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Greeting … and compliments of the season to you all.

I was too busy to post here during the last few months of 2014.

I had been writing and then road showing (here and abroad) an argument that suggested pressures acting on the ANC might, ultimately, save the organisation from its slow-motion collapse into what can best be described as a kind of criminal conspiracy.

On the whole, as they say, it was a deliberately positive counter to the life draining wails of despair that were starting to keep me from my sleep.

In the ANC there are thousands of pockets of resistance, but the overall character of the organisation and the way it has embedded itself with the state is deeply reminiscent of a huge wasp I watched yesterday stun an even bigger spider, implant it’s eggs in the juicy arachnid abdomen, stuff the bundle in a piece of dry cane, where the baby wasps will soon hatch and begin eating the spider in a precises way that keeps the host alive long enough for the new crop of wasps to fly off to carry on the business for which they were born. I believe some of such wasps are able to mess with the spider’s DNA in such a way that the spider will spend its last dying moments protecting the baby wasps.

This is an almost perfect metaphor for the behaviour of the hijacked centre of the ANC.

But I don’t think that is the whole – or even main – story, and below is the introduction to a longish report I wrote in October last year with my colleagues, Joan Tshivhinda (quantitative analyst) and Jeff Schultz (economist), that argues we have a better than even chance of being in a much improved situation by …. about 2020. That the pressures acting on the ANC could powerfully reshape the organisation for the better.

This is purely the introduction to the document. Joan did lots of quantitative work on the 2014 elections and Jeff did the same for the definition and class structure of SA society – so I think I am going to need more direct permission from BNP Paribas Cadiz Securities to publish the whole thing, but I hope to do so soon.

But for now:

Introduction – Against a Dark Background

(That title was made up purely for the blog post … the original title was “SA Political, Quantitative & Economic Research – emerging middle class lights up the gloom.)

There are significantly more important forces shaping our politics than the bad behaviour of our politicians.

  • Deep within the electorate a rapidly growing black African middle class is beginning to shape political and economic outcomes more profoundly than the size of the group implies.
  • We believe this group will determine many major outcomes for our politics and economics in the next few years.
  • Emerging from our analysis is a first (and best) case scenario in which the ANC goes through a process of renewal and recalibration over the next few years, powerfully reclaiming the defecting black African middle class and rolling out economic policies that will be optimum for financial markets and business.
  • However, we also describe several significantly threatening alternative scenarios, including further splits in the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) slipping below 50% of the national vote and losing the major metropolitan areas, the centre of opposition shifting toward some combination of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the emergent socialist party… and even more gloomy potential paths we could, with a low probability, travel down.

Many institutions of political representation in South Africa (most obviously political parties and trade unions) are undergoing turmoil – within themselves, in competition with each other and in rapidly changing levels of popularity.

here are various methods we can use to seek to explain the turmoil. Much of the mass media focus has been on the character and integrity of the President (of the ANC and the country) Jacob Zuma, and his allies – and we attribute much of the turmoil to the Zuma camp’s alleged attempts to capture a lion’s share of available rents and patronage – and to keep their principal out of the courts. While we do not deny the role of individuals (as heroes or villains) in shaping history, we think it obligatory to examine changes in the deep structural features of society, especially in processes of class formation, and the changing needs of production, to seek explanations for the changing face of our politics.

Our basic premise is that ‘class formation’ among black Africans was held back by apartheid, and the legislation and state that defined that system. But in the 1960s and 1970s the global economy began to shift in its character, and in its requirements of the function of labour, goods and capital markets. In South Africa the economy shifts toward services and manufacturing and requires a more settled, urban, educated workforce, the members of which are able to purchase the goods and services being produced by the new economy.

For the first time in almost 100 years, black South Africans could realistically aspire to be urbanised, settled, housed, better educated and able to afford the goods and services of the new economy. And this set the emerging class powerfully against the political system of apartheid that understood its survival and the survival of white dominance depended on the defeat or diversion of these aspirations.

It is more useful and has more explanatory power, to understand that underlying the campaigns of resistance and repression and the attempts by the apartheid government to rejig its systems that controlled the movement, work prospects and political aspirations of black people were the reasons for the inexorable rise of the black African middle class.The 1976 uprising, the formation of the UDF in 1983, the formation of Cosatu in 1986 and its clear alignment with the still banned ‘Congress Movement’, the strikes, the school boycotts, the growing campaign for international isolation, the rapid reappearance of ANC symbols, leaders and flags in South Africa in the mid-1980s, the escalation of the ‘armed struggle’ and then the unbanning of the liberation movements, the release of leaders, the tricky negotiations at Codessa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) 1 and 2 and finally the first democratic election in 1994 – could be seen to have been caused, orchestrated and guided by wise leaders and clever tacticians from both sides. And we don’t believe that statement is wrong, but we do think it misses the main point.

