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A couple of asides as I tinker away at a framework for assessing Sunday’s Cabinet announcement.

EFF

The media noise surrounding Helen Zille’s putative attitude towards Lindiwe Mazibuko is interesting, but largely because it is so loud.

In the last hour I have been asked twice (by journalists) for an opinion on Mmusi Maimane‘s acceptance of nomination to the position of DA Parliamentary Leader.

Not long ago I would have (privately) filed news of DA power-struggles and leadership changes under ‘white mischief’ and forgotten about it – confident that no client or journalist would ask for an opinion.

Real politics, the stuff that actually made a difference to legislative or regulatory outcomes, happened within the Tripartite Alliance or in the interactions between the ANC and business.

I think that was a useful shorthand that saved me time in the past, but clearly I will have to break the habit.

The Alliance no longer contains its own opposition – and is therefore no longer the primary site of politics.

The EFF, Amcu, whatever Numsa finally initiates and the DA all (healthily in my view) strip out a sort of multi-polar disorder from the ANC.

Politics will now (tend to) happen where it is meant to: on the streets and in parliament … and not where it previously tended to happen: in back room deals and as a result of other shenanigans in the ANC-led alliance.

There is an obvious trade-off between clarity of government policy/structure and the broadness of the ANC’s alliances. As those alliances break or simplify or are otherwise transformed I expect some kind of dividend for governance and economic policy.

If I might add …

Another habit of thought I might soon have to break is my instinctive intellectual pessimism about politics.

By ‘pessimism’ I do not mean an automatic assumption that politician are corrupt or incompetent.

What I mean is that I tend to think that politics changes little in the world, but that the world changes the politics.

I think this might make me some kind of market fundamentalist. I am certain that to grow, the DA will have to become more like the ANC – in its policy and in the class and racial character of its leadership.

The assumption (and maybe error) I make is believing that  the electorate purely aggregates the interests of broad groups of people and the political parties are compelled to reflect the character and interests of those groups.

So my ‘habit of thought” is that I assume that for a party to grow it will necessarily become more generic and bland.

Why this is ‘pessimistic’ (and I hope incorrect) is I tend to assume that our politics increasingly changes nothing (except to the negative) and parties endlessly drift towards a sort bland and generic centre in response to the ‘market’ of the bland and generic voters.

No wonder I was a secret reader of P J O’Rourke. He once observed in his normal right-wing, smug but hilarious way:

Now majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But like other precious, sacred things …. it’s not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza.

P. J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, 1991

Why this is a bad habit

I worry that my instinctive attitude is a potentially serious error. I can see how this ‘political pessimism’ might be a useful short cut in relatively homogeneous and stable first-world countries.

The main parties in those countries blur into each other.

But recession and unemployment, even in those countries,  is inevitably accompanied by a growing divergence in the political arena – a shrinking of the centre and growth of radical nationalists and/or populists.

Surely this is a better permanent model for understanding South Africa?

I suspect our calm transition and the stable predictability of the ANC and it’s comfortable electoral majority might have lulled me into a false sense of security.

Who could not smile at the jaunty red boiler-suits, gumboots and maid’s outfits adorning the mostly young EFF members being sworn in to parliament yesterday?

I am delighted the EFF are there and I think it is healthy for our politics that the ANC will have to contest with the EFF in the minds of voters and in the national and provincial assemblies.

Rather that than the nodding and winking and/or furious factional splits that have gone on up until now in the closed shop of the ANC.

But it should be front of mind that the ANC has to answer the challenge of the DA and of the EFF.

The ANC still has a safety margin and room for manoeuvre, but party leaders will have heard the howls in the night and are unlikely to just sit back staring into the fire hoping  for the best.

I have been agonising over whether to keep this website going –  or to consign it to the wastelands of the interwebs there to wander mournfully, accumulating lurid advertisements for secret ways of getting rid of belly fat and invitations from young, beautiful and lonely people, in your area, waiting by their phones for a call from you.

After weighing matters too arcane to bore you with here I decided to gird my sagging loins (that’s long and loose clothing, not that other thing you were thinking – Ed) and once more into the breach … and all of that.

So … I have written various 2014 previews. One you may have seen was for the Mail & Guardian and titled ‘What I will be telling investors in 2014′. I would have liked to give it a better edit – and I think I don’t adequately deal with the issue of the corroding effects of the original arms scandal – but you may be interested in reading it anyway. Catch it here.

I also published in early January, as part of BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities’ 2014 Outlook, the overview below. (Thanks, as always, to my main contract holder for generously allowing me to republish a few weeks later here.)

(Remember, no-one has been to the future and returned with any useful information as far as I am aware … so treat the following with a healthy degree of scepticism – Ed)

Political outlook 2014: No safe haven in the storm

Introduction

At least part of our sanguine view of South African politics has rested on the belief that the ANC had several more decades of 60%-plus support at the polls. We were of the view that while this could lead to corruption, complaisance and cronyism, it would also allow the party to keep the country, government and constitution steady while SA undertook a wrenching transformation from its apartheid past to whatever the future held.

However, several important fissures have appeared in the ANC’s support base that suggest this assumption of indefinite ruling party dominance may not be correct and, therefore, that the essentially benign shepherding of that transition is under strain.

Amcu: bridgehead in previously safe African working-class constituency

Firstly, the success of the Amcu (Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) in the mining (particularly platinum) sector has led to the virtual collapse of a key ANC labour ally, the National Union of Mineworkers (Num). Amcu is important for a number of reasons, but in this section, the issue is that it has created a bridgehead in the ANC’s core constituency that has every possibility of linking up with new left-wing (or in other ways radical) political formations that will challenge the ANC politically in the next few years.

Julius Malema and the formation of the EFF

Secondly, the expulsion of Julius Malema from the ANC and his formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party damages the ANC in two important ways. It draws disaffected young black South Africans, who are experiencing unemployment rates of about 60%, out of the ANC. And it captures ideological terrain that the ANC was previously able to control and finesse, namely, the question of the nationalisation of mines and land.

A strong and confident ANC has, since 1994, essentially been able to tell its electoral constituency that patience is required for transformation and that constituency has, with mutterings, accepted the ANC’s moral authority on the matter. However, that consensus is collapsing. Mr Malema’s ‘red berets’ are attacking the president at every opportunity and arguing that the ANC has sold out the birth-right of Africans and has been bought off by the opportunity to loot the state and by juicy empowerment deals. The message has a natural resonance among poor urban and unemployed youth – but up until Mr Malema’s expulsion, the ANC was able to articulate both sides of this debate within itself.

