Guptagate: More backscratching, monkey business

2013-05-13 12:30

If politicians believe that they can almost bank on the vote of citizens, they will spend their energies cooperating more with business, trade unions, religious organizations and other powerful social groups to improve their personal positions. Instead of cooperating with citizens, they will attempt to maximize the benefits they can acquire from their relationships with these other groups and free-ride off the citizenry’s loyalty or apathy.

Most of us are familiar with the term, direct reciprocity. This strategy can be expressed more simply as: “if I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine”. For instance, if you become a major donor of a political party, the party will use their political influence to help your business succeed by granting you special privileges. This is largely the way the United States operates and in part explains why many Wall Street executives have not been punished despite their clear culpability in the 2009 global banking crisis.

There are however other more interesting kinds of backscratching strategies. Professor Martin A. Nowak – a notable scholar of biology and mathematics at Harvard University – in his recent work on Game Theory, discusses the concept of indirect reciprocity in his book Super Cooperators. Indirect reciprocity can be expressed as: “if I’ll scratch your back, someone else in the group will scratch mine”. This strategy suggests that business people such as the Gupta’s and other powerful interest groups will support the top brass of political parties knowing full well that they will also receive goodwill from the state or the party’s minions when the need arises.

Nowak uses the example of Japanese Macaques to make his point. Among Macaques, low-ranking monkeys can be found grooming high-ranking monkeys to improve their own ranking in the group, consequently increasing the likelihood of receiving more personal grooming. Drawing from this analogy, we can understand why low ranking public sector officials with strong affiliations to a political party such as the ANC are prone to helping people belonging to powerful social groups like the Gupta’s. Low ranking public sector officials have a strong desire to improve their reputation with the top brass of the party or state structures to advance their careers.

All is not lost though. Nowak also points out that human achievement can be attributed to our species being Super Cooperators. He draws our attention to individuals who perform selfless acts for the greater good. In other words, there are people in our society who will forfeit benefits for themselves if it contributes to the common good. Many political activists and brave men and women in the armed forces live by this credo. Yes, it may be hard to believe today, but many ANC members were also selfless do gooders when the ANC was once a proud liberation movement.

I would argue that many voters in South Africa are also following the credo of the greater good. When deciding who to vote for, they tend to consider the larger reputation of their illusory ‘tribe’ thereby demonstrating blind loyalty to their political party, trade unions, and religious organizations instead of constantly reassessing the reputation of their leaders. A tribal mentality is understandable given that it played an important role in providing us with a sense of social cohesiveness during our struggle with colonialism and apartheid. However times have changed. Voters now need to apply their savvy as free individuals. If voters do not learn to draw on the current reputation of their political leaders to make their voting decisions, then political leaders will continue to abuse their position of power.

If opposition political parties such as the DA intend to make significant gains in future elections then they should find ways to convince the majority of voters that backscratching for their personal benefit and their family’s is more important than the greater good of the ‘illusory tribe’. Make no mistake, this is a formidable task. Given that tribal thinking is often exploited by politicians for their own selfish purposes, voters need to transcend their tribal mentalities and decide about their future as free thinking individuals. More than 20 years later, voters must realise that the ANC’s favourable reserves earned due to their past members’ selfless behavior has now been over withdrawn from our personal ‘trust’ accounts. Having forfeited our trust, we now need to judge ANC members on their present behavior and anticipate their likely future behavior. Even though it is partly true, we can no longer blame the cold-hearted standards of the apartheid regime for having permeated its way into the ANC. We do not need more scandals such as Guptagate to confirm that there has been a sharp moral decline – in what was once upon a time, and not so long ago – a proud liberation movement.

At the risk of sounding overly utopian, I want to suggest that if we want to live in a vibrant and thriving democracy then tribal thinking and blind loyalty to political parties have no further place in South Africa. We need to change our voting strategy if we are to advance as a nation. After all, if we continue to naively view ourselves – first and foremost – as part of a tribe across the various racial divides and consequently as loyal members of a particular party, then our leaders will continue to ‘game’ the political system so that their children can benefit by – let us be frank – largely unmerited access to wealth.

When is the honeymoon period in our democratization journey going to be over? Perhaps it is now time for voters to demonstrate reciprocal altruism. Perhaps it is time for a simple tit-for-tat strategy that can be expressed as: “I will not scratch your back” (with my vote) if you do not scratch my back (by delivering effectively in government so that my family and I are also benefitting), Sir and Madam Politician”. According to political scholar Francis Fukuyama, morality should quickly evolve even among the most self-interested group of politicians if citizens demonstrate this simple reciprocal rule in their actions. Despite the progress that the ANC has made in some key areas in our lives over the years, perhaps it is time for voters to teach the party an important lesson in back scratching. Perhaps, the ANC must get the message that citizen expectations are much higher. In fact, our message to local and national level politicians irrespective of the party they belong to that are abusing their position of power should be clear: “Get your act together or we will use our vote to remove you from office”.

Citizens need to change their voting strategies in response to the nonsense that is going on in our current political environment. If we don’t penalize politicians for cheating and deceiving us, we should stop complaining and simply brace ourselves for more backscratching, monkey business scandals.. and Guptagate my friends will become but only the tip of the iceberg.

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