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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.)

(A quick and lightweight aside on a Sunday morning … not part of the ‘deep blue’ series, but bleak enough – I wouldn’t want to disappoint anybody.)

Mandela ailing in the last few days before Mangaung?

Perhaps the universe does have a sense of humour; one that delights in casual cruelties, sneering irony and a deep, dark and impenetrable sarcasm.

Are we facing the death of the universally beloved founder of the (now) great teetering edifice of the South African democracy just as the ANC elects Jacob Zuma for a second term as president?

Just because it is chance and random does not mean that we are not compelled, by out basic humanity, to seek hidden connections and meanings in such coincidence … or rather such impending coincidences.

When the gods smite the earth with earthquakes and floods and drought (as they are regularly wont to do), representatives of those gods have forever and always said through their thin lips: “Well, what do you think? If you behave like this of course he is going to be furious. Bring me a virgin and sharp knife, quickly!”

I can imagine the voluptuaries in the halls  of the African National Congress (or at least those halls that the hoi polloi don’t get to see – where real power is bought and sold and bought again), wiping their plump, greasy hands as they push suddenly away from the laden centenary celebration tables, their sweaty faces shocked, goose liver shiny lips pursed in a meaty sphincter: “oh …. my … god!”

(Yes, yes, I know that in amongst the many thousands of Nkandla beneficiaries (and friends and family), assassins, warlords, desperately confused hoi polloi, drivers of large gleaming cars, meeting-chair-breakers, confused little old ladies who had meant to go to the church next door,  rent-a-crowd members  … and those who are only there for the tshirts and braai, there are several good people fighting the good fight, making famous last stands and that sort of thing. So I obviously don’t mean you have any goose fat to wipe off your faces or that you have plump, grasping little hands … that’s those others, at the top-table – who have spent more on liposuction in the last 5 years than you will earn in your lifetime – no, don’t get up, we know who you are. Glad to have cleared that up.)

The point is that it is going to be impossible not to think of Mandela’s death as some kind of inevitable yin to Mangaung’s yang (it works the other way around too.)

A slaughter of a whole reed dance of virgins will not appease these gods (which are nothing more than our ape brain need to impute narrative to randomness) but might make a few supporters of the Traditional Courts Bill feel pious.

To ridiculously (and messily) extend the religious metaphor: what god would pop snake or stones into our trusting mouths, open to receive meat and bread?

The trickster/Pan/Loki would do precisely that, just as he/she would take Mandela with the one hand and give us the Nkandla legacy cast in military grade bunker cement with the other.

Okay, now I am ready to read the Sunday papers.

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.

The raging race debate forces me to think about how we become culpable.

I came across an obscene argument the other day. Perhaps you have seen something similar?

It went like this: the Japanese are reaping what they have sown; the earthquake, the tsunamis, the nuclear threat and the unseasonal blizzards in the north are a karmic balancing for the killing of whales and the popularity of whale meat amongst the Japanese citizenry.

Think about this.

But first control for the sentimentalised ranking of some mammals over others in the general lovability stakes.

So consider countries that kill and eat stinky old cows (instead of noble and graceful whales) in the mass-produced beef industry.

Would anyone suggest that tragedies involving suffering and death of the citizens in countries that eat a lot of McDonald’s hamburgers (we could have spun this differently and made it KFC’s horrifyingly produced raw material) are somehow the just desserts of those people who form part of the relevant consumer demographic?

The idea is outrageous and its reasoning as deeply flawed as it is repulsive.

There are extraordinary and moving photographs of stoic Japanese citizens being rescued or tested for radiation as they are being evacuated from near Fukushima. Here’s one – and I hesitate to do this – and not only because it is not my property. The main reason is I do not want to be too manipulative:


I could have used this one, but I thought it might be pushing the bounds of good taste:

I do not want to go further down this path.

Only those whose lives revolve around sinister religious fairytales could believe any version of the idea that what has happened in Japan is some form of divine retribution.

I am more interested in the underlying fallacy that is much more common and certainly prevalent in our political discourse: collective guilt and the appropriateness of collective punishment – or at least collective responsibility.

Are whites the culpable beneficiaries of Apartheid? Do their children inherit this culpability and therefore the responsibility for redress? Are blacks (and, to a lesser degree) Coloureds and Indians victims of Apartheid? Are their children the inheritors of this disadvantage?

These issues are deeply unresolved in our political life – and, I believe, they are deeply unresolved in our law and in our minds.

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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