NUMSA split: The unravelling of the ruling alliance

Thirdly, it appears that the long-standing split within Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) over its relationship with the ANC has been forced to a head by the suspension of Cosatu Secretary General Zwelinzima Vavi. A ‘left’ faction had, with a degree of discomfort, existed within Cosatu since the formation of the union federation in 1985. This faction has its roots in non-ANC liberation traditions and was concentrated mostly in Cosatu manufacturing unions, especially Numsa. The moves to get rid of Mr Vavi and close down Numsa’s criticism of the president and of ANC economic policy probably emanate from the hegemonic faction within the ANC itself, in other words, Jacob Zuma and his closest allies. Not unsurprisingly, Numsa has now formally called on Cosatu to leave the alliance with the ANC, has said it will not be supporting the ANC in the election in 2014 and has called for the immediate resignation of President Zuma.

Over time, this will impact ANC electoral support, though not necessarily profoundly in 2014. How Numsa members and their dependants vote in next year’s election was probably a ‘done deal’ prior to Numsa’s defection decision at its special congress in late December 2013. Numsa may link up with ‘left’ or ‘workers’ parties (and may actually form a ‘socialist party’ that could challenge the ANC for support in the ANC’s key black working-class constituency), but this will likely impact more profoundly on electoral outcomes in the 2019 election.

ANC swelling in rural conservative areas and shrinking amongst urban sophisticates

Fourthly, the patronage and diversion of state resources as depicted by the Nkandla saga, combined with the vigorous pursuit of the rural vote in Kwazulu-Natal, has meant that the ANC is gradually appealing less to urban Africans (although this is by no means a majority trend) and more to rural and traditional poor black South Africans. This appears to mean that parties like the Democratic Alliance, AgangSA and the EFF are picking up a degree of unexpected traction in such constituencies.

Labour environment

After a catastrophic 2012 as far as the labour environment was concerned – especially the repeated waves of illegal and violent strikes in the platinum sector – 2013 saw stabilisation, albeit at still unacceptably high levels of unrest and strike activity.

In the platinum sector, the Amcu is ‘bedding down’, but likely to continue contesting with the Num in the gold sector. The next public-sector wage round is scheduled for 2015, so we have a breather before that storm hits (and we expected it to be a big storm when it does).

The formalisation of the Numsa split from the alliance probably means that this union will begin to actively contest with the Cosatu unions and in several other sectors of the economy. We are looking for the formation of new and smaller unions in sectors where the incumbent unions have grown too cumbersome or complacent to deal with the demands of specialist groups of workers. Unionism is a growth industry in South Africa, with annuity income for those who set them up. As Cosatu shudders, there are many opportunities emerging.

Labour unrest, poor labour productivity and inflexible labour markets (price, size, skills) are among the biggest negative domestic drivers of economic growth and we expect the figures to show a slight improvement in 2013 over 2012 and a significant deterioration in 2014 and 2015 – which may have significant negative implications along the lines of the BMW ‘disinvestment’ decision.

National Development Plan: The political rise of the Treasury and fall of Cosatu

The ruling party and the ruling alliance’s approach to the National Development Plan (NDP) has appeared highly conflicted since the adoption of the plan at the 2012 Mangaung national conference of the ANC.

While our view is that the NDP is little more than a shopping list (and not the miracle cure some ratings and multilateral agencies hope it is) in the areas of large infrastructure roll-out and a disciplining/training/focusing of the public service, we may be in for upside surprises. The important political leaders to watch here are ministers Lindiwe Sisulu (public service and administration) and Malusi Gigaba (state-owned enterprises).

In several different ways, the Zuma leadership of the ANC has, over the last few months, appeared to back with a degree of fortitude previously orphaned policy thrusts from the NDP that are generally ‘financial-market positive’.

The first of these is the foregrounding of the NDP itself – both at Mangaung, but also in the medium-term budget statement in October 2013. Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan stated that that this budget statement and all future budget statements would be ‘the accounts’ of the National Development Plan, putting the plan at the centre of government policy.

The trade-union movement – especially the now defecting faction rooted in Numsa, but actually common to the whole federation – was outraged by this, as it sees the NDP as a capitulation by the ANC to (variously) ‘white monopoly capital’, ‘neoliberalism’ or ‘business interests’.

In conjunction with this foregrounding of the NDP, Jacob Zuma has recently signed into law two major policy thrusts that are bitterly opposed by the ANC’s labour ally.

The first of these is the Transport Laws and Related Matters Amendment Act, which allows for the implementation of ‘e-tolling’ on Gauteng highways and has been bitterly opposed by COSATU and other community groups in that province. Bond-market investors and ratings agencies have repeatedly said it is crucial that the ANC implement ‘e-tolling’ if the government is to maintain credibility on the global capital markets. It is significant that the Zuma administration has grasped this nettle, despite facing (by all accounts) a significant electoral challenge in Gauteng in 2014.

The second surprising nettle-grasping activity has been the promulgation of the employment tax incentive bill in the face of united Coatu fury. This is the ‘youth wage subsidy’ of yore, and the ANC under Jacob Zuma has obviously decided to accept thunderous criticism from its ally in the hope that longer-term employment growth benefits will weigh in its favour at the polls, in both 2014 and 2019.

Together, these initiatives are surprising positives and have probably come about because the Treasury has managed to persuade Mr Zuma and his cabinet that failure to take a stand on these various measures could lead to downgrades by the ratings agencies.

Policy and regulatory risks predominate

Thus, our view is that the Presidency, bereft of any real policy direction itself (because it is busy purely with rent seeking and hanging onto power) has been persuaded by Pravin Gordhan that the country is in trouble, that the deficit is looking genuinely threatening, that downgrades are a real possibility and that if this goes south, President Zuma might go with it. The National Treasury briefly has the reins, and this gives us a moment of respite.

However, hostile mining regulations, a fiddly and interventionist Department of Trade and Industry, an overly ambitious Department of Economic Development, a hostile Department of Labour, liquor legislation, more and tighter empowerment legislation and deepening regulations on all fronts, but especially in the credit markets, mean that, on the whole, government in 2014 will be an unreliable financial-market ally.

State finances: The deeper risks are fiscal

The country’s increasing dependence for stability on social grants and other forms of social spending is a real and deepening political risk. While the social grant system has lifted millions of South Africans out of poverty and the public sector has employed hundreds of thousands of others, it has also created a culture of dependency and paternalism and is an unsustainable expense that the government will at some stage be forced to reduce. This is definitely going to be accompanied by severe social turmoil, although as mentioned previously, the real ‘fiscal cliff’ is still some way ahead of the forecast period dealt with in this report.

