Cees Bruggemans: Fear is holding SA’s Democracy back

Fear – an unpleasant emotion caused by a threat or danger – but if it wasn’t felt then one couldn’t protect themselves against it. In this piece Cess Bruggemans and Willie Esterhuyse talk about fear as a tax and how it is potentially undermining the efficiency of South Africa’s Democracy. With citizen’s personal safety encroached by rampant crime, with corruption taxing many, political rights and freedom of speech potentially endangered and with the daily assault on economic and financial confidence, they ask if the country is sliding back into a more primitive state from which only recently it wrested our imagined new freedom. They argue that these fears are causing a paralysis against making a change, and that instead of giving in to them, people should reverse the tide, through reason and the ballot box. – Stuart Lowman

by Cees Bruggemans & Willie Esterhuyse

Cees Brugeemans, consulting economist at Bruggemans & Associates

Blessed are the innocent, for they don’t know fear. But to know life is to often encounter the seamier side of things, threatening our existence, inviting anxiety about what could go wrong, possibly far too easily, with no comebacks…

Does this matter to our national life?

Our Democracy thrives on an absence of fear, as we fearlessly exercise our engrained imagined rights. Our economy requires fearless, forward-looking risk-takers willing to commit capital and effort in uncertain attempts to win them returns and make a living.

Fear is therefore a tax, potentially undermining our efficiency, inviting all kinds of defensiveness, with no guarantee of success, as much in our social lives as in our greater political and economic existence. Holding us back in our progress.

How does our national life today shape, compared to the past, relative to other countries, with regard to the future? Where are we coming from, where are we heading? For better, for worse?

Primitive societies aren’t devoid of fear. Their absence of crucial knowledge created many superstitions shaping everyday life. Inviting practices from which the modern person may recoil. Whatever else knowledge may do, it can bring relief from some very basic ignorance and the fears it breeds.

So when delving back in time, and coming across ancestors living much simpler lives, often romantically interpreted (until considering toothache and other ailments, or an amputation without anaesthetic, to name but top of mind), a little digging brings up a mental mindset that may have been closer to nature, and less isolated from fellow beings socially, but where fear may have been highly developed and ever present in ways often hardly understood by us with our modern means, knowledge and rules.

With mortality high in bygone ages, and life expectancy sometimes extremely low, death was always closely present. In northern climes, infant mortality before the age of one was often near 100%. Life was rough and full of accidents. Many illnesses still unconquered. Until a mere lifetime ago, mankind had to go without antibiotics.

Death stalked the land. So often did accompanying grief, and hopelessness, engraved to an extent unknown in today’s general modernity.

Besides nature’s graveyard, there were the things men did to each other. From simple to complex crimes, to war and its devastations and the pestilence often coming in its wake.

Many of these man-made ills are still with us, if often more sophisticated than just a simple knife between the ribs, a sword trust, a bit of poison, the end of some rope around the neck, or a bullet or cannon ball taking off head or limb.

The weaponry has become more refined, but also more large scale, and often not less beastly than the tales of ancient cities taken and mountains of skulls.

So physical fear has always stalked us, whether unseen coming across a distant hill, or in the night, or by way of accident or illness.

We have strengthened our defences against such inconveniences, by making a collective fist military, having in our midst an active police force, developing modern medicine and insurance practices, and regulatory refinements trying to outlaw positively anything that possibly could go wrong (yet still does….).

Most societies show a rising line of progress in these endeavours, succeeding in driving back the inconveniences of life, lowering fear in many dimensions of our earthly existence as modernity keeps winning through across a broad front.

Sometimes, though, there are regressions, sometimes enormous ones, as war or epidemic or natural disaster intrude. Here we discover either that nature hasn’t been quite overcome, that life is “risky” as the unexpected catches us, or more specifically that our fellow man did not keep a historic bargain, transgressed and caused havoc while off the reservation.

So where does modern South Africa finds itself today, already 21 years into inclusive democracy, to contrast it from what went before only very recently?

The first thing to acknowledge about SA is that it has many sub-species. There is not one SA but many, all with their own character, outlook and fears. It is their sum we call home, but it is a home with many chambers, many often not interlinking.

There are the gender splits, the racial splits, the geographical splits, the religious ones. There is the age spectrum, the income and wealth spectrum, the health and happiness spectra. Many political associations, too.