The apartheid state tried everything to head off the rise of the Africa middle class:

  1. the ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns in black communities – which only at its most trite consisted of giving out copious amounts of sweets and propaganda from the top of armoured vehicles;
  2. the attempt to establish a Tricameral Parliament to give political representation to Coloureds and Indians and the vigorous attempts to build the Bantustan[1] administrations and promote the system of local black councils[2] – attempting to ensure that ‘the oppressed’ would not find unity in opposing the regime – and ensuring that black African aspirations were diverted to stony ground and
  3. the campaigns of repression, including raids into neighbouring states, troops deployed into townships and state-funded assassinations squads and other ‘dirty tricks’ campaigns.

The not so subtle point we are trying to make was this was all actually driven by the African middle classes struggling to come into being (led and ridden by various political formations) and held back by the apartheid state and legislative regime. Thus, the emerging black middle class was both the engine and the prize of the contest between the liberation movement and the apartheid regime.

We draw theoretically on both the Weberian and Marxist definitions of class. With the defeat of the apartheid state, long suppressed class formation and differentiation has exploded in black communities. We attempt to describe and characterise the black African middle class (possibly classes) using a mixture of methods:

  1. Our classification has a minimum per capita income threshold which will be significantly above the middle of the income distribution for black South Africans;
  • We will show the group is the fastest growing segment of the Living Standards Measures (LSMs) table since 1994 and we will argue that it is politically influential and powerful beyond its numbers, consumption power and voting preferences;
  • Finally our definition will include the fact that members of the group will be more likely to have tertiary education (or professional or technical qualifications) and be more likely to live in Gauteng.

If we conceive of our political parties, electorate and the interplay of powerful other interests as part of a complex ecology with eco-niches and selective Darwinian pressures, then much of the turmoil in the ecosystem (the formation of the EFF, the torturous debates about affirmative action in the Democratic Alliance (DA), the splitting off from Cosatu of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the formation of some form of socialist alliance, the details in the drop in support for the ANC in this last election, the extreme anger about Jacob Zuma’s alleged diversion of public assets, his attempts to avoid the law and avoid various forms of constitutional curtailment) can best be explained by the growing assertiveness of the class we describe.

We overlay these categorisations with a close examination of the fact that the African National Congress lost approximately 11% of the national votes it won previously from across the geography of the urban black African areas of South African industrial heartland of Gauteng in the May 2014 general elections. We point out that in areas that were more representative of the middle class we defined above, these losses were greater.

We conclude that the pressures being brought to bear

  • could split the ANC further;
  • could drive the party further toward its flirtation with a sort of rural populism driven by patronage and traditional patriarchal authority;
  • could drive the party further into the hands of the South African Communist Party which has been the main beneficiary of the rise of Jacob Zuma; and
  • could provide space for the EFF, the DA and Numsa’s in potentia socialist party to grow to the point that the ANC drops below 50% vote.

We hope/predict that the middle classes and the Gauteng ANC, as the part of the party most exposed to the middle classes to which we refer, is already in the process of preparing to draw the party back from the brink it is approaching. The Zuma faction is entrenched, but it is our belief that the brand value being lost under his leadership will inevitably lead to a correction.

In general, our conclusion will be that the negative political consensus about South Africa is overdone, because attention is not being given to the deep, underlying structural drivers of change in the country, namely the coming into its own of the black African middle classes.

How history works – the origins of the black African middle class and what really caused apartheid to fall

Change in the structure, priorities and labour processes of the global economy began to accelerate in the 1960s and 1970s with a relative shrinking of primary resource extraction and heavy industry. South Africa, like much of the rest of the world, experienced relative growth in the manufacturing and services sector.

Nicslondonslides2

Thus the economy began to require a settled, better educated and skilled labour force, and one that could procure the goods and services produced by the new economy.

Black South Africans could, for the first time, realistically aspire, as a group, to be more settled, housed, better educated and be the consumers of certain goods and services to which their parents had had no possible access. Thus their interests melded with the similar interests of the already existing black African middle class that had managed to take root in the stony apartheid ground.