Election 2014

The election results will be important, but in ways that are difficult to predict.

If the ANC’s share of the national vote plummets to the low 50% range, will this force the party into a process of renewal, or will it be panicked into populist measures? It probably depends on which parties take up the slack.

If the ANC gets 65% of the vote, will it be ‘Nkandla business’ as usual – an unhealthy rural populism à la the Traditional Courts Bill, combined with activities like the significant public resources (ZAR208m) spent on building the president’s Nkandla compound and accusations of corruption?
If Mr Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters get 10% of the vote, will that mean ANC policymaking is paralysed until 2019 as the party attempts to appease the angry and disenfranchised youth? Will it mean legislation relating to mining and land ownership swerves into uncertain and dangerous territory?

If the Democratic Alliance wins 27% of the national vote (which we think unlikely) and if it is able to form a provincial government in alliance with other parties in Gauteng (which we also think unlikely), how might that cause the ANC to behave? Better? To continue to allow the Treasury to set the tone of probity and effectiveness, concentrate on fixing education and focus on economic growth as the only guarantor of electoral success in 2019? Will this kind of threat cause the ruling party to attempt to make opposition strongholds ungovernable? We suspect different impulses are already at war within the ANC and investors should watch how that battle plays out.

Below, purely as a way of presenting our latest ‘guesstimates’, are our ‘most likely’ electoral outcomes for 2014 (these may change as campaigning performance changes before the election and as various crises emerge, eg, the booing of Jacob Zuma at the FNB Stadium commemoration for Nelson Mandela in December 2013).

votingresultsinpreview

BRICs and the uncertain rise of the SACP

A relatively new and difficult-to-unpick issue is the growing confidence the South African Communist Party (SACP) has in shaping the national agenda. The inappropriate focus on BRICS speakers at the FNB Mandela memorial (over Africans and European Union speakers, with Obama the inevitable exception) is probably evidence of the Communists having very significant influence.

We think this could have fed through into the announced Zuma/Putin ZAR 100bn nuclear deal.

This is a matter of growing tension within the ANC, with a previously dominant (under Mandela and Mbeki) group of ‘progressive Africanists’ having lost power to the Communists, who are now in an alliance with a patronage-seeking, provincial elite with strong links to state-security apparatuses and rent-seeking business interests (‘the Nkandla crew’.)

This struggle could play into succession issues and might be a driver of attempts to impeach Jacob Zuma (a strategy unlikely to succeed, in our view) over the next few years.

Succession and a ‘rescue mission’ in the ANC?

While this matter probably lies beyond the 2014 scope of this report, within the ANC, the possibility of a rescue mission is taking shape (driven, in part, by growing commentary about how many public resources are ending up on and around Jacob Zuma’s person and his tight control of security agencies). A group now on the outskirts of the party, and in very general terms representing the ‘old guard’, appears set to begin working on securing a succession process that reverses the decline (moral and in popularity) over which Jacob Zuma appears to be presiding.

This move has not yet taken shape, nor is it properly manifest, but in our view the important people to watch are previous President Thabo Mbeki, Lindiwe Sisulu, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and Zweli Mkhize.

Preface 

I wrote what follows in July 1990 immediately after returning from a two week trip to Moscow. I was part of a group with the now sadly departed Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa). The original was published in Democracy In Action, the institute’s monthly newsletter. I had looked for a copy for years and Paul Graham the last executive director of  Idasa, and a man for whom I have the highest regard, went to considerable trouble to find the article for me as he was closing up shop. I am republishing it here exactly as it originally appeared, although I have to sit on my hands to stop myself stripping out much of the sentiment and youthful taking-of-oneself-too-seriously – and thereby cutting two thirds of the length. (I would also quite like not to admit to some of the things I once believed which I admit to in the article … and I would love to add a bit of irony … but it is all too late for that now.)

Why am I bothering – I am not unaware that this was not exactly seminal?  No special reason, except my desire that it form ‘part of the record’. I wanted it “out there” in the electronic universe to remind myself of the precise moment I stopped being a confused socialist and carried on with being just confused, an altogether less satisfying state than I had experienced previously. It was  bitter-sweet for me, this moment, and I have never entirely resolved the conflicted feelings that it evokes in me. I don’t promise that what follows will be madly interesting to anyone but myself and perhaps some others directly involved in the events I describe. So, if for no other reasons than the much vaunted record, complete and unexpurgated, here is:

Ten days that shook my world

Standing on the Leningradsky Prospect – the “straight way” to Leningrad – just outside Moscow I was filled with an unhappy mixture of dismay and despair.

I had reached an unbearably poignant shrine. In heroic proportions and cut deep into huge blocks of concrete was the visage of the Soviet version of the Unknown Soldier. The young interpreter translated the script alongside that  haunting face in hushed tones. “It says that, ‘the defenders of Moscow defend here forever’. Here they fought an important battle in the Great Patriotic War. Many people died. But for us this is very sad.”

Twenty million Soviet citizens died in that war. more than all the other deaths put together. The German army failed to take Moscow or Leningrad and eventually broke its back on a bitterly defended Stalingrad and the even more bitter Soviet winter.

Standing at that memorial I felt dismay at the enormity of suffering the people of this country had experienced in the last 100 years. I felt despair because by that stage of the trip I already sensed than another tragedy was befalling this oft punished country.

How do  you record a credible impression of a country with 290  million inhabitant and more mutually unintelligible languages than anywhere else in the world after a brief two weeks spent in one city – albeit Moscow?

The answer is you probably can’t.

It was sunny mid-June and I was part of an Idasa delegation of “young researchers” on a fact-finding mission hosted by a group called the Committee of Youth Organisations. For me personally the visit was of particular importance.

The Soviet Union was the land of milk and honey for many of us who grew up politically in the student movement in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the flagship of a growing fleet that would rid our world of the uncaring and greedy imperative of profiteering capitalism and the misery it had brought our country.

We could quote chapter and verse of statistics that demonstrated the availability of basic goods and services to all Soviet people. We could parade the achievements of Eastern bloc socialism – in the production of iron and steel, in the eradication of illiteracy, in culture, the arts and in sports.

In response to perestroika and glasnost we had all reformulated our ideas and I wanted to discover two things: the soul of the Soviet people and  whether the red flag was still flying. We were not able to answer any of these questions conclusively and were left with a series of often unconnected impressions.

I was quite unprepared for what I found in Moscow.

We sat in a meeting with the editor of the Moscow Communist Youth Organisation (Komsomol) daily newspaper. The paper has a subscriber list of one and a half million and is delivered daily. This man was a political appointee yet he harangued us for over an hour about the evils and absolute unworkability of socialism.

