In the book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Joseph Schumpeter states: “Frank presentation of ominous facts was never more necessary than it is today because we seem to have developed escapism into a system of thought.”
Schumpeter wrote this in the 1940s but his words are as profound today as they were in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the same book – and I promise not to quote another chunk of his profundity – Schumpeter argues: “We always plan too much and always think too little. We resent a call to thinking and hate unfamiliar argument that does not tally with what we already believe or would like to believe. We walk into our future as we walked into the [Second World War], blindfolded.”
It is the challenges South Africa faces today that have made me revisit the work of thinkers such as Schumpeter. When I listen to debates about our country and read analyses of what is wrong with our postapartheid order, I am always struck by the lack of agreement about both challenges and solutions. For instance, those who are embedded in ways of thinking that are dominant in the private sector seem capable only of reducing the problems of our country to their antipathy towards the African National Congress (ANC) and President Jacob Zuma.
This tendency is prevalent not only in the private sector but also extends more significantly to what I believe is an oppositional logic that goes beyond the realm of formal opposition politics but is, nonetheless, a close cousin to what is at times the parochial nature of opposition politics.
A good example in this regard is the obsessive way in which some opposition parties have dealt with the Nkandlagate scandal. This tendency is matched by the servile sycophancy of the uncritical politics of too many among those who love the ANC and its president. Their escapism about what is wrong with South Africa, 21 years since the advent of democracy, is an important component of the refusal to accept the degree to which the ANC, our government and our President have become part of the problem.
In addition, national unity behind a common purpose is undermined by the refusal of the privileged, across our racial spectrum, to see our reality of poverty, inequality and unemployment for what it may become in terms of the dire consequences for the country. National unity is compromised further by the fact that, for some in corporate South Africa, class privilege seldom coincides with race privilege. This, in fact, is an important element of the anger of seemingly privileged young black professionals. But what undermines our national endeavours the most is the fact that the reconciliation project is stalling to a halt and this is happening at a time when the political settlement on which our democracy is founded seems to be unravelling.
The problem of race as a social contradiction is beginning to rear its ugly head in ways both old and new. Debates about national challenges such as the instability of our labour relations regime easily become proxy arguments for race, given the fact that employers are invariably white and unionised workers are almost always black, a problem that is exacerbated by code switching.
We engage in code switching when the things we are prepared to say depend on the race of the person next to us. This means that debates about national challenges are not always honest and this is itself an important element of the lack of trust that characterises important social, political and economic relations in our country.
In the absence of trust, unity behind a common purpose is impossible. We can throw as many plans at our national challenges as we like, and we may even give them grandiose titles, but, without trust and national unity, they will remain things that look good between the covers of glossy publications, and nothing more.
The alternative is to think more deeply about solutions and what is going on and be less shallow in our thinking about what is going wrong. In other words, we need to be more sensitive to the fact that our hysterical pessimism is not the solution and this means that, among some of the ailments of the intellect which sometimes afflict us, we must be less enthusiastic about ideas such as those meant to convince others that international investors are as irrational as we are.
What I have argued so far is my partial representation of what I think is wrong with our country today. This, I believe, is the state of the country as the ANC prepares for its midterm conference, the National General Council (NGC). The question is whether the ruling party will show the required leadership after the NGC. Should I hold my breath?