Rewriting the rules of the game - Biznews

2 July 2019 - The only way out of the trap, so that it becomes possible at all to have a proper debate about South Africa’s policy options, is to run hard at the bounds of acceptable opinion, so as to change the rules of the game.

Frans Cronjé

In 2013 the great historian and then Vice President of the IRR, Professor Hermann Giliomee made a speech (you can read the whole thing here) to the leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in which he shared with them eight political lessons from history. The fifth of the eight was ‘never bat on your opponents pitch’. They ignored him but the lesson stands as  the most important strategic principle for any group or organisation, far beyond the DA, that is serious about turning South Africa around.   

Giliomee wrote as follows: ‘I was told that the Naspers board was mulling over the question of whether the company should accept the invitation from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to testify. The board was undecided until a director with many decades of experience in courts and human foibles, spoke up: “Never bat on your opponents’ pitch.”’

He went on to write of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, the leader of the Progressive Federal Party from 1979 to 1986: ‘This was the best quality of Van Zyl Slabbert in his 12 years in Parliament. As leader of the official opposition he did not try to bat on the NP’s pitch. He rejected race-based policies unambiguously, and he never tried to “improve” apartheid. He also did not buy the story of “a step in the right direction” to justify the establishment of a tricameral parliament with Africans left out. He correctly, in my view, insisted that race classification and race-based policies were the fundamental flaws of apartheid. They could not be improved or better applied. When I read the debate between Frans Cronjé and Wilmot James in Rapport about the DA proposing to implement black economic empowerment (BEE) better, I thought of Jeff Malherbe’s words: “Don’t bat on your opponents’ pitch.” His last book, published posthumously, warns of the danger of perpetuating a race-based society by policies whose objective, ostensibly, is to do away with racial disabilities.’

For the specific purposes of his audience Giliomee wrote, ‘The DA can never compete with the ANC with a policy to improve BEE implementation. It must offer a clear alternative to the ANC’s race-based policies. It should take the form of a class-based support for poor children and small business, and a much better balance between the requirements of merit and regstelling, together with the promise of efficient service delivery. The DA’s natural constituency is conservative blacks disgusted with BEE and the beneficiaries the policy has created. Its constituency is those willing to work but kept out of the labour market by trade unions and ridiculous labour laws. It must respect and uphold the Constitution but it must remember that the great majority of the electorate is much more conservative on moral issues than the Constitution. As a country we are schizophrenic: a highly progressive constitution lies at odds with the values of a deeply conservative citizenry. The DA, if it wants to become a majority party, will have to face this dilemma squarely.’

Read also: ANC’s policy of trying to adopt right and left wing polices may trip it up – Stephens
Our polling has subsequently established every point Giliomee made about our deeply conservative citizenry. Polls shows that people are not particularly concerned about race and do not believe that it should play a particularly central role in policy making. That the ANC has been so successful in convincing society of the opposite has been one of its great strategic communication successes.

Even the DA bought into the ANC’s racial nationalist thesis, and for that reason ignored Giliomee’s advice and spent the following six years squarely on the ANC’s pitch, with the May election outcomes demonstrating the results. By cajoling the DA into playing its game, the ANC emasculated and disabled the DA from mounting a serious challenge to the ANC when the ANC was at its weakest. Just imagine how the DA might have fared if it had rejected the ANC’s hegemonic racial nationalist rules and played a new game directed at uniting our ‘deeply conservative citizenry’. Now, the DA is in serious trouble, and we do not know whether it can be saved or whether its decline is terminal – but that is a matter for another article.

Our purpose is instead to make the point that Giliomee’s advice is now of far broader importance and application to the rest of society as it confronts the implications of being a country set to experience some severe economic, constitutional, civil rights, and socio-economic reversals.

I was struck by this in recent conversation with a person deeply embedded in the business community, who told me that while there was business appetite and funding for a new political alternative to both the DA and the ANC, that project has stalled as a black woman could not be found to run a new party. That Cyril Ramaphosa may fail and that such a movement was necessary was increasingly accepted. There was no debate about whether the country was in severe economic and political trouble. It was conceded that social and economic circumstances were set to worsen and  they could do so very rapidly. But holding back one of the boldest initiatives to break that political and policy deadlock was an insistence on acting only within rules of an ideological game dictated by the ANC. Building a movement that explicitly rejected race as a metric and instead  uniting the moderate majority of South Africans around a bold new vision of the country was not an option.