We didn’t understand. Here was a powerful and influential communist, picking up a glass on the table and asking, “Who does this belong to? To the state, or the people, or some vague body? I don’t care about this glass,” and he made as if to throw it out of the window.

In an intense and growing fury he took a Parker pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This is my pen! If this man (pointing at his second in command) breaks this pen, I will beat him,” he said, shaking his fist angrily.

Reaching some kind of climax, the editor rose to his feet and shouted pointing out of the window at the inevitable queue at a shop across the road: “Those people are queuing for children’s slippers. This is not how people should live! This is not even how animals should live!”

The sentiments behind these ragings were expressed by everyone we met – more cautiously only by the most senior members of the Communist Party.

The economy has clearly failed to meet the requirements of the population and the list of reasons they give reads like a tirade from the New Right.

Here is a selection of rough quotes as I jotted them down in my notebook or remember them now:

“The authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative command system has created impossibly skewed production priorities.”

“Why work hard, or with any care and attention to detail if you are going to get your 300 roubles a month no matter what and anyway, you are not going to be able to buy anything with it? We have created workers who don’t know how to work.”

“Goods are expensive and if they are made here they are of inferior quality. It is very difficult to get imported goods and usually these are impossibly expensive.”

“I have lived here all my life. Now it is worse than anyone can remember. There are just no goods in the shops and for the first time we are really worried about hunger.”

Almost without exception the people we spoke to blamed socialism for their ills. When those of us with deep philosophical and political roots in the South African socialist movement protested that it wasn’t socialism per se that was the problem, but rather the errors committed in the building of the society and economy of the Soviet Union specifically, we were laughed out of court.

“It is the ideas themselves. 1917 was a disaster for us. We need the market economy,” was the refrain we heard time and again.

There seems no doubt that there is a developing  consensus amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow at any rate, that the “free market” is the panacea to many of their ills. It would have been impossible, and extremely presumptuous of us to lecture them on the evils of rampant capitalism. They want it and they want it now.

When Germany and Japan start buying up state enterprises for a pittance and fill the shops with goods that only a few can afford; when unemployment and lack of housing becomes a problem for the previously protected underclass and when access to a whole lot of goods ans services becomes determined by income, they may change their minds, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

The citizens of Moscow (a relatively wealthy city) are struggling, increasingly despairingly, to survive. At first I was tempted to argue that they are better off than the unemployed in the First World, but it just doesn’t appear to be true, especially as far as countries with social welfare systems are concerned.

The problem, of course, is that the capitalism that will be built in the Soviet Union will be a mean and half-starved animal.

The Soviet people look at the highly developed capitalist economies of the West for a vision of their own future. The truth is that they can expect only the vicious and exploitative versions of the system that exist on the periphery in the Third World.  The creation of that system is going to be extremely painful.

The other element of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the political entity itself.

The republics are finally starting to be flung off the edges of the vortex of rapid political change. Long repressed nationalism, often highly chauvinistic, is emerging everywhere and Gorbachev is finding it almost impossible to hold the show on the road.

The dark spectre of the Soviet Union’s collapse into 15 disgruntled, warring, potentially economically unviable Third World states with terrifying military resources at their disposal is starting to haunt the wold.

And what about the Russian people?

We were all astounded at the depth of education and cultural and philosophical literacy in the wide cross-section of people we met. A deep abhorrence of war and commitment to peaceful change was the characteristic feature. In response to the question “what do you want, or see as an alternative?”, the most common phrase was, “respect for universal human values.”.

We asked many young people if they were proud of any of their national achievements – the beautiful, cheap and efficient Moscow underground, the low price and ready availability of books and records and the level of literacy and education.

We were told (variously): “The Soviet Union is not a country, we have no national achievements”; “how can we be proud if it takes all our effort and time just to buy a loaf of bread in a shop”.

Almost every young person we met had a burning desire to leave the country. The most popular movie on the circuit is a “documentary” comparison of life in the Soviet Union versus life in the West.

Apparently this films looks at the worst of Soviet life compared to the best in the West. It sounds like the worst kind of anti-communist, American ultra-right chauvinism –  except it was made by a Soviet film producer. What is more, the public swallow every last detail in an orgy of masochistic self-hatred.

Media freedom

One thing we found interesting and encouraging was freedom and vibrancy of the media.

Organised political opposition to the Communist Party is weak (outside of the national movements in the republics) and many of the new parties have no real experience at mobilising the population. However, the press and television are filled with debate and exploration of new ideas and harsh examinations of social problems ranging from alcoholism through to child abuse.

By the end of the 10 days, the six of us were punch-drunk and exhausted. We spoke together for hours trying, unsuccessfully, to draw out the essence of the experience. We all had the sense of being in an important place at an important time. This was the exact point where a grand enterprise had come off the rails.

The resounding shock waves of that catastrophe have changed the whole world, not least of all our own country. We struggled with the enormity of it and the sense of hopelessness we were left with.

As the last day of the visit dawned, I spoke to a wise and gentle man about my confusion and disappointment. He said: “Yes, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but you are wrong to say our people are hopeless or despairing. They have spirit and humanity. We will win through in some way.”

(I was accompanied on that trip by Ian Liebenberg, Hermien Kotze, Zorah Ebrahim, Khehla Shubane and Mark Swilling – and I wish them well wherever they may be.)

There is something that seems to have been missed in the public discourse about Marikina.

Without wanting to be over dramatic, I think Marikana is a clear warning that we are under immediate and serious threat; in ways that I will discuss below.

What happened – both before and after the police shooting – has been exhaustively examined and there have been excellent discussions about the untransformed migrant labour system, the collective bargaining system, the gradual implosion of Num, the awfulness of the conditions in Nkaneng, the micro-lenders explosion, the sadness and despair of families of victims in the labour sending areas  … one might have thought that every conceivable angle has been exhaustively pursued.

But we can be swamped by the details and the anger and grief.

I think something has been missed, perhaps in emphasis, rather than facts – and  because, rather than despite, the sheer attention to detail in the media coverage.

So take one step back and look carefully.

Ask: what is most essential about what happened here?

  • The police shot and killed 35 striking mine workers.
  • At least 10 other people had been killed beforehand – including 2 police officers – mostly by the strikers.

Now take another step back and let a slightly, only very slightly, broader picture come into focus:

  • It happened now, not in the apartheid era – and there is nothing with which to compare it in our 18 years of democracy.
  • The closest proximate cause was the implosion of the National Union of Mineworkers.

