OPINION | Tebogo Khaas: Reining in SA's horsemen of immigration, inequality, ignorance, intelligence

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Inequality has exposed skewed patterns in food security systems, access to affordable information technologies, urban planning and safe commuting, writes the author.
Inequality has exposed skewed patterns in food security systems, access to affordable information technologies, urban planning and safe commuting, writes the author.
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Tebogo Khaas writes that we have unleashed the four horsemen of immigration, inequality, ignorance and intelligence but they are not invincible. Khaas argues they can be tamed and defeated.

Throughout history, artists, philosophers, poets, and politicians have conjured images and symbols they believe captures their epoch's best and worst. Among these images are the four horsemen of the apocalypse, most famously seen in the Biblical Book of Revelation.

These horsemen have become permanent fixtures in Western art, poetry, and literature, representing the destructive forces of war, famine, pestilence, and death.  There are traditions of interpretation that represent the scripture's four horsemen as portending final judgment and the end of days.

Today, people view the pandemic, poverty levels, climate change, and decayed moral fibre in just such terms.   

One could easily argue that we have unleashed our own four horsemen: immigration, inequality, ignorance, and intelligence.

Figures of change and prosperity 

These horsemen's combined energies do not bode well for our democratic experiment, especially considering the badly frayed public trust in our political leaders and government. But our horsemen can also be seen in another light: as figures looming on a horizon of change and prosperity. Let me explain.   

The horseman of immigration, perhaps our "original sin", has constituted an evil and lasting presence throughout this nation's history.

The lingering effects of colonialism do not seem to find resolution anytime soon despite no apparent legal impediments to resolving the vexing apartheid-era land disposition issue. 

The intensification of the war, famine, pestilence and political instability across the continent, our porous borders, constitutional guarantees, and a relatively stable economy have turned South Africa into a veritable option for anyone seeking refuge. Taking advantage of our vacuous African diplomatic posture of solidarity with dictators, and the parlous state of our border management, citizens of neighbouring countries, especially Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique, flock to South Africa to seek employment, and to access free healthcare and educational facilities.

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Over the years, tensions, often precipitated by competition for limited resources and plain hatred for others, have led to flare-ups of xenophobic attacks. 

Needless to say, endemic corruption has enabled the ease with which our passports can be acquired, international criminal and terrorist networks to incubate and operate with almost impunity. This global risk precipitated the sharp decline in the global ranking of the South African passport, which ultimately led to the withdrawal of visa waivers by some major countries. 

The horseman of inequality, the most visible in the ongoing economic climate and driven largely by rampant greed, champions individualism that emphasises personal acquisition and gratification at the expense of the common good.  

Special powers 

One only had to witness events of the past eighteen months to appreciate how inequality exposed skewed patterns in food security systems, access to affordable information technologies, urban planning and safe commuting. For instance, providing basic needs such as education, alleviating hunger, and implementing social distancing protocols during the pandemic have affected poor communities the most. 

The horseman of ignorance does not connote a lack of knowledge but rather the willful rejection of the lessons of science and common decency. Its effects are seen in the protestations of the anti-Covid-19 vaccine brigade, and a general anti-intellectualism that scorns expertise by deriding educated people as out-of-touch elites.  

This horseman has a special power. He rides the internet and social media platforms with the time-tested strategy of a race-baiter's playbook, using fear, smear, bigotry, conspiracy theories and scapegoating to sow confusion and mislead those in its echo chamber. It opts for sensationalism and hyperbole over nuanced analysis and science.  

The horseman of intelligence, transversal in nature and working in tandem with the other horsemen, signifies the interconnectedness of South Africa's global risks and its quest for a nationhood based on a set of common beliefs. Successive ANC administrations have been enamoured with, if not become totally blinded by, decades of belief in the quasi exceptionalism of past ANC's liberation struggle era intelligence "prowess".

The roots of this thinking are supported by a blind faith of owing fealty to the governing party over fealty to, and committing to the paramountcy of, the Constitution.  Despite what some pundits may suggest, this horseman did not originate with former president Jacob Zuma's administration. Of course, Zuma let it ride ever more emboldened by repurposing civilian intelligence to serve his political interests. 

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It is disquieting that President Cyril Ramaphosa let this horseman run amok until his administration was "caught unprepared" by the devastation of recent public disturbances, which he labelled an insurrection. Question is, was the president starved of daily intelligence briefings, or does he simply eschew these sessions?  

Our ability to overcome the many challenges facing us depends on the timeliness, soundness and integrity of our national intelligence estimates, which Ramaphosa must dutifully study. As we set out to counter these horsemen and avert a looming national calamity, a pertinent question remains whether the ruling party's endemic conflict of conscience and moral dyslexia would conspire against the counterforces that stand at the ready to harness and channel the energies required to engage these horsemen? 

Border Management Authority

To counter the horseman of immigration, we must remain welcoming to those yearning to breathe free while enhancing and maintaining our territorial boundaries' integrity. Government must fast-track the implementation of the new Border Management Authority, meant to improve efficiencies and address fraud and corruption within the immigration and customs and excise environments. 

Against inequality, we must galvanise the powerful forces of kindness and generosity, a rejection of greed and wealth accumulation at any price, and renew our commitment to promoting the general welfare and common good.  A once-off wealth tax and once-off levy on corporate and private income per the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's recommendations and a proposal for a basic income grant are some of the instruments that could be used to alleviate abject poverty the inequality gap should be pursued vigorously. 

Stalled multibillion Presidential infrastructure investment projects, aimed at driving economic reconstruction and recovery must be accelerated and/or restarted so as to reignite a moribund economy and provide sustainable economic and employment opportunities. To counter the horseman of ignorance, let us remain resolute as we follow and advance science, respect the pillars of humanistic education, and reject the constant deluge of falsehoods perpetrated by science-deniers in society. 

Government information communication systems, seemingly paralysed by the Digital Vibes scandal, must reclaim its mandate, which it has tacitly conceded and consequently enabled misinformation to flourish in the absence of credible government communication. 

Against the horseman of intelligence, Ramaphosa, who has the constitutional mandate and powers to counter it, must implement reforms in the state security apparatus expeditiously. It is trite that the SSA is deeply politicised and factionalised to be able to serve our national interests well. Ramaphosa has, albeit belatedly, begun implementing the recommendations of the HRPSSA report.

ANC factional battles 

Importantly, any changes must ensure that the SSA operates strictly within the confines of the Constitution and applicable legislation and that the civilian intelligence community is immunised from potential risk of future use as a personal resource by malevolent individuals. Until parliament's intelligence oversight committee reviews and changes how it conducts its oversight over intelligence, and demand better accountability by intelligence services, the civilian intelligence service will remain ensnared in internal ANC party factional battles to the detriment of its constitutional mandate. 

Together, the counterforces sweeping across our land, ready to challenge these horsemen, will precipitate the most significant economic and societal transformation this nation has seen. But what do these changes mean for us? Do they portend stagnation or do they carry the seeds of a new beginning?

The significance of this moment will be informed by how we vanquish the Covid-19 pandemic, transform our economy, and rebuild the broken fabric of morality. This will depend on what lessons we are prepared to learn from the devastations of our recent past and do to restore public trust and hope.

We must appeal to the better angels of our nature. 

Despite the ensuing poverty, chaos, gloom, destruction, and the stench of death that engulfs us, these horsemen are not invincible. They can be tamed and defeated. They can be countered with courage and creativity – the creativity of artists, activists, and visionaries and our world-renowned resilience. 

-  Tebogo Khaas is an independent political commentator and analyst. Follow him on Twitter @tebogokhaas

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