The various dimensions so identified bring along their own fears from the past into the future. For women it may be assault and rape, for men assault and murder. Racial groups have their very own demons. For many whites it was from the beginning fear of other race groups (black danger), reinforced in a later age by godless communism (red danger). With some Afrikaans-speakers learning to detest English colonialism. For black, brown and Indians, there were other varieties on these themes, whether other black tribes, white slavery or simple domination, or also colonialism.

With these fears today further refined, for some brown and Indian South Africans may have come to fear blacks as well as whites, for the modern demographic policies introduced, and again differentiating in unwelcome ways.

If white fears have reduced in some respects, regaining greater international acceptance after years in the wilderness, there are today old fears making a comeback, such as not finding gainful employment, of becoming a stranger in your own national home, too often a tokenism not taken serious.

Indeed, there is fear of old wounds from the past being re-opened, questions being asked about how certain advantages were obtained, demanding redress even at this late stage, as compared to forgive and forget.

Some may be inclined to forgive, others fervently also hoping that there will be forgetting, yet many not wanting to do so in the least, instead finding ways of reopening by now deeply buried old issues, to the dread of those preferring quietly to move on (yet doing so not really bringing “final” closure).

Much deeper is the greater fear of discovering to be living in a make-believe fools paradise, imagined to be in a Constitution-based Democracy with ingrained personal rights and liberties, as opposed to be living in a feckless authoritarian state riding roughshod over any such niceties.

Many whites thought a historic deal was done, back in the 1990s, and a new leaf turned. But in recent years, the last five especially, a deeper unease has often taken hold, that this young untested democracy may easily succumb to forces intended on subjugating it all over again.

That would create new realities, reminding all over again of the Middle Ages.

Black people, too, aren’t without fears, especially the determination never again to suffer imperialism, colonialism, the overlording by outsiders, being reduced to only a marginalised condition just short of slavery and the lack of identity and self worth often accompanying such a state.

In this respect, many South Africans of all persuasions and origins fear remarkably similar things, though nearly never expressing this in recognisable terms and thereby finding common ground. For that, the separating historic abysses are still too big and deep, recent and not healed.

Yet all this raises a fundamental question.

With our certainties daily visibly receding, with our personal safety encroached by rampant crime steadily still spreading its reach, with corruption taxing many of especially our weakest citizens most cruelly, our political rights and freedom of speech potentially endangered, with our economic and financial confidence daily assaulted and repressed, are we backsliding into a more primitive state from which only recently we have wrested our imagined new freedom?

Can we sustain what has been achieved, our cherished modernity, for those participating a prize to be defended, and for those aspiring to it something to be joined as soon as is feasible?

Or do we allow ourselves to be detoured by self-serving cabals, small elites who claim to have the general welfare in mind but prove most astute in feathering their own nests?

This is our incomplete journey to date, so very modern in some respects, so terribly backward in others, whether measured in rural poverty, the status of many women, the terrible unemployment and hopeless discouragement of too many lives, the lack of future hope, the wish of at least 1% of the population (according to polls) of wanting to emigrate permanently? And crucially the lack of progress and the increasing backsliding, in constitutional adherence, the observance of the rule of law, personal safety from crime, the fearlessness of freedom of speech. To be what we want to be, living the life we want to live, free of interference, as long as we respect the right of others likewise?

This is a deeply political question, whether we have it in us to defend our many cherished freedoms, or whether we give way before the onslaught of narrow interests subjugating all of us anew.

There are among us some who are truly fearless, either supporting the ruling party matter-of-factly or simply ideologically driven, often in extreme ways, accepting what is transpiring as an overdue undoing of an unacceptable past in favour of a transformed future, with supposedly far fewer implied blemishes, yet perhaps too easily closing their eyes to the imperfect manner this is being done.

Also, there are those who can be said to live in self-erected “bubbles”, shielding themselves from any untoward news, fearlessly focusing on positive events and preferring to speculate about pleasing future outcomes, rather than facing the many unpleasant realities confronting us collectively at every turn.

Yet what a growing number among us appear increasingly to be encountering daily are the sum of our many paralysing fears. Instead of giving in to these, we should reverse the tide, through reason and the ballot box. Let there be more reform, so that many ills, old and new, may be successfully addressed and our collective progress resume rather than staying a muddle.

Socially, economically, financially, politically.

* Cees Bruggemans is consulting economist at Bruggemans & Associates and Professor Willie Esterhuyse is a political commentator