One more step:

… and one last step:

  • Num is Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, is the mainstay of ANC support in Cosatu and is one of 3 key pillars of support within the ruling alliance backing the re-election of Zuma (with the SACP and Kzn);
  • Amcu, Julius Malema and the wildcat strikers and their committees found each other from the beginning of the cascade (of which Marikana was a part) after the Implats strike in January.

As I focussed backwards and forwards through those perspectives I suddenly, with a surge of adrenalin, realised the danger we are in.

This is the essence of that realisation:

We have had 18 years of a comfortable ANC majority. Whatever the problems with the ANC’s performance I have mostly believed the party would continue to enjoy the overwhelming support of the majority – of so-called African black South Africans – well into the future, beyond any point worth worrying about.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary I have come to rely on the inherent stability that comes from the ANC sitting like a collapsed star at the centre of our political solar system; with that dense cinder, in turn, held together by the ANC’s own leadership sitting at the core of the party, heavy and stultifying, but essentially stable.

Marikana (in the violence, in the institutional collapse, in the momentum given political  evangelists of the Malema stripe) is about Jacob Zuma’s ANC spinning off pieces of itself, of its members and supporters, of its voters and potential voters.

The most obvious metaphors are from physics.

The centripetal force decreases as the set of interest at the centre narrow (please check my science here). The Nkandla patronage networks are in an ever tighter and more mutually dependent relationship with the SACP and a faction of Cosatu (a faction most closely identified with the Num). The narrower the centre, the less able it is to hold in place the system orbiting around itself. Ultimately, the bits are flung out of the orbit.

Forgive the scattering of a few lines from YeatsThe Second Coming, but they are so apposite here as to be inevitable:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

And the narrowing centre’s response? Well, that would be the massacre of the 34 mineworkers.

The blood-dimmed tide

The other metaphor is the vacuum, and as we know nature abhors a vacuum so it sends the first things that come to hand to fill it.

There seems to be a universe of hopeful voices out there that the first thing that will ‘come to hand’ is either a more democratic version of the ANC or a DA somehow more rooted in the nation (especially that three-quarters of the nation that is poor and black).

But what were the first things to rush into the vacuum, the vacuum left by the rapidly narrowing set of interests at the centre and by its precipitous loss of moral and political authority?

The communists had it right in 2009 already.

If the communists are good for nothing else, they are excellent at spotting fascists (I always think it is because, like alcoholics and drug addicts in recovery, communists feel the call of the beast within … but that is an argument I will need to explore elsewhere).

Already in late 2009 the SACP warned about the emerging tendency within the ANC (the tendency that coalesced around Malema, but has its roots deeper in elements of the emerging elite and their allies in the private sector):

Because of its rhetorical militancy the media often portrays it as “radical” and “left-wing” – but it is fundamentally right-wing, even proto-fascist. While it is easy to dismiss the buffoonery of some of the leading lieutenants, we should not underestimate the resources made available to them, and the huge challenge we all have when it comes to millions of increasingly alienated, often unemployed youth who are potentially available for all kinds of demagogic mobilization.

See what I mean? The communists are almost prescient as far as fascism is concerned. I covered those issues in more detail here.

Amcu and Julius Malema are part of the same phenomenon in the sense that they are both drawn into existence by the collapse of the centre and in addition share a number of features in ideology and style.

The extreme levels of violence, especially the violence of the state (deployed to defend the weakening centre) is also an essential and predictable element of what must flood in to fill the emptiness at the centre.

This is not some threatening future. Marikana threw aside a veil and revealed that this is where we are already, this is what is filling the vacated centre.

When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun

  And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

(Note: I know it is such a cliché to use The Second Coming, but it is almost irresistible given the points I want to make here. Read the whole poem at the link I provide earlier … it is not really meant to be dipped into in the way that I have here. Consider its post-First World War context. )

*It was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin who famously said the Party “found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up” – and he would have known a thing or two about that. For the most sturdy readers you can find a discussion of that here.

Lenin knew how easy it was to pick up power when it was lying around

Think of the various interests of classes and groups in our society as constituting an ecology in which political parties and organisations find niches to graze, hunt and be sustained.

The system can change and niches shift, narrow or broaden –  and in response the denizens that live in each niche must adapt or become extinct.

Alternatively, major fauna can begin to change for other systemic (or extra-systemic?) reasons and new spaces and niches close or open in response.

And a shockwave goes through the ecosystem and a number of species appear and/or rabidly (oops) rapidly evolve, while others disappear.

Like all metaphors this one is going to break down the closer it gets to the real world, but I think something like this is happening to our political ecosystem – as the ANC’s DNA drifts towards the lumbering, complacent and patronage-networked side of the spectrum.

The gaps that are opening are in the middle classes, in the cities and amongst urban professionals – niches which (that?) are being vacated by the ANC as it settles its rump into the comfort of a sort of conservative, patriarchal, kleptocratic, bureaucratic and ethnic politico-ecological pouf-cushion.

I make  this observation as I watch (on eNews channel) the DA marching on Cosatu’s head-office in Johannesburg in a historical reversal of roles that I am struggling to get my head around.

I saw a Twitter post from Ranjeni Munusamy last night in which she said: “After the #DAmarch tomorrow, maybe nuclear powers will march to Greenpeace offices. Will make just as much sense”.

I get her dismay completely, but I suspect that is just my old assumptions about the shape of our political ecology dominating my brain.

Why shouldn’t the DA be going up directly against Cosatu?

They are, increasingly, competing for exactly the same constituency – the constituency recently, in effect, vacated by the ANC.

That is what all this business about Zille attempting to recruit Vavi into the DA has been about.

They have been flirting – because they feel how close they are to each other – and now they are fighting, for exactly the same reasons.

On Sunday Ferial Haffajee wrote an extremely interesting piece in her City Press, pointing out that Cosatu is increasingly dominated by public sector unions  – and therefore increasingly represents “a middle”, rather than “a working” class.

The story uses this graphic:

… which I think comes from a Uasa Federation study by economist Mike Schussler that points out that the employed in south Africa enjoy relatively good living conditions with an average salary of R13 200 and further that public sector workers are significantly better off than their private sector counterparts.

Haffajee writes:

Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there. What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.

So what is happening right now?

There is an inevitable frisson in the relationship between Cosatu and the DA.

Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance border the niches vacated by the ANC, namely the unemployed and the middle classes. (The unemployed and the middle classes, perhaps more than any other groups, have  the most to lose from the ANC’s, at best squandering, at worst looting, of societal resources available for growth and relief.)

As the opposing crowds gather in the streets of Johannesburg, the blue DA marchers versus the red Cosatu defenders – those for the youth wage subsidy and those against it – we might be expected to conclude that these are bitter class enemies.

