The 2008 global debt crisis, Eyjafjallajökull (pronunciation fun here), Haiti and New Zealand Earthquake, China drought, Queensland floods the political crises in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disasters seem to prove that it is not the mundane everyday that shapes the world but rather high impact and extremely rare events.
The moment has rather given credence to Nicholas Taleb’s assertion in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable that outlier probabilities are what shape our world and not the day-to-day numbers.
The point about black swan events is that they are highly unpredictable. Sitting there in January we did have a sense that we were in the midst of shocks and the consequences of shocks: we were finally recovering from the mortgage linked debt crises and appeared be entering a new and threatening terrain associated with sovereign debt worries in Europe – and beyond.
That wasn’t all good, but it was part of the “known known” and we had a general sense of where to look for the things we didn’t know (the known unknowns – for a useful breakdown of Donald Rumsfeld’s discussion about certainty and unpredictability and Slavoj Žižek’s caustic reply see here.)
Two months later the world is a markedly different place and I have found it useful to use the Japanese earthquake and linked disasters as well as the political instability in MENA (Middle East North Africa) to ask the big and scary questions about South Africa.
Usefully, Moeletsi Mbeki has written an article predicting South Africa’s Tunisia Day for some time in about 2020.
Catch the Business Day article here and see my review of his book Architects of Poverty on which that Business Day article is extensively based here. (Afterthought note: the Business Day article is “extensively based” on Architects of Poverty not on my review.)
The long and the short of Mbeki’s argument is that the primary resource intensive phase of Chinese growth will be concluded by 2020 (and therefore the commodity supercycle will come to an end) and the ANC government will run out of money to keep paying the social grants bribe to the poorest South Africans – which in turn will lead to revolt and rebellion.
He takes it a lot further – instead of growing our competitive advantage while the commodity bonanza is with us, the ANC has instituted another system of bribes to its own leaders and supporters (Black Economic Empowerment) which consists of getting wodges of the non-essential parts of existing business and turning those into consumption fuel. Thus fat cat politicians and their families act as representatives of the cheap-labour and primary-resource-addicted conglomerates in exchange for the mess of pottage and extreme ostentatious consumption.
And waiting in their future, according to Mbeki’s argument, is a Tunisia style revolt.
So that’s the layout of the argument.
I think it is timely and provocative and interesting, but I do not think it is meant – or should be taken seriously – as a real prediction. It is polemic that warns about the excesses the new elite is indulging in.
I am in the middle of a road show where I ask the big questions about South Africa’s future stability.
I finish this evening and will then be in a position to summarise my own view; looking at the factors that lead towards instability and revolt and the factors that act to keep them at bay, asking how these balance in South Africa today.
The one thing the last few weeks have taught us is that the world is complex and interlinked in ways that make it extremely difficult to predict outcomes. With this proviso, I do not think we realistically can suggest that there are processes operative in our society that lead, in a linear fashion, to a Tunisia Day in the next ten years of our history … but it is a close call and I will examine some of that tonight and tomorrow morning.