This nascent middle class had long been deliberately stunted by the apartheid state – and certainly segregated – to keep it from competing with its white counterparts, but in the views of Nzimande[3] (yes the very same one[4]) quoted in Southall[5], the group could be broken down into the following categories:

  1. The bureaucratic petty bourgeoisie – basically officials tied closely to the central apartheid state, but also town and city administrators and in the Bantustans (reliable allies of the apartheid state in Nzimande’s view);
  2. The civil petty bourgeoisie – civil servants and state employees like teachers, nurses and clerks – and from whose ranks Nzimande argues was drawn much of the leadership of the national liberation movement (clearly entirely unlike the bureaucratic types mentioned above);
  • The trading petty African bourgeoisie – which Nzimande eccentrically orders into several groups based on their ability to align with the liberation movement, but concluding that those belonging to the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce (NAFCOC), while clearly pro-capitalist, were useful allies to the liberation movement.
  1. The corporate petty bourgeoisie – basically black employees in major companies which, since the early 1970s, had “sought to legitimise capitalism through the discourse of the ‘free enterprise system”. In Nzimande’s views (as summarised by Southall) this group was “simultaneously hugely frustrated by limited opportunity and white managerial racism, uneasily situated as it was between capital’s attempts to create a black middle class and white management’s defence of its own class interests”.

The point of all of this is that almost all academic research agrees that there had been an “enormous increase in the African middle class between 1960 and 1970” Harold Wolpe in Southall 1977) “indicating the growing upward mobility of blacks into clerical, technical and non-manual jobs and of Africans into skilled employment”. (Southall) [6]

There are two observations that are worth making:

  1. The group definitions in the literature do not distinguish between skilled and upwardly mobile workers and the classes of traders and small business owners and civil servants.
  2. Because the definition is loose the group appeared almost impossible to count, with Samuel Nolutshungu (1983) estimating 121,948 members of the black middle class by 1970 and Wolpe (1974) putting the number at 1,315,800 for roughly the same time.

However, for our purposes here these are not problems because our argument is that, under the heel of apartheid, was growing a class of people whose expectations were realistically rising and this led to rapidly heightening political resistance.

At the height of apartheid, the oppression faced by all black South Africans, and especially Africans, was the political basis for downplaying growing class differences and it appears to us that the sense that change was possible, that the aspirations were realisable, was a multiclass phenomenon among all black South Africans.

It would be equally difficult to describe the sophistication, brutality; or give a proper timeline of the apartheid state’s attempt to survive the onslaught – and the consequences of its failure to do so.It would be impossible here to adequately describe the growth and momentum of resistance in the 1970s and 1980s. From the massive strikes in Durban in 1973 through the 1976 uprising, the campaign to defeat the Tricameral Parliament from 1983, the strikes, the bombs, the stay-aways, the States of Emergency from July 1985 and the growing criminalisation of any form of opposition – the profound growth of international solidarity for South Africans who were living under apartheid – and rising costs of resisting and defending the system.

However, for our purposes, it is interesting to examine one aspect of the state’s reaction when it realised how rapidly and powerfully black expectations were rising in the 1970s with the changing requirements of the domestic and global economy.

The Wiehahn Commission submitted an interim report to Parliament in May 1979 which recommended:Under pressure from South African and global businesses, especially after the Durban strikes in 1973 and the uprising in 1976, the National Party government made a serious attempt to reform the industrial relations system and the linked system that governed the rights of black Africans to move from place to place (influx control).

  1. Legal recognition of Black trade unions and migrant workers
  2. Abolition of statutory job reservation
  3. Retention of the closed shop bargaining system
  4. The creation of a National Manpower Commission, and
  5. The introduction of an Industrial Court to resolve industrial litigation[7]

The Riekert Commission reported at about the same time and recommended:

  1. Black workers already in urban areas with the ‘requisite permission’ to be there should receive ‘preferential treatment’ in finding employment – and thus create a stable labour force and encourage a “Black urban middle class”[8]
  2. Other Black workers could be removed after 72 hours of looking for work in an urban area and influx control would be tightened.

It is not our purpose and beyond our ability to explain the complex mechanism by which the apartheid legislative regime and its state pursued its ends but what is noteworthy for our purposes here is that National Party strategist and securocrats understood what was happening and they attempted to accommodate and divert the force that was coming at them, namely a rapidly growing group of politically marginalised, controlled and subjugated people who had seen the possibility of a better life and were prepared to struggle for it.