I still think not – to my eyes I cannot distinguish them ethnically or class-wise … (but I accept that I might just not have cracked those codes).

The ANC – as well as agents of the state, I think – will strive mightily to prevent Cosatu from finding the DA – and vice versa.

As romantic literature suggests, love and hate lie alongside each other like geological strata – always in the process of metamorphosing, one into the other.

(Note – I think my various metaphors here don’t adequately take account of the differences in Cosatu – and ultimately break down on that point. I do think the public sector side of the federation is more middle-class and the private sector side more radical and competitive. However it is easier for the ANC to keep the public sector unions – the DA’s natural allies in class terms – on side because, ultimately, those unions are dependent on the state budget over which the ANC has control. Obviously there is a cost involved in the ANC buying off those middle class unions, and it is a cost ultimately borne by the unemployed … but that is an argument for another post. I am not sure if the DA will be able to capitalise on this contradiction, but it is not impossible that is precisely what the party is trying to do in Johannesburg as I write this.)

Once a week I take my mother to an audio book library.

My car radio only picks up SAFM and because the dreary worthiness of our national broadcaster occasionally tempts me into driving my car off a cliff, I sometimes pick something out for myself.

I have recently finished listening to (over and over again – at least eight times in a row) “About the Size Of It – the Common Sense Approach to Measuring Things” by Warwick Cairns.

Aside from being a charming, old-school, discourse on how our bodies and what we do with them have determined the various measuring systems humans have adopted, the book hints, to my mind, at deeper philosophical insights into the nature of society and history … and, ultimately, our evolving humanity.

The flow of “About The Size Of It” traces the use of feet, hands and thumbs in determining the measures that humans have used throughout Europe and Asia – right back to the builders of Stonehenge who appear to have used a “megalithic foot” as the basic unit of construction – i.e. one about as long as a man’s foot wrapped in a leather slipper, as opposed to the later “foot” of European and US measurement which is about as long as a workman’s boot.

Warwick Cairns sounds like an amiable old duffer – which is not entirely due to the fact that my consumption of the text was via the reading by clearly ‘amiable old duffer’ Christian Rodska. But you will see below that if anything Cairns looks like a young and clever Hobbit.

The charm of the book lies in its gentle admonishment of endless attempts to impose measuring systems (especially the metric system) on humans who inevitably revert back to methods and units that suit them and that are practically based on hands, feet, thumbs, how far we – and our horse or ox –  can plough in one day, the amount of liquid we can comfortably drink (or hold in our bladders) and the weight of small rocks we can easily hold in each hand and compare.

The “deeper” implications of the book are revealed in a quaint cascading explanation that I had actually come across before in one of those awful “Isn’t this Amazing – PASS IT ON!!!” emails.

It goes something like this: the size of the rocket boosters on the space-shuttle are ultimately determined by the width of two horses’ backsides. The sweet – but I suspect not entirely accurate – explanation consists of describing the link between the rail system that carries the boosters, the carriage axle-makers who made the first axles for locomotives, the fact that their machinery was set up for horse carriages and that carriage tracks throughout Europe and the USA were precisely the width of two horses side-by-side … because that is the optimal configuration for drawing a carriage.

I am less interested in the accuracy of this illustrative example than I am in the idea that the structure and technology of our society – the momentum and trajectory of the complex system of human history – might be shaped by basic and natural limitations and potentials.

Jared Diamond’s 1997 “Guns, Germs and Steel – a short history of everybody for the last 13000 years” explores this matter more directly, although in a more difficult and in-depth way.

Diamond’s book deserves a full review of it’s own – it is a complex and extremely wide ranging explanation of why societies throughout the world had differential success – particularly competitively. He explores how climate and geography – down to the detail of which plants and animals where available for domestication – and how, for example, advantages get locked in through early urbanisation leading to the spread, and therefore growing immunity, to certain diseases – which in turn has led to the domination of some societies over others.

Both these books explore how our society and history is rooted in our nature and the nature of the physical world – and also how the momentum of our society and history resists change.

For me what is interesting is how our technologies are pushing at the boundary of the limitations imposed by our physical and natural being and by the complex ordering of our societies’ development – holding out the promise and threat that these might no longer determine what we could become.

In a Woolworths queue in the Gardens Centre yesterday evening I idly picked up the Cape Argus.

It’s the only time I actually read anything in that newspaper.

I like to casually glance at its headlines during my journey from the beginning of the endless tunnel of sweats sweets (damn morning rush) and magazines. I then stash it amongst the heap of chocolate boats stuffed with Smarties right before the tills.

I commit two very mild acts of corporate activism when I do this.

I admonish The Argus for plastering Cape Town with interesting and clever billboards that inevitably refer to puerile and ridiculously provincial – and badly written – stories.

And I wrist-slap Woolworths for having made me carry my then small children through that tunnel after a long day of shopping – an experience that  still makes me shudder.

Okay, these are not very militant acts; more mild criticism of two old and venerable institutions that I feel great affection for but believe would benefit from the occasional slap.

Anyway, the cover story on The Argus shocked me rigid – such that I barely noticed the passing array of Magnum Ice-creams and left-over chocolate father Christmases calling out to me and the small squalling children being pushed by their exhausted mothers through Infanticide Row.

Government is proposing to fine South Africans who give unsanctioned weather and pollution warnings –  ten years in jail or a R10 million fine (catch the full text of the South African Weather Service Amendment Bill here.)

I got it immediately.

You can’t have amateur forecasters spreading panic and despair because they had seen fluctuations in their crystals and spirit catchers … or because choppy surf with a curling left-break at Glen Beach means Durbs is gonna be hit by cyclones, dude … or whatever.

But as I was passing the tubs of sour worms it dawned on me that all forecasting should be controlled. You can’t have every blogger and his parrot predicting the unfolding sovereign debt crises in Europe, the US presidential elections, the possibility of a US/Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, whether Germany and France will eventually let Greece sink without a trace, whether the Euro will be history this time next year …. the list is endless.

The pronouncements of economists and political analysts and talking heads of all kinds should come with health warnings. Who’s to say they know anything more than anyone else about anything?

But they get asked by television and radio stations and newspapers and they set up blogs …

Oops …

I dawned on me, but only after a surprisingly long time; somewhere between the sacks of chewy white milky cars and deep piles of You Magazines.

I am a forecaster. I have been quite specific about what I think will happen in the ANC’s debate about mine nationalisation. I have been fairly specific about succession issues in the ANC – both at Polokwane (where I was mostly wrong) and Mangaung (where I will be mostly right) ….

