In defence of pragmatism - Newsi

1 December 2021 - Among the notable and memorable events of the past year was the passing of former President FW De Klerk. It was one of those archetypal ‘opportunities’ to reflect on the state of the country. And there was no shortage of that!

Terence Corrigan

Among the notable and memorable events of the past year was the passing of former President FW De Klerk. It was one of those archetypal ‘opportunities’ to reflect on the state of the country. And there was no shortage of that!

I’m old enough to remember his speech on 2 February 1990. Given what the country was going through at the time, it delivered a momentous message, a much-needed change of course by the then incumbent government. To the layperson, a great deal seemed possible that Friday afternoon.

History is a messy business though, and as the discussions on Mr De Klerk’s legacy showed, he is not always remembered fondly. That is inevitable.

What intrigued me was the intonation of the notion of pragmatism in many of the contributions. For example, Dr Christi van der Westhuizen, said of his 2 February address: ‘The announcement was made by De Klerk the pragmatist. He was taking a strategic risk to regain the initiative, in a situation where the options beyond intensified military repression were rapidly shrinking.’

Hagen Engler put it this way in The Citizen: ‘His was largely a pragmatic call. I’m sure almost any apartheid prime minister would have made a similar decision at that point.’ (Mr De Klerk was the State President; the Prime Ministerial office was abolished with the 1983 Constitution.)

In the Mail and Guardian, Siyabulela Tsengiwe wrote: ‘Judging by the inconsistent statements De Klerk made about the nature of apartheid and the continued police brutality into the early 1990s, it can’t be true that he had decided to lead the NP into a negotiated settlement out of a transformation in consciousness — the realisation that apartheid was morally objectionable. What is plausible is that he made this historic decision out of pragmatism to avoid a scorched earth, given the stalemate between the regime and the forces of liberation.’

David Forbes, writing in the Daily Maverick, stated: ‘Circumstances, not a “Damascene conversion”, forced De Klerk to adopt a new strategy that was the only possible path to avoid a civil war. Conveniently, it would give him a legacy too. His pragmatism in freeing Nelson Mandela, and subsequent events, was the very opposite of his racist roots and beliefs, but his decisions changed South Africa’s trajectory.’

And a comment in the Financial Times held: ‘His decision to abolish apartheid appears to have been more pragmatic than moral.’ As should be apparent, pragmatism is put forward here as a counter-virtue of sorts. Mr De Klerk did what he did because of a cost-benefit analysis, a recognition that something had to change, not because of any moral or normative convictions. This irretrievably diminished whatever contribution he had made.

I don’t take issue with the idea that Mr De Klerk’s actions were premised on something other than moral conviction. The National Party was fundamentally a nationalist organisation whose top priorities revolved around the interests of its constituency – which the turmoil created by its policies and the resistance to them had placed in jeopardy. Its constituency, meanwhile, saw its interests ever less bound up with state power. If a deal could be made to defuse the crisis in the country so as to safeguard the latter’s interests, then that made sense.

At the same time, shifting economic and demographic realities inside South Africa – that the Institute of Race Relations’ former CEO, John Kane-Berman, termed the ‘silent revolution’ – and changes globally meant that the opportunity for taking action would probably never be more favourable than it was at that point.

On the ethical question, Mr De Klerk told historian Hermann Giliomee that if an idea became unworkable, trying to implement it would be immoral. By the late 1980s, this was clearly the case with Apartheid.

No doubt that would strike many as ethically anaemic. South Africa’s socio-political order has been founded on racist assumptions, and few things now strike us as quite so repellent. But whatever was inside his head, De Klerk’s actions represented a choice that would (in all likelihood, and apparent that February) result in his and his party’s eviction from power, and the possibility of avoiding a confrontation that would ultimately have destroyed the country.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga put this into perspective. ‘From a pragmatic point of view,’ he noted, ‘if you were around in 1993 and if you were aware of what was happening in the country and if you were aware of the difficulties when dealing with the transition into democracy, you will recognise that he played a critical role.’

True. Across the Limpopo, Zimbabwe showed what could happen when an entrenched oligarchy dug itself in and refused to yield. Zanu-PF remains in power, but the country has been devastated.

Pragmatism, etymologically, comes from the Greek word pragma, meaning ‘deed’. Pragmatism is rooted in the concrete. Its methodology is rationality and its concern is for outcomes. For my part, why De Klerk acted is far less important than that he acted.

The lesson – what I take from this ‘opportunity’ to reflect on the state of the country – is that pragmatism is no bad thing. We South Africans like (or at least claim to like) our politics framed in narratives of morality and principle. Perhaps there are times when we could use less of that.

South Africa today faces a different set of challenges from those existing at the beginning of the 1990s, but they are serious enough to warrant concern for the country’s future. Sure enough, a good part of this has been an abject lack of principle and morality. Think of the approach to dealing (if indeed it can be interpreted as such) with corruption, incompetence and venality. Think of some of the shocking mediocrity (and that’s generous) that populates the cabinet.

But paradoxically, a great deal of this stems from an obsessive adherence to principle, to the political ethics (‘ethics’) embodied in its ideological worldview. Think here of the dogged commitment to the state as an agent of economic and social development – while actual administration in many jurisdictions falls apart. Think of the centrality of race thinking in policy. In an environment in which more than a third of the workforce are unemployed (in official terms), the ANC is pushing through a measure to allow the minister to impose racial quotas on the economy. Or, perhaps most disastrously, the intentional politicisation of the civil service through the party’s noxious cadre deployment programme.

For the sake of South Africa’s future, more pragmatism is desperately needed. The ANC is probably too steeped in its ideological echo chamber to embrace governance and growth-enhancing reform with any enthusiasm. There is no Damascene conversion coming, and the investment of hope in President Ramaphosa as a national saviour who would lead the way in this has been shown to have been forlorn.

To reform would in a very real sense be for the ANC to give up on what makes it what it is.

But there might be some nascent instinct for survival that could form the basis for entirely pragmatic decisions to address the threats that confront us. Be under no illusion that this would be a desperate compromise with reality, but it would – at this point – be the best we could hope for. And it would be something the country would be grateful for.

The final word goes to an editorial comment by a Jamaican news outlet: ‘Mr de Klerk’s actions were undoubtedly motivated more by realism than anything else. But to the extent that he had the wherewithal and courage to turn against his own socialisation and conditioning, to reject racist, fascist ideology and embrace democracy, redounds to his eternal credit.’

It remains to be seen whether the ANC will in the future be able to claim something like this.

Terence Corrigan is a project manager at the Institute of Race Relations