What happened in the 1970s and 1980s and in South Africa would have been strongly predicted in a piece of academic work presented by US sociologist James C. Davies in 1962: Toward a Theory of Revolution” in the American Sociological Review, (27)1 5-9.

We have deliberately left out the role played by individuals, organisations and leaders in building political and military resistance, in mobilising the majority into defiance and then in skilfully negotiating a peace, a new constitution and democratic country.Simply put Davies argues that in societies where expectations of improvement in the conditions of life begin to rise, they inevitably outstrip the real improvement. Finally daring to hope for the removal of influx control and the right to live and work where they chose, black South Africans instead got the mean-spirited liberalisations of the Wiehann and Ricket commissions – and the revolts driven by an unacceptable gap between expectations and reality followed as night follows day.

Nicslondonslides

It is our contention that what broke apartheid, with its laws, its state, its political parties, its cultural institutions, its security apparatus and its ideology was precisely its attempt to dam the flow of people’s rising aspirations – and we are still in the catastrophic flood of that dam having burst.We have done this because we want to emphasise that the deep and powerful historical forces of class formation and economic change tend to drive politics, not the other way around. The best politicians are those who realise these limits, who really understand that their profession is the art of the possible. One may slightly divert and shape the torrent but one’s power is strictly limited.

The Black African middle classes today – an introduction

In this sense the pressures that built up against the apartheid edifice are the same, and the same energy is driving South Africa into the future. It is the long suppressed black African middle class, having steamrolled apartheid out-of-the-way and now moving through our politics and economy with the same irresistible power… and its expectations continue to rise.But again, while we think these programmes have obviously had a major impact – and are likely to be tightened up – the real ‘explosion’ and driving force have been the aspirations of ordinary people who have long been denied the opportunity to seek to the good life, to educate their children to higher levels than was open to them and to accumulate assets. The ANC government has opened the doors, but it is impossible for those doors to be opened wide enough and it is essentially a market force that causes people to push, shove, clump and burst through the crumbling entrance as fast and as far as possible.The formal removal of apartheid legislation in the 1990s, the deliberate and vigorous and largely successful attempts to change the demographics of the state and civil service, including that of the major parastatals, a host of legislation designed to pressure private companies to put equity in black hands and to appoint black senior managers, the use of licensing in the minerals sector and, importantly, the use of state expenditure to promote black entrepreneurial activity have been important pillars of government policy and have undoubtedly been major forces in promoting a black African middle class.

Apartheid, among its myriad impacts on the shape of South African society, suppressed ‘normal’ class formation and segmentation among the black population. It was, in fact, and for a long time, a systematic attempt to do just that – so as to protect whites from the competition.

We have described in the previous section how various black African middle-classes as well as upwardly mobile sections of the working class emerged despite the best efforts of the apartheid system.

[1] A Bantustan was the cornerstone of the system: black people were allocated (often arbitrarily) to one of 10 territories where they would live and be politically represented. The idea was to concentrate members of particular language or ‘ethnic’ groups in these places and black people would eventually only be in ‘South Africa’ as migrant workers from these homelands. Four of the homelands, Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda and Ciskei were declared independent, but this was never recognised outside South Africa.We concluded, however, that the apartheid system was destined to fail as soon as the economy required something different from black South Africans and black South Africans could therefore realistically aspire to something different.

[2] A major social project defined in the Black Administration Act 38 of 1927 – endlessly amended to promote the co-optation of influential individuals in the black community – that in turn led to the burnings and killing of such councillors, most notably through the infamous ‘necklacing’ (placing a burning tyre around the victim’s neck).

[3] Nzimande, B. (1990). ‘Class, National Oppression and the African Petty Bourgeoisie: The Case of African Traders’, in Robin Cohen, Yvonne Muthien and Abebe Zegeye (Eds), Repression and Resistance: Insider Accounts of Apartheid. London; Melbourne; Munich; New York. Hans Zell Publishers: 165-210.

[4] Blade Nzimande is General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and has been since 1998.

[5] The ANC and Black Capitalism in South  Africa, Prof. Roger Southall, Democracy and Governance, Human Sciences Research Council Seminar 2003/23

[6] The ANC and Black Capitalism in South  Africa, Prof. Roger Southall, Democracy and Governance, Human Sciences Research Council Seminar 2003/23

[7] From the excellent South African History Online, a non-profit resource: http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/wiehahn-commission-report-tabled-parliament (accessed 10/24/2014 19h54)

[8] http://www.sahistory.org.za/dated-event/recommendations-riekert-commission-investigate-employment-conditions-black-workers-are-t (accessed 10/24/2014 19h54)

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.

