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President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo: REUTERS/NIC BOTHMA
President Cyril Ramaphosa. File photo: REUTERS/NIC BOTHMA

Recent scenarios developed by a number of SA institutions have sparked much debate over the future of the country, especially whether it is or will become a failed state, or a fragile state.

Events of the past few years lead us to ask: what stopped us from imagining the Covid-19 pandemic and its scale, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or the near insurrectionary moment we witnessed in SA in July 2021?

James Derbyshire, of Middlesex University in London, has argued that the use of standard probabilistic methods causes such possibilities to be overlooked and therefore makes us ill-prepared to deal with them. For instance, a severe global pandemic is inevitable at some point, but the exact nature, timing and impact is fundamentally uncertain in any one instance and is therefore brushed aside.

A blinkered view also afflicted thinking on Russia, where invading Ukraine was a logical step in Vladimir Putin’s plans but was something Western planners were unwilling to contemplate or put a date to until a few weeks before the actual invasion.

Closer to home was the elite’s self-assured hubris, reinforced by incestuous dialogues among ourselves, that blinded us to the possibility of the outbreak and extent of the July 2021 unrest. Notwithstanding the admitted failures in intelligence, the pattern of protests turning violent had long been established.

So, what can be done to improve our ability to prepare for the future? Derbyshire recommends using a plausibility-based scenario planning approach, which should be an open and participatory process so that different perspectives can help identify the uncertainties to be considered and weigh up the plausibility of certain events occurring.

Another tool is anticipatory governance, which has been emerging, especially in military institutions such as Nato and in scientific circles, as an adjunct to such scenario processes. Countries such as Finland have formalised this, having a parliamentary committee for the future, which uses foresight to predict and evaluate the impact of developments to the country.

Since the Indlulamithi Scenarios were launched in 2018, we have been assisting organisations in stress-testing their strategies against the three scenarios developed, with names based on popular SA dances: “Nayi le Walk”, where the targets of the National Development Plan are achieved; “Isibhujwa”, where the 2018 status quo prevails, and “Gwarra Gwarra”, which describes a demoralised land of disorder and decay.

In a recent planning exercise ,we were pushed to consider the Gwarra Gwarra scenario to its extremes, or whats referred to as the “fat tails” in statistics. For example, we were asked what happens if ANC cadres are no longer in government  a question few scenarios speculate on, even though many have been forecasting the end of ANC dominance after the 2024 elections.

The Western Cape experience, where the ANC has lost its grip on the provincial government and most municipalities, was a useful real-life experience to draw upon. There, the ANC has seen its members becoming more involved in civil society to continue promoting the transformation agenda.

In this scenario, the rest of the ANC remains in formal politics as a loyal opposition, but the fragility of the state is highlighted by the inability of a post-2024 coalition government to hold the centre together because of squabbling over the spoils of incumbency.

On the other hand, we speculated that there could be a scenario where the miscreants in the ANC’s ranks would link up with armed gangs as anarchy reigns in parts of the country. This talks to the possibility of SA being a partially failed state, where some parts of the country and some state institutions are captured by politico-criminal syndicates.

The scenario that does not seem to feature in recent attempts is the possibility of the ANC’s unity and renewal project succeeding. If the organisation achieves “self-correction”, winning the confidence of the nation, it may just remain at the helm of the country, leading us in a well-oiled version of the Jerusalema dance.

Such a scenario would put to bed any speculation of a failed or fragile state.

• Abba Omar is director of operations at the Mapungubwe Institute.

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