA took much longer, perhaps because they did not have a role-model but we in Africa and South Africa have no shortage of cases to learn from.

If we can start working on these destructive mindsets and the contexts that feed then, we can turn this country around in 15 to 20 years (which means that we could have done it since 1994). If we can agree on an overall developmental strategy and if we can work out the agency issue; that is who is responsible for what.   

- Prof Deon Pretorius is affiliated to the Department of Development Studies at the Nelson Mandela University and is the managing director at Development Partners. He writes in his personal capacity.

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