ANC’s myopic vision blinds SA to present and future realities - Business Day

9 July 2018 - While people stream to the cities hoping to benefit from the concentration of middle-class enterprise and ambition, the ANC undermines these assets through dogged state intervention.

Michael Morris

I contrived to break my bedtime reading glasses the other night and had to set aside a now hard-to-read fine-print edition of Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and look for a larger-text stand-in to match my daytime specs.

It was a rewarding misfortune, for I turned impulsively to the first volume – larger print – of Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, inscribed by my father when I would have been a squalling infant, circa mid-1959.

The rust-spotted pages give its age away, though the slightly more than half century is fleeting against the reach of Churchill’s investigation of Britain’s beginnings. As always, history speaks to the present, not least in demonstrating that the march of progress can never be taken for granted, a lesson vividly captured in Churchill’s before-and-after assessment of Britain’s Roman imposition 2,000 years ago.

In the "long, bleak intervening gap" from the year 400 (when Rome’s sway shrank) until 1900, he writes, "no one had central heating and few had baths. For 1,500 years [wealthy British-Roman citizens’ descendants] lived in unheated dwellings, mitigated by occasional roastings at gigantic wasteful fires. Even now, a smaller proportion of the whole population dwells in centrally heated houses than in those ancient days".

Political missteps combined with vanity, corruption and an overweening hunger for power can trigger a society’s consequential failure to adjust in time to a changing world.

Though SA is no imperium, we are, if not exactly a gateway to the land mass, a lynchpin state in Africa, and a critical economic and political agent in the whole continent’s dealings within itself and with the world. What we do matters to many more people than it might seem, and in 2018 we have reached a testing juncture. For all the assets material and otherwise that seem permanent or guaranteed to pull us through, the failure to adjust our basic thinking to what works and what doesn’t is a threatening weakness.

Earlier in 2018, when most cheered the ousting of Jacob Zuma, we at the Institute of Race Relations were almost alone in warning that the predominant thinking in the ANC itself was really where the problem lay.

The party genuflects to a 63-year-old credo that, even as its ink was drying, was outpaced in its assertion of late Victorian Marxist verities by the shifts of a steadily democratising post-nuclear world. The governing party’s biggest challenge, we said in February, was to "unlearn decades of thinking that business is the enemy". This fundamental outstanding adjustment stands between us and a future of deepening failure — because "business" is really "people".

A telling illustration is that 95% of shareholders in SA’s largest mining companies are institutional investors (including the state pension fund), managing the pensions and savings of countless ordinary people. But mining is being hammered by an ANC that cleaves to outdated first industrial revolution thinking just as the fourth industrial revolution gathers pace.

SA is about two-thirds urbanised; cities are central, and with them skills, opportunities, social mobility, safety and good health. Yet while people stream to the cities hoping to benefit from the concentration of middle-class enterprise and ambition, the ANC undermines these assets through dogged state intervention. The sapped dynamism, curbed enterprise and reduced choice are consequences felt most keenly by the poor black majority.

The wasteful fussing over irrelevancies is captured by colleague Gareth van Onselen’s tweet on the ANC’s latest "transformative" gesture: "Grahamstown, run into the ground, destroyed by corruption, hollowed out by incompetence to the point that the water is too polluted to drink; dirty, broken and bankrupt, is to have its name changed to Makhanda. Really taught colonialism a lesson there."

This hints at the damaging triviality of populist or "radical" measures that only hamper delivering what the majority is crying out for. As Bellow’s Augie March says: "A man’s character is his fate … and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles".

That’s a lesson for SA too.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.