Excuse me? Did you really just say what I think you said?

No. No but seriously – the South African Weather Bureau has scientists with balloons and mysterious beeping machines in places like the Antarctic and Gough Island and a billion information feeds and huge computer models that attempt to get closer and closer to emulating the storm systems driving across from south of South America … and they still fail because they forgot about the butterfly flapping its mysterious wings in Peru.

By the time I punitively stashed The Argus amongst the chocolate tugs stuffed with brightly coloured beads just before the serene Woolworths teller lady I was having a minor existential crisis.

Admittedly not a completely new one – once you have been fairly sure that the ANC would not slip into the hands of the Nkandla Crew at Polokwane you are forever chastened and humbled by the knowledge that the future really is an ever unfolding mystery.

I think both the DA and the ANC might be on the verge of an evolutionary spurt that will change what they are and thus see them shifting into new ecological  niches in our political landscape.

I also think that the landscape itself changes much slower than we think or hope.

Voluntarism is a term for a species of political error – and I dredge this up from the gleaming days of my youthful involvement in the ‘mass democratic movement’ in South Africa. The taxonomic system we developed for naming and defining ‘mistaken beliefs’ was tiresomely thorough and self-righteous, but I have to confess that I still dip into that frame of reference and find there useful analogies and ways of understanding the world.

Voluntarism  means believing that through pure force of will, cleverness of organisation, brilliance of strategy, accuracy of tactics and shear hope, anything could be achieved no matter what the inherent conditions.

I am convinced that the Democratic Alliance foray into the townships and squatter camps is either a form of voluntarism or it will result in the DA becoming something else entirely – and ultimately something very similar to what the ANC has become.

This somewhat pessimistic view of politics is based on the assumption that politicians and political parties do not have a free hand to sell what they like to whoever (whomever?) they like.

The racial divide in South Africa and the racial solidarity of the groups which face each other across that divide is a deep structural phenomenon and not a casual consumer preference.

When Julius Malema talks about “the Madam and her tea girl” referring to DA chief Helen Zille and the DA MP and national spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko he finds a resonance.

This ‘resonance’ is not something created by clever marketing and it is also not something that can be got rid of like Vodacom changing its colours from blue to red.

Groups of people, their ideology, culture and attitudes can be changed – particularly in the powerfully denaturing environment of modern industrial cities. This is how an African peasantry became  the urban proletariat of South Africa’s modern capitalism. And it was this process that created the possibility of an ANC that represented all black Africans in the country and not just specific tribal groups.

But do not overestimate the power and speed of this process. Think of the ethnic boroughs in New York; think of the Xhosa/Zulu tussle in the ANC and think of the unbridgeable divide between the black and white experience in South Africa.

South Africa’s history, including colonialism and Apartheid, has a powerful momentum in our lives today. I think this means that the hope that the DA with more black faces and branches (but essentially the same ideology , structure and principles) could make a serious electoral challenge will remain just that – a hope.

A party still called the Democratic Alliance could displace the ANC, but only by becoming something very similar to its foe i.e. led by black people with a history of opposition to Apartheid and primarily about redressing the past,  directing state resources to benefit black people and  channelling wealth towards the emerging black elite.

The “rump” of the DA are good old white liberals (in the best sense of the word) who have their ideological roots in the closing years of Apartheid.

A party with such a “rump” will never (in any time frame that could be relevant to us) represent a majority of black South Africans – even urban professionals, even a significant minority. To represent those people the DA would have to be of those people, run by those people and be an instrument to further the interests of those people.

I do think urban African professionals are in the process of defecting, with disgust, from the ANC.

But I will be looking for a Movement for Democratic Change lookalike (to the ANC’s ZANU-PF) to emerge from the South African political dynamic.

That ultimately means I am still looking for an organised defection by the industrial working class and their middle class allies that will emerge from a split in the Ruling Alliance – that would probably put Cosatu on one side and the ANC on another.

On this basis the ANC could lose control of the cities to a political formation like the MDC –  although not one that could be portrayed, as the MDC has been by ZANU-PF and by the ANC (which can already sense the threat), as having been funded and set up by white farmers and other ‘enemies of national liberation’.

There is a part of me that hopes I am wrong … that we have it within ourselves to escape the awful gravity of our history; that we really are free to choose our future.

My view, however, is that the choices we do have are all within a narrow band of possibilities confined by the deep structural features of our past and present.

Thus the ecology of our society and our politics remains the same – or at least changes extremely slowly – but the creatures that inhabit the landscape are modified by natural selection and drift and displace each other in the niches that are available to them.

(My next post will deal with the question of what the ANC is becoming as it changes its niche as the party narrows and shifts – geographically, ideologically and socially.)

This added after publication:

The über-troll of South African political analysis R.W. Johnson added this gentle corrective to the version of the above article published on Politicsweb: “Am I the only person astonished by the fact that Mr Borain can’t spell voluntarism ?” He’s quite right about this – as he is about so much – although he is usually also interesting. He was, appropriately, hanging out with the racist bullies in Politicsweb’s comments section, so I shouldn’t be terribly surprised at his sneering tone.

The word is voluntarism (not volunterism, as I originally had it … I got it wrong because I mistakenly thought ‘we’  had made it up and I could therefore spell it as I pleased) and it means: “any theory that regards will as the fundamental agency or principle, in metaphysics, epistemology, or psychology”  – from Dictionary.com.

This way:

  • The business of government becomes the business of enriching the governors … rather than the business of governing and thereby serving the electorate’s overarching interests?
  • The extremely rich rewards to be gained from holding political office cause the party list process – especially in the ANC – to become one of mayhem and murder, endlessly chaotic and contested?
  • All classes of South Africans whose interests are inimical to the looting of the state, political patronage, ransacking the parastatals, incompetent government and tenderpreneurial activity of all kinds (the black and white middle classes, the industrial working class and the urban poor who are dependent on service delivery as well as big and small business, which both need a functional state, stable rules and the rule of law)  begin to shift their support to opposition parties, social movements and trade unions?
  • In turn this puts pressure on the Ruling Alliance as Cosatu and ANC democrats start pushing against the tide.
  • The ANC withdraws into governing through systems of patronage and razzmatazz populism as its class base shifts to the rural poor, unemployed urban youth, the state sector and the political/economic  elite and fast-and- loose forms of international capital and organised criminals (the last two categories are experts in dealing with this kind of politics)?