Forcing influential actors to play within the rules of a game they can only lose is a theme that we see time and again. Take the example of BEE. The policy only works in practice because the business community buys into it, applies the principles to all its engagements, and then puts them into operation. Serious business leaders concede that the policy acts as a tax on investment and undermines domestic competitiveness while offering very little to the poor and the unemployed. But the policy, they maintain, must remain a central feature of any business-led attempt to rebuild the economy. Jettisoning it in favour of a new approach to empowerment policy, such as the Economic Empowerment for the Disadvantaged(EED) policy devised by the IRR, that identifies its beneficiaries on grounds of actual disadvantage and would be far more effective in reversing institutionalised disadvantage, is not an option. This is because it exists outside the bounds of the game established by the ANC’s hegemonic racial nationalist world view. Unable or unwilling to challenge or change those rules, business leaders are doomed to persist in seeking solutions that require subordination and acquiescence to what is a key reason for the problem.

Similar contradictions will in time come to apply to policies such as the expropriation of land or medical aid savings or pension fund assets. The expropriation of land would be very difficult to pull off without the buy-in and consent of organised commercial agriculture. If they just flatly refuse to go along with it then the only option open to the government will be to incite mobs or use the security forces to forcibly remove farmers in the full glare of the global media. Medical aid funds cannot be seized unless medical aid schemes and hospital groups play along with National Health Insurance (NHI) policy. Pension funds cannot comfortably be taken unless financial services pay those funds over to the state. But there is significant reluctance to challenge any of these policies in principle, and the approach of the business community is instead to see what headway may be made within the bounds of the ideological and policy worldview enforced by the ANC.

It is all very clever. The ANC insulates itself against significant policy scrutiny or public debate by trapping potentially influential actors within intellectual, policy, and opinion bounds that it determines. And those actors dare not exceed those bounds because interlaced with those bounds is the toxic concept of race, so if you do exceed them the trap is sprung and you are accused of being a racist. In using that threat to compel influential actors to play the game via its rules, it stacks the deck in a modern take on the Noam Chomsky quote, ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum…’. Hence the only debate about empowerment is how to do race-based BEE better – there is no debate about policies that might do empowerment better than race-based BEE.

The only way out of the trap, so that it becomes possible at all to have a proper debate about South Africa’s policy options, is to run hard at the bounds of acceptable opinion, so as to change the rules of the game. Apartheid, for example, could not be defeated until its central tenet – the idea of separate development – had been fully discredited in the full glare of the public. Before that happened it was futile to tinker with the contents of the Group Areas Act, for example.

But running hard at the bounds of acceptable opinion is a fraught process, as those who benefit most from the status quo, or are most under the influence of its ideological roots, understand full well that a successful challenge to the bounds of acceptable opinion can collapse the rules of the game entirely and thereby trigger a new game, with different rules – such as, for example, that actual disadvantage and not race should be the basis of policy.

Collapsing such edifices is what the IRR does and what it has done throughout its history. It is a vanguard that challenges enforced dogma in order to change the rules of the game around which the society is run. Along the way weaker constitutions and more feeble minds drop out of the battle when they are side-tracked by red herrings and carefully crafted irrelevancies, or swayed by the slings and arrows of those who command the status quo. That the IRR is from time to time exposed to withering fire is because those who benefit from the status quo know how very dangerous it is when an influential actor publicly breaks with the conventions that underpin the rules of the game. Steven Biko knew this when he said that ‘there is nothing more powerful in the hands of the oppressor than the mind of the oppressed’. That is why there are so many moves afoot now to silence us, and why such despicable things are said about our push to unite the moderate middle ground – black and white. It is also why we have turned to ordinary people for financial support – because there is no other source brave enough to take this stand with us. Many others, under pressure, bend on principle whereas we will not.

South Africa cannot turn itself around and become a truly free and prosperous society within the bounds of the hegemony of ideas forced upon the country by the ANC. That way we are doomed to a future of going through the motions of tinkering with policies that will never work – as the country sinks around us. Central now to any prospect for real political and economic recovery is rewriting the rules of that game, because only if that happens does it become a game that can be won.

Frans Cronjé is the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations. If you like what you have just read, become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.