By the way “deep blue” in the headline was not meant to be a riff on IBM’s chess playing supercomputer.

Rereading Part 1  I can see how someone might accuse me of being a little too certain about the shape of the future.  I am not running “deep blue” regressions and algorithms, modelling South Africa and the world, generating predictions x of y % accuracy with z % error margins … South … Africa … will … be … peachy … in …2021 … bidledeebidledee beep.

I have no real idea of what is going to happen in the future – and only the bare bones of an idea of the internal processes I go through to develop the views I advance here.

From time to time I investigate how we predict outcomes, and how we asses risks. I am interested in how our evolved systems (honed against sabre-toothed tigers and uncertain rainfall patterns, for example) apply in the kind of technology driven mega-societies we now inhabit – or, specifically, don’t apply i.e. that our ‘instinctive systems’ need to be suppressed or countermanded if we hope to get it right in certain situations. But that is not what I am doing in these quick pre-Mangaung notes.

The “deep blue” of the headline was actually a reference to being bleak, sad, cold and lonely.

Which leads me to:

Who are the demagogic populist, proto-fascists* now?

DancingANC

The ANC will (initially) combat the threat of losing support by becoming more ‘demagogic populist’, rural conservative and based in the lumpen classes – basically, by drifting to the right

In December 2010 I wrote an article in GQ Magazine under the headline: “Can you hear the drums?” with a concluding paragraph that read:

In the year 2010, anger and resentment … bubbled over  … The winners still have their stuff, but they are clutching it more tightly to their chests, and for the first time in 16 years they are straining for the hint, a sound or a smell, of what might be coming for them out of the night.

Read the whole story here.

Two ‘crises’ (or warnings) that occured this year are the equivalent of the scary sound of drums in the night for the incumbent ANC elite. The first warning is Marikana and the second, linked, warning is the traction Julius Malema’s manipulative populism was able to achieve amongst some sections of the disenfranchised youth.

I made some of these links in my coverage of Marikana here.

I think the ANC will ride out the gradually escalating social and industrial unrest by becoming the “proto-fascist” and “demogogic populist” movement that Zuma’s SACP ally accuses Malema of representing (here for the context of that). This ANC, under this president is being drawn inexorably, by the logic of its own politics, into the territory of rural patriarchy with its natural links to the fear and hatred of education and any form of gender equality. (I am not going to argue this out here … just take a glance at the saga around The Spear, the Traditional Leaders Courts Bill and various comments about women and about “clever blacks” and appeals to African ways of doing things over foreign ways of the same – see TrustLaw’s Katy Migiro’s excellent takes here  and here.)

Thus (forgive the leap) the ANC begins to lose the urban industrial working class (on the road to becoming much more like a classic middle class and deeply opposed to the looting of the state),  the professional classes (already at that destination), the productive and rule based businesses, local and global, and it eventually begins to lose the pirates looking to launder their money and ‘go straight’ (as I argued in Part 1).

This leaves the ANC with the rural poor, the marginalised unemployed, a bureaucratic elite within the state (those last three dependent on state spending through the public sector wage bill and social grants) and global resource privateers who powerfully thrive in countries like this with leaders like these.

Initially the ANC might get even higher turnout at its rallies (especially with free food and t-shirts and sexy young people dancing between the rabble-rousing and the singing of Umshini wami). But eventually the class and demographic changes of the society impact upon the party – reformat it, split it, renew it … change the political ecology in which it moves and feeds.

You will see from my next post that I do not only think the ANC is a useless bubble of foul smelling gas buffeted on the sea of history. The ANC, in my analysis, has become a most significant and material influence for and against my upbeat scenario … a sort of deranged midwife at the happy birth.

* The term “demagogic populists, proto-fascist” is from various SACP documents and was code for Julius Malema (and, I suspect, in slightly early versions, a code for Tokyo Sexwale). This is what the SACP had to say about it:

The “new tendency”

It was the SACP at the 2009 Special National Congress that first identified clearly the ideological and underlying class character of what we called the “new tendency”. We described it as a populist, bourgeois nationalist ideological tendency, with deeply worrying demagogic, proto-fascist features. It was the SACP that pointed out the connections between the public face and pseudo-militant rhetoric of this tendency and its behind-the-scenes class backing. It was a tendency funded and resourced by narrow BEE elements still involved in a rabid primitive accumulation process, based on a parasitic access to state power. It was a bourgeois nationalist tendency that sought to mobilize a populist mass base, particularly amongst a disaffected youth, to act as the shock troops to advance personal accumulation agendas.

