World has many lessons for an SA blinded by politics and prisms
Learning from mistakes, and from others, requires objective assessments of both political and economic policies
With risks intensifying as the elections near, why are none of the political parties or influential actors able to offer comprehensive, workable solutions? Or rather, how did politics crowding out evidence-based analysis become the norm?
The prefrontal cortex, the area of our brains that manages judgment decisions, is the last to develop — it takes about 25 years. According to Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, a leading authority on human decision making, this provides evolutionary advantages as gradually deciphering the world makes us more adaptable.
SA’s various leaders are unable to align moral objectives with growth-inducing economic principles.
Rather than focusing on understanding the world, SA’s 25 years of universal adult suffrage has been decidedly self-referential. Geography’s partial explanation is overshadowed by South Africans having grown up with politics and politicians shaping perspectives. Objective analysis and global awareness have been routinely overwhelmed.
“Amandla” versus “the swart gevaar” gave way to a Nelson Mandela presidency symbolising justice-focused unity. Yet politically expedient messaging has remained consequential, as evidenced by the EFF or Bell Pottinger.
The Cyril Ramaphosa wing of the ANC’s policy paralysis is deeply intellectually incapacitated by SA’s political tradition of belittling a national insouciance towards evidence-based policy making and internationally proven success paths. Like its many predecessors, the Ramaphosa faction perceives and portrays the world through narrow prisms that reinforce the beliefs that suit their alliances and agendas.
SA’s national dialogue never resembled the inquisitive six-year-old who incessantly asks why. Rather, the 1994 transition seared unrealistic expectations into the collective consciousness. As unity advanced, scrutiny further retreated. Inequality was to be overcome through redistributing from apartheid’s beneficiaries to those it had oppressed. This seemed politically and morally sensible, but it was dismissive towards how the world was evolving.
Redistribution’s appeal reflects the fantasy that it will overcome black poverty while offering whites some moral redemption. Worse still, our leaders can’t develop workable solutions as the necessary insights sit outside the dialogue ring-fenced by the 1990s social compact. That is, the righteousness of redistribution precludes solutions through blocking evidence-based objectivity. That the intellectually splintered official opposition party can’t untie BEE’s racist knots is emblematic of this faith-based learning disability.
Like many, my moral compass was shaped by grandparents, religious teachings and playground disputes. My formative first three decades were spent in a distant land with a black-white history not so different from SA’s. I grew up in my mother’s Irish-heritage household; my father, an only child, died when I was quite young.
Irish-Americans of my era all had older relatives who were consumed by hatred for the English. Before we could tie our shoes we learnt how the English kept the Irish down for generations and took their food during an extreme famine in the late 1840s. On an island of less than 8-million people, 1-million starved to death and about 3-million left.
Emigration was unkind. Black and white scholars have referenced freed slaves being favoured by employers over North America’s “Paddies”. Former slaves were often seen as better skilled and more reliable than Irish drunks. Job adverts emphasising “No Irish need apply” reflected my ancestors having arrived after generations of being systematically oppressed, with little opportunity to develop skills beyond rudimentary farming.
My first time-stamped memory was of my mother screaming, putting the phone down, then rushing to the TV room just after 3pm on November 22 1963. Though John Kennedy’s ethnic-breakthrough presidency ended suddenly, the dignity he bequeathed his Irish brethren endured.
“Forced bussing” disrupted my junior high school, though everyone got on reasonably well. The following year I was in a high school plagued by racial rioting. The common denominator among the white and black instigators was that they weren’t winning at sports, studying or romance.
While I arrived in SA in 1992, the main reason my perspective remains distinct traces to a university professor. We converged upon a new campus with tiny classes. I could even take independent study classes with her and a widely lauded finance professor. They would assign readings and I would pop round during their lonely office hours to unhurriedly ask questions.
She had emigrated on scholarship from Finland, whose positioning demanded much geopolitical and historical awareness, and completed a PhD in economics from, perhaps,the US’s most elite university. While never having had a passport, I felt I was coming to understand the world in ways that had eluded my elders. Her assigned readings concluded with accounts of the English’s 1840s Irish debates.
The Irish narratives about vicious English greed were not wrong, but they omitted that influential thinkers in London stridently argued for a more equitable Irish arrangement. The jarring insight was that those who favoured laudable moral and economic principles didn’t know how to pursue them while “modernising” the political and economic landscape of a neighbouring island.
Life had been defined for centuries by monotonous feudal farming interrupted by wars and famines. By the mid 19th century, technology and trade, alongside ideas and ideologies, were profoundly disrupting centuries of stagnation. Arguments to benefit the Irish drew upon theories — stressing private property and trade — covered in my earlier reading assignments by economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo.
My broader studies had made clear that the Irish debacle didn’t unfold against a calm background. Europe’s Age of Revolution was climaxing. Democratic forces, enthused by industrialism and capitalism, were winning and losing battles with monarchies and feudalism. Karl Marx, reflecting and advancing alternatives views, was about to release his Communist Manifesto, which would later inspire a century of unhelpful class warfare revolutions.
Choosing the right principles was essential but insufficient. Societal upgrading also requires pragmatism informing myriad adjustments. The mid 19th-century English were global leaders at democracy and the rule of law but international trade had, then as now, become central to growth. Unfortunately, effective cross-border dispute mechanisms would remain elusive until the late 20th century.
Today, SA’s various leaders are unable to align moral objectives with growth-inducing economic principles while accommodating myriad practical considerations. Whereas the UK’s leaders of the 1840s had no international parallels to reference, our politics are dismissive of international success patterns — most significantly, the essential role of global integration for sustaining high growth.
Learning from mistakes, and from others, requires objective assessments. Yet SA’s faith-based redistribution doctrine is contemptuous towards evidence-based analysis and much of the country’s political artillery is positioned to preclude this chasm being bridged.
In 1840, as monarchies were under threat from democratic movements and colonial incursions, more than 90% of the world’s population lived in wretched poverty. While key components had been identified, no-one could yet map the political and economic pathways for provoking broad prosperity.
In my student days that figure was still more than half. Understanding today’s world requires knowing why the percentage is now less than 10%. Such indispensable lessons must not remain alien to SA’s national dialogue.
Embracing the right principles mustn’t deter from the mechanics of distinguishing between what succeeds and what doesn’t. Ireland has joined other former colonies that have higher per-capita incomes than the UK. Getting SA’s economy rolling is not about reinventing the wheel.
• Hagedorn (shawn-hagedorn.com) is an independent strategy adviser.