I think this is the way the cookie crumbles. With the proviso that no-one knows the future – and it is always more unexpected than not –  and I think the cookie crumbling in the way that I have described means:

  • The Democratic Alliance continues to transform its racial profile (in electoral support as well as leadership) and strengthens its support in urban constituencies throughout the country in the May18 national municipal election.
  • There is a significant showing in that election by other opposition parties and independents.
  • Cosatu begins to plan for the inevitability of either ‘a coup’ within the ANC or a withdrawal from the Ruling Alliance and the establishment of a viable alternative political home.
  • The backlash within the ANC after the election will be severe leading to very high levels of contestation before and during the 2012 elective centenary conference.

That’s the way I see it, although I might be wrong.

If I am right, the next few months is the last chance for the ANC to be saved from the future its current leaders are securing for it.

A rescue job will have to reject the Nkandla style patronage networks as well as the ANC YL style technocratic tenderpreneurialism and those who back it. That doesn’t leave much political room for a challenge or much of an internal constituency in which to nestle it – other than on the left.

Just thought I would mention that in passing … I am now so busy with paid work (hurrah!) that “in passing” is the only time I will have for a while.

We are the ape with the pattern recognition dial cranked up high and this has served us well over our evolutionary history.

But when we assess risk in systems as complex as the global economy our instinctive wariness at the sudden silence in the Palaeolithic forest is not necessarily useful – and might be part of a warning system directly implicated in us getting things wrong in the complex and networked world in which we live and act.

The billions of tons of grinding debris in the violent waters surging over Japan’s eastern coast seem part of a flood of dangerous chaos and instability stretching from the sovereign debt markets through the shifting front lines in Libya to the meltdown at the Fukushima  nuclear power facility.

Two months ago the theatre of the world seemed to be playing to a comforting old script we all knew.

Today it feels like anything might happen – and it probably will.

Let me not pretend to expertise on plate tectonics, but the clearest and most current metaphor that best explains how we should think about the world and the global economy is the state of the earth’s crust east of Japan just before Friday’s quake.

The Japanese main island of Honshu is unique in the world in that it is at the meeting point of four of the Earth’s fourteen major tectonic plates.

Plates driven by convection in the plastic rock below (in the asthenosphere) meet each other with a gradual build up of complex pressure and stresses, which are, in truth, continent smashing in their power and potential.

After sometimes extended periods of apparent stability the stresses reach a point at which they are suddenly released and one or more plate(s) move(s) violently – in this case the Pacific Plate jerks in the direction it has been pushing all along: deep underneath Honshu.

And then follows a sequence that might, with the benefit of hind site, look like tumbling dominoes in one of those endlessly complicated but strangely compelling set piece knock downs (only click here if you have the patience and bandwidth for watching endlessly toppling supermarket products – the Balkan juice  boxes are the most mysterious.)

First the quake: 8.9 on the Richter Scale, making it the 5th most powerful earthquake ever recorded. Then the seabed buckles over hundreds of square kilometres displacing a huge volume of water that sends a whole series of giant waves travelling at over 600 km/h in every direction, giving the Japanese authorities less than 15 minutes to react.

Then consider if you will the extended shuddering cascade of triggers and causality that will travel into the future – think of it as a wave that unlocks energy, destructive or otherwise, inherent in the situations and objects it encounters, rather than the cause of what happens.

Beyond the immediate human tragedies of loss, displacement, suffering and death there is long-term infrastructure damage, economic catastrophe in the already stretched insurance industry, political turmoil from a populous that will accuse the politicians of not having prepared adequately, an unfolding nuclear crisis and sundry other effects and consequences that we can all speculate about, but will likely be a surprise anyway.

The point is that while we can attempt to model such systems, beyond a certain level of complexity there is almost nothing we can say with certainty about how things will unfold.

While you consider these waves spreading out from the disaster that has struck Japan,  bursting other bubbles, causing other wound up instabilities to suddenly unwind, consider the ripples of this earthquake meeting the ripples of the oil supply shock rooted in the political turmoil in North Africa and the gathering force of the the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and elsewhere.

“Why” is not the question

When tragedy strikes us, particularly the personal, catastrophic and traumatic kind – a fatal car accident, a murder or the unexpected suicide of a family member – our first self-protective act is to grasp for an explanation.

Our initial need is for something simple, some prime cause that can give us the limited comfort of being able to say to ourselves: “This is why it happened”.

Fredrick Nietzsche {here quoted from”Ubiquity: The Science of History – or Why the World is Simpler Than We Think” by Mark Buchanan (Crown 2000) – it’s heavy going but well worth the effort} said:

To trace something unknown back to something known is alleviating, soothing, gratifying and moreover a feeling of power. Danger, disquiet, anxiety attend the unknown – the first instinct is to eliminate these distressing states. First principle: any explanation is better than none…The cause-creating drive is thus conditioned and excited by the feeling of fear….

In the world in which we live, no explanation is almost always better than an incorrect one. At least then you know you don’t know – which is a slight protection in itself.

There is no new tide of chaos sweeping the world. This is the world as it has always been: interconnected in dizzyingly complex ways and apparently both deeply unstable and unpredictable.

But we have never lived the world at this level before. When twitter and Facebook and Al Jazeera TV and immediate images of the terrifying dark swirling waters engulfing the Japanese coast are brought together in our sensory universe in the same moment our evolved risk assessment tools are inadequate.

We are seeing the world not at the human scale of the hunter in the suddenly quieted forest. This is the world from a perspective that humans previously imagined was only available to their gods.

As individuals we are still essentially the same animal as that palaeolithic hunter in the primal forest.

But collectively we have recently gained the technology to see – if not fully understand – what is happening way beyond the forest, way beyond the world.

It will be a collective endeavour (through states and various other forms of human organisation) to make that information useful to us – as such forms of organisations have imperfectly striven to do in the past.*

Already Tsunami Warning Systems have saved hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives over the last few days and Twitter and Facebook have kept millions of Japanese families in touch with the world and each other.

But we are only at the very beginning of the journey towards the kingdom where our collective ability to generate and harness vast streams of data will become meaningful and intelligible to us as individuals.

For now it is enough to say: when dealing with the world in all its complexity, don’t trust your instincts.

Luckily for us “pattern recognition” is not the only reason we have survived as we have.

“Adaptability” is this primate’s main strength and with the finger pressed firmly on the fast forward button of technological advancement we are going to need every edge we can get.

*The struggle between ourselves as individuals and the collective elites, governments and national secret agencies that previously attempted to monopolise this information and act on it to further their own interests – as often as not incompetently and mistakenly – is the subject of another discussion, although an important and linked one.

I am an independent political analyst focusing on Southern Africa and I specialise in examining political and policy risks for financial markets.

A significant portion of my income is currently derived from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities (Pty) Ltd.

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