The SACP must feel free to pat itself on the back, but the reality is that party took on the straw man of  Kebble/Malema/Sexwale and backed – to the hilt – the real demagogic, proto-fascist tendency – the one with real power … and the one with real patronage to dispense. (That last bit explaining why this SACP has backed the Nkandla Crew)

That SACP quote is from here. For my explanation of how that all fits together with the nationalisation of mines call and host of other issues here (again) .

I am sometimes tempted to think of myself as a company analyst, with South Africa as my company,  government as management and the currency and bonds as the share price

Company analysts make sell, hold or buy recommendations. Obviously a buy means the analyst believes the shares are cheap – in some difficult to determine absolute terms, but more likely in relation to appropriate peer or category comparisons.

If I was a company analyst, then what I might have been doing over the last while would have been writing a report changing my recommendation on South Africa from a hold to a sell.

Here is a bare-bones summary and ordering of that argument:

  • There are two major cycles driving negative sentiment which are coinciding now (which they do every five years):  the “strike season” and the lead up to the  ANC’s National Conference ;
  • Both these cycles are deeper and more traumatic that usual;
  • The reasons the strikes are worse than usual is excellently addressed by Gavin Hartford of Esop Shop –  here for a link to his paper at polity.org;
  • Mangaung is “deeper” and more traumatic than Polokwane because there is more at stake (some ANC members realise that another seven years of Zuma could hurt the ANC and the country; and Zuma and his backers cannot afford to lose office, because their dealing is not yet wrapped up and because their man remains legally vulnerable to the original corruption allegations against him);

But the main reason these cycles are deeper than previously is they are meeting a structural or secular trend, which consists of (and this is very stripped down):

  • Uncertain political stewardship from the top;
  • Institutional weaknesses in political (and labour) organisation characterised by systemic cronyism, corruption and nepotism (which leads to violent competition for control), managerial incoherence, narrowing support base and falsely inflated membership figures;
  • A significantly negative economic policy environment which might lower investment levels – e.g. fiscal uncertainty (because there is no way the ANC cannot keep increasing social grants and the public sector wage bill, which together are already more than half annual non-interest government spending) and a highly interventionist industrial policy (best exemplified in the SIMS document) which is one step away from ‘nationalisation by stealth” i.e. the effective deployment of private assets for public – or more narrowly governmental or even party – ends.
  • Incompetent infrastructure build, disruptive labour relations and failed educations systems are constant, apparently irresolvable and narrowing bottlenecks in the economy;
  • Institutional and administrative failures of government (in specific geographies and at specific levels of government) – with similar features to the second bullet referring to parties and labour unions;
  • Failures of the collective bargaining system – and other institutions designed to manage and mediate conflicting interests in society;
  • Growing social stresses around levels of inequality, unemployment, indebtedness and poverty – and unresolved racial overlays of the same.

Just listing that is faintly distressing … and you can imagine writing about it for weeks is not very uplifting.

But, I have, mid-stream, decided that I am not at all certain it is appropriate to take this relentlessly negative view.

Let’s go back to the political analyst/company analyst metaphor. Company analysts often suggest investors sell a share in a top quality, well  managed and highly profitable company if it is too expensive.

They might also recommend a buy on a company in all kinds of trouble – but one that is cheap and has upside that the herd of sellers hasn’t spotted.

I cannot remember an SA political shock or flood of negative sentiment that did not represent a buying opportunity in our financial markets. Remember the sell-off of  R54bn of SA resources companies after the leaking of a draft mining charter in 2002? It proposed forcing mining companies to immediately sell half their equity to black South Africans and spooked the market. The next few months was the chance of a life-time to buy excellent value company shares on the cheap.

Whether financial analysis adds real value to the investment process (or is just another bleed-off) is a matter of endless dispute. But here is why I would hesitate to call a sell on SA:

  • I cannot honestly say we have more political risk than Russia and Turkey, for example;
  • Where are the safe havens for investors, given the complex risks and problems in the global economy?
  • I cannot be sure that the negative news flow is not already in the price – it would be a very financial-market-analyst-type error to rush around shouting sell, sell, sell just after the last savvy investor had finished selling and begun buying;
  • My ‘negative secular trend’ is described as if it is inevitable – whereas there is much that can be decided and turned around by citizens, government and the ANC (despite my bleak outlook as to the likelihood of that happening, it must be in the mix as a possibility);
  • The country has a number of inherent advantages: its natural resources, its growing domestic market, its proximity to the last great frontier market (Africa), its sophisticated financial system and complex infrastructure, its constitutional framework, judicial independence and stable democracy – to name just a few.

