Intelligence Lite Democracy – the South African Paradigm

2015-02-17 09:36

Among many who witnessed the new South Africa back in 1994, the most common question is – WHY? WHY has our democracy faltered and headed south when it had everything going for it? We were flavour of the month for much of the nineties; a preferred investment destination; and strongly in favour with the entire world.

So how did we end up with a nation of failing utilities, a dismal economy, corruption, millions out of work, appalling state education and thugs brawling in parliament?

The proximate cause is of course in-your-face incompetence, since so many appointments ignore merit. The nation’s government, its parastatals and civil service are badly staffed, run poorly and without discipline, often corruptly and in voluntary ignorance of the lessons of modern history.

But is it really that simple?

Well, no – because ultimate cause applies in even greater measure. The ruling elite lacks the capacity to think things through.

• The hubris of the new elite, which assumed that it had the skills, knowledge and know how to keep things going, was the first and most obvious red flag. New incumbents had no experience and limited education (remember Bantu Education?) added to which they had a chip on their shoulders to “get even” through restitution, affirmative action and BEE. It was their "turn to eat".

That is no way to run a complex enterprise – let alone a nation state – and has been manifested in a plethora of ways, from scores of babies dying in state hospitals, routine “load shedding”, to pot holed roads country wide.

• But even more significant is a cognitive deficit bequeathed by both culture and history - which will take a lot longer to fix than imposing any number of edicts, laws, or injunctions to promote “restitution” and “equality”.

That is because culture, intelligence, aptitude and competence are inextricably linked in a way that defies laws and solutions imposed by fiat. Cognitive capacity grows through the forces of evolution, culture and economic reality – not prescriptive, top-down remedies enacted by bureaucrats.

Indeed the only solution to both inequality and societal incompetence is to foster and cultivate the intelligence of individuals making up society and to develop an enthusiastic work ethic and thirst for knowledge.

Laws that address “inequality” and seek redress exacerbate it.

Human intelligence has been verified in international comparative studies to be closely correlated to - and possibly the main determinant - of quality democracy. In similar and related studies the relationship between intelligence and economic success was found to be even closer - hardly surprising considering that economic success and the freedoms associated with good democracy (with its concomitant institutions and entrenched freedoms) are usually a package deal.

Of course, these findings do not find favour with South Africa’s political elite.

Those with clout in the nation’s corridors of power find such values abhorrent, since they were schooled in the teachings of Karl Marx; doctrines of socialism; “the Struggle” and the other discarded dogmas of the 20th century. And because their long held values give them access to office and power and mesh conveniently with their personal ambitions, they embrace them fervently.

Theirs is an irrational delusion, a religion of the Struggle, fed by the added need for restitution from apartheid. In the process, economic realities have been discarded and distorted to penalize ordinary – and very often, highly productive - people. The latest Ipsos Survey points to the lack of employment opportunities as the single most concerning issue for South Africans (87%).

This has come about through the protection of sectional interest groups such as employed workers whom the unions shelter at the expense of the unemployed, business interests (especially the entrepreneurial sector) and society in general. Even Zuma – no economist to be sure - took aim at temporary and contract workers in his disastrous “SONA” speech in February, threatening a clamp down in order protect “worker rights”. Unsurprisingly,the link to increased unemployment escaped him.

The upshot is that with inflated remuneration for those fortunate enough to have work at low productivity – and with “minimum wages” and other tidbits thrown in for good measure - human cognitive capacity as a barometer of worth is bypassed entirely.

When challenged, they resort to their tried and tested hymn sheet, invoking “rights”, politically sanctioned clichés and bemoaning “past injustices”. That is their way of retaining favour with the ignorant and ill informed and serves as a passport to remaining in office.

The intelligent application of minds has simply never been put on the table.

Intelligence - A Short History of the Notion

The concept of intelligence can be controversial and lends itself to heated debate because by its very nature it is as abstract as it is real. To make matters more difficult, it defies measurement unless assessed against valid criteria – on which there can be additional disagreement.

Relativists, for example might argue that somewhat arcane and esoteric skills and capabilities qualify as intelligence, and then fall back on ideology and clichés when cornered with reasonable arguments. Those of more rigorous persuasion see intelligence as a barometer of potential for intellectual, and often career success in modern society.

And so – what is intelligence and how did it come to be recognized as important? Intelligence has been recognised as key to success in government for a very long time.

Human intelligence was first identified by the classical Greeks as an important ingredient for effectively running the affairs of state. They termed it “nous”. The ruling classes of the time needed plenty of “nous” and it was considered to be hereditary in origin.

As early as 500 BC, the Chinese recognized differences in intelligence and tested personal ability as a measure of how suitable candidates were for the administrative class of mandarins governing the provinces of Empire. Such tests probed for competence in mathematics, astronomy, literature and history, and continued in use until relatively recently.

In the mid 19th century Francis Galton argued that intelligence is mainly genetically determined and that peoples’ intelligence drives the level of civilization they can aspire to, resulting in differences between the intelligence of different nations and societies.

In the early 20th century, Charles Spearman made significant advances in the theory of intelligence and demonstrated that all cognitive abilities are positively inter-correlated. High scores across a battery of tests served as strong predictors of competence in many cognitive areas, which he designated as the “g” factor (for general intelligence).

Alfred Binet constructed the first intelligence test in France at much the same time as Spearman developed his “g” factor theory, which quantified IQ as the relationship between mental – or cognitive – age and chronological age.

By the end of the 20th century there was wide consensus on the relevance of intelligence per se, with one of the definitions provided by a task force of the American Psychological Association as “the ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by taking thought.”

A similar definition advanced by Linda Gottfredson and other leading experts in the Wall Street Journal in 1994 reads: “a very general mental capacity, which, amongst other things involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”.

In recent times works by Vanhanen and Lynn (referred to earlier) have identified significant correlations between intelligence and economic success and intelligence and quality of democracy (refer The Limits of Democratization: Climate, Intelligence, and Resource Distribution, Tatu Vanhanen; and IQ and Global Inequality, Lynn and Vanhanen).


It is sobering to consider the cognitive gulf between the product of many years of profound thought on human intellect and government, and the South African socio-political situation right now. Indeed, it is appropriate to question whether real - constitutional - democracy with separate centres of power will have any role to play in the future South Africa.

If the current trajectory continues, will we simply continue to deteriorate into a failed state? Zimbabwe – a “democracy” of sorts (since they have elections, of sorts) – demonstrates how conceivable that is.

But rather than wring our hands in anguish, let's reflect on the words of others in search of inspiration.

Howard Zinn said “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it”. Should this perhaps encourage us to consider civil disobedience and the withholding of resources that benefit the state? And if so, how can we achieve it?

And Aristotle said - “It is not always the same thing to be a good man and a good citizen.” Judging by the ANC’s track record the definition of a “good citizen” (loyalty to party; the sanctity of “the Struggle”, contrived equality and so forth), is very different to being a “good man” – let alone a smart man (just imagine the ANC testing for "competence in mathematics, astronomy, literature and history" as qualifications for government employment?)

Methinks we should concentrate on being good men (and women) rather than good citizens.

Don't you agree?

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2010-11-21 18:15

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