Now obviously that does not counter the negative “secular” or structural trend I describe above. But there is something of a “baking a cake” strategy about how I have motivated for the big underlying negative trend. What I mean by that is I have marshaled all (or as many as I can come up with) of  the negative arguments in one place to bolster a particular conclusion: sell!

To make a cake one follows certain steps – mix ingredients, add energy and voilà: a nasty, stodgy, too sweet lump.

And that is a relatively simple object, with only a few requisite variables for its construction.

When we think about the future – especially when we write about it and propose to people how they should position themselves – the very first thing we should be is extremely tentative.

So I can’t, in good conscience, say sell South Africa.

I am unmistakably bleak about our politics and governance, but don’t take that as a signal to sell. I am quite likely being tossed on the waves of sentiment  – following financial market indicators, rather than leading them.

My very negativity could as easily be the indicator to start buying; that all the bad news is already in the price.

Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza provides the lead headline in today’s Business Day as “warning of a rogue state future for SA”.

So imagine if you could, for a moment, that you are playing a sports game.

As in a dream, you suddenly realise you don’t know the rules; you don’t know how to score, who’s on your side or what the parameters of the field are.

This could be a comical situation – and I am sure I remember boys from my school days whose mystification on the rugby, cricket or hockey fields would bring a gentle smile to our (his team mates’) faces.

But this is also the stuff of nightmares: an inscrutable world where what happens happens for reasons entirely mysterious, where people are motivated by incomprehensible impulses and the dread of the unknown builds and builds.

I am sure I am not alone in having worked in a dysfunctional institution?

I mean something worse than a j0b in which you are poorly paid and have a psychopath for a boss (entry level experience requirements for human adulthood as far as I can make out).

A dysfunctional institution is one in which the sum total of what the organisation achieves appears to be at-odds with its explicit mission.

I am suggesting something worse than an organisation that doesn’t achieve what it is designed to achieve. I am suggesting that in some instances a deeply dysfunctional organisation can, when everything is aggregated, achieve the very opposite to its stated purpose is.

Which brings me to the institutions of the South African state.

I am occasionally lucky enough to get hold of some excellent economic commentary written by Sanlam Group Economist Jac Laubscher and published on that company’s website. In his most recent contribution (which appears here) he takes some concepts from Why Nations Fail: the Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson (book I haven’t yet read, but will do so on the back of Jac’s comments) and hints at how they might be applicable to South Africa.

According to Laubscher, Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the dominance of “inclusive institutions”  over “extractive institutions” is the difference between success or failure of nations.

Inclusive institutions harness and unleash human creativity and incentivise citizens and workers to give of their best.

As Jac Laubscher summarises:

Inclusive institutions are characterised by guaranteed property rights (vital for investment and productivity growth), an impartial legal system that upholds contracts, the effective provision of public services to create a level playing field, space to create new businesses, and the freedom to choose one’s career.

“Extractive institutions” in the words of Jac Laubscher:

… are aimed at extracting income and wealth from one section of society to the benefit of another section of society, usually the elite. In fact, extractive political institutions are the means by which the elite enrich themselves and consolidate their political dominance.

It is a fairly simple matter to demonstrate that to some degree key state and semi-state institutions and processes in South Africa have become mechanisms for extracting wealth by the politically connected elite.

But a key qualifier here is “to some degree”. I don’t think the state has yet, unambiguously, become an extractive tool of the political elite. But it is obvious that at least part of the political elite is struggling mightily to shape our institutions to and for that purpose.

Yesterday I listened to Trevor Manuel deliver the National Development Plan to a joint sitting of parliament. At the same time the the Constitutional Court was hearing an application by the Treasury and Sanral to set aside the April interim interdict granted by North Gauteng High Court halting e-tolling and mandating a full review of the system.

My views on both Trevor Manuel and e-tolling are ambiguous – they both have their good and bad points – but I appreciate the subtlety and complexity of what the National Planning Commission has tried to achieve … and I celebrate the fact that we have a Constitutional Court we can trust with decisions like the one it was busy with yesterday*.

But the institutions of our society are not yet the corridors of the predators’ labyrinth – but we’d be foolish to ignore the signs.

* The Concourt matter is important for a number of reasons, but the aspect that interests me professionally, is part of what is happening is driven by the fact that the Treasury feels the need to defend its credibility as a borrower. I suspect that the rating agencies are happy that the Treasury is fighting this matter but are anxious that they might lose. The lender wants to be certain that the entity to whom it lends is properly able to make the agreement to pay the money back. The Treasury is ultimately arguing that the North Gauteng High Court ruling means no lender to the South African government can be sure that the courts might not declare, in effect, that government was legally incompetent to make the decision in the first place – significantly increasing default risk.

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.

It’s tempting to focus on the ANC as if its history and prospects are a proxy for the history and prospects of the country as a whole.

The party’s centenary celebrations this week will strengthen the sense that this is indeed the case.

The last hundred years of South African history has been about the formal subjugation of the black inhabitants of the country by European colonial powers and settler groups; the fight for national liberation and self-determination; the victory and then seventeen years of the complex process of democratic rule.

Running like a spine through that body of history is the African National Congress –  which not without some legitimacy claims to be the organised expression of black people’s struggle to be free of colonial and then apartheid oppression and exclusion.

Then in the same way that the back bone’s connected to the … neck bone it follows naturally that post-1994, given the ANC’s overwhelming dominance at the polls, the party can legitimately be seen as the ongoing expression of black South African’s attempts to govern themselves and use the state to redress the inequalities and distortions caused by that apartheid and colonial past.

So this week the ANC celebrates its 100th anniversary, kicking off with a centenary golf day (for only the luckiest of revellers) and including gala dinners, interdenominational church services and culminating in a public rally in Bloemfontein (Mangaung) on Sunday January 8.

The sense that the ANC is a proxy for the country itself is strengthened by the fact that this year will culminate in and ANC national conference electing a leadership that will, almost automatically, become the leadership of government after the general elections in 2014 – again, given the ANC’s electoral dominance.

Additionally an ANC policy conference in July will pronounce upon a range of  matters concerning the role of the state in the economy and it promises to make policy on (amongst other matters) the nationalisation of mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land – with or without compensation.

But hang on a moment …

One of the key tasks of political parties in their struggle to become or remain the party of government is to present their agenda as identical to the national agenda, their leadership as automatically the national leadership and their interests identical to the national interest.

The ANC can legitimately point to how central it is to South Africa’s political and cultural life, but as we wilter this week under the the searing overstatement of that message it is useful to bring a few proviso’s to the front of mind.

We are a country with a small, open economy nestled in the most depressed region of a world overwhelmingly interconnected and subject to monumental forces that grind their way irresistibly through the Ozymandian vanities of governments significantly more powerful than ours.

The more we learn about the world and the history of human societies the more apparent it is that we have been hopelessly overoptimistic about our ability to understand let alone predict how the complex systems of our economies, national entities, ecological systems and cities function, evolve, collapse and change.

I am sure that this week newspapers will be full of huffy assertions that the ANC does not represent “the nation” and therefore treating its centenary as if it was a sacred ritual akin to Fourth of July in the United States (which celebrates independence from Great Britain in 1776) is a travesty.

Quite right too. The ANC has diverted significant national resources to traditional US style pork belly politics  but has also made itself guilty of more overt Angolan style looting. All that combines to makes its claim to represent the “national interest” an insulting insinuation about “the nation”.

Also new political forces are emerging and growing – most obviously Cosatu and the Democratic Alliance – that will further erode such ANC claims in future – as will the shifting ethnic bases of parties and groups that contest in the political arena of South Africa.

However, these were not the points I wanted to make – and I am sure they are going to be done to death in the next few days.

My point is that sovereignty itself – and certainly who the ANC elects as leaders and what the party decides vis-a-vis nationalisation of mines and expropriation of land without compensation – will have much less force and effect in determining South Africa’s political and economic future that we might imagine.

Economic policy, laws governing ownership and general “good behaviour” around fiscal and monetary policy are rigidly constrained both by the discipline of global capital markets and by a myriad bilateral and multilateral agreements between countries and blocks of countries.

As I said to clients earlier this week (concerning the ANC centenary):

“Obviously we must continue to watch the ANC as carefully as always in 2012 – but this small open country and economy will continue to be tossed on the currents of the global economy and the various geopolitical, technological, cultural and environmental forces that shape the world. We might miss a trick or two if we lull ourselves into believing the myth that the ANC is a kind of metaphor for the country as a whole.

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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