Cees Bruggemans’ Age of Decay: Mediocrity – SA’s “new normal”

It was the ‘Rainbow’ era, Apartheid had been abolished, and change was in the air, the aim – full employment, eradicating poverty and addressing inequality. But as is said in Cees Bruggemans’ piece below, no era lasts forever. And enter the ‘Age of Decay’ where weaknesses intruded and the nation was no longer served, and sometime during the last ten years, this switch was made. And the manner in which President Jacob Zuma took over set the scene for change. But as the Rainbow era didn’t last long, so no era lasts forever but it will take great leadership to shift the tide. And hopefully an Age of Renewal will dawn, which is much needed. – Stuart Lowman

by Cees Bruggemans and Willie Esterhuyse

Cees Bruggemans
Cees Bruggemans

Distinct eras, marked by clearly typifying characteristics, tend to be known by a descriptive word or phrase. In SA, the era since 1652 is known by the moniker ‘colonialism’. In 1806 an extra twist was given by yet more new entrants from distant parts, injecting the presence of ‘imperialism’. After 1948 it became in stages (exclusive) apartheid. In 1994 arrived (inclusive) Rainbow democracy.

In each case it marked the arrival of some distinct people achieving control over the main levers of political power, thereafter deeply changing things. Dutch settlers. British imperialists. Afrikaner hegemons. Rainbow democrats (indeed constitutionalists).

Nothing or nobody new has since arrived on the South African scene that seems to warrant another era designation. For the same people that constituted the Rainbow Nation (African Nationalists and their political opponents) are still very much around. And yet we appear to be living in another era from the one that crafted the Rainbow Nation and its ideals.

Its structures still very much stand, but seem to be peopled by a different specie.

Why would I want to designate the present its own era? Give it its own name? For instance, the Age of Decay. Would that make sense, be a true rendition of what we are going through? Just as colonialism, imperialism, apartheid and democracy give clear, crisp descriptions of what we went through in those very specific epochs?

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If we are living in an Age of Decay, what are its outstanding features? How do these differ from what went before? When did it start, and who started it, doing what? And what would come next? And when? And who would start it?

The Rainbow Nation in 1994 kicked off with a functioning parliament, rule of law, justice system, property rights. It had a functioning public sector providing infrastructure support and social services supporting our modernity – education, policing, health care, defence force, administrative capacity, as much local (some 280 municipalities) as provincial and and central government departments, and a host of public corporations and organisations providing specialised support.

And it relied on a private market economy to do most of its economic expansion and development. Private initiative it is called, facilitated by many supportive state services. It was a living, functional organism, ready to produce, clearly capable of achieving much more than before in its long-repressed state.

How does the Rainbow Nation’s constitutional phase differ from the Age of Decay that apparently followed, at some point coming into being and starting a life of its own, as if this was the most natural thing to come out of the Rainbow Nation?

Decay implies diminished ability or capacity. Possibly a thrashing of existing structures so that they function less well, deliver less, to the point of slowly disappearing from the scene, no longer a major support for our national life.

In a manner of speaking, archaic leftovers from a bygone era, still employing people and paying salaries, but mostly paying lip service to original intentions? Leaving a skeleton crew to do the remaining heavy lifting, but these burdened by deadweight so overwhelming that capacity has been infinitely diminished, often beyond the vanishing point.

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At which point the congregation may be tempted with a ringing ‘Amen’.

Clearly, on coming into being, the Rainbow Nation concept was an ideal, while the reality it inherited from the past was far from being what was envisaged. Marked by deep inequality, poverty, exclusive favouring. This had to change. And it was. Fiscal policy, mobilizing public resources through taxation and borrowing and channeling these where they could do most in undoing shortcomings, promoting equitableness, and incentivising rather than demotivating.

And as this transformation got underway, it in the main adhered to these ideals, changing things while readying for a period of high performance taking the nation to much higher living standards all round, ending the insider/outsider dichotomy, allowing all a fair chance to use their talents, achieving education, employment, a decent living, accumulating wealth.

The aim was full employment, eradicating poverty, addressing inequality without of course hamstringing the nation in the process with utopian fallacies.

But something went wrong. The ideals became twisted. Bending of rules and self-enrichment became the norm. And became accepted in ways that ensured a steady thrashing of existing institutions, gradually demolishing excellence in many places (though not all), which increasingly lingered only in narrowing confines, more often than not imposing mediocrity as the “new normal” in the place of meritocracy, in the pursuit of something no longer recognisable as the Rainbow Nation. New role models came to the fore that were the antithesis of what could deliver a functioning state. Instead, parasitical asset stripping apparently became the national past-time in too many instances.

The new paradigm increasingly defined itself as not Western, associating on the larger stage with anti-Western forces, enjoying the grandstanding opportunities on offer wherever they could be found, wanting to impose its own cultural imprint on mostly everything. In the process, so-called equitableness acquired new features of exclusivity. The fresh openness of the Rainbow Nation was sacrificed all over again by preoccupation with numbers that favoured the narrow over the broad, that refused to recognise that hard work was needed generating income and wealth before it could be more fairly divided.

The nation fell into a simple trap. Incentivising growth and thereafter arguing about dividing the spoils is quite a different game from redistributing existing income and wealth, and finding that the rainmakers become defensive, and no longer contribute to the extent of their innate abilities, at worst simply being prevented from doing so in the name of some intricate numbers game only fully understood by the few.

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Still claiming to be an Open Society, thriving on its freedoms and fair rules of engagement, but actually foreclosing on all its dynamic abilities in favour of a stultifying authoritarianism and democratic, indeed demographic demagoguery.

And failure steadily mounting and taking its toll. Not so much in the private domain where excellence continued to be pursued and rewarded, but increasingly in the public domain, as infrastructure, municipal services, provincial functions, state departments failed in delivering the goods even though claiming a growing share of the national income. A deadening burden.

Sometime during the past ten years this switch was fatefully made, with no turning back once the very top echelon of leadership provided the example, with many eager to follow in footsteps showing the way even if it came at the expense of the many, the public good being thrashed at every opportunity.

But no era lasts forever. Weaknesses intrude. The nation is no longer served. Like the peasant revolts of Old China, if an elite threatened the existence of the peasantry, the latter had the right to change the Mandate Under Heaven. And they did. Over 5000 years over and over again. Which makes its present-day communists such cautious people. For they know they have to deliver. And they have, even if like their neighbours before them they had to borrow Western institutions, Western technique, Western tools to do so.

This has been a constant through the ages. Either a stronger outsider takes over, or the existing dispensation is overthrown from within. Often by force in olden days, democratically in our new day and age. After all, the very manner in which the Zuma era begun.

Reasonable people will differ as to whether our Age of Decay has reached its final sell-by date. Some may argue, as many do, that true democratization has hardly begun, the main aim being to eradicate all evidence of Western intrusion in favour of an exclusive indigenous presence.

This is no longer a Rainbow Ideal. Instead, it is heavily parochial, not leading up a spiraling developmental staircase to the Promised Land but descending instead into an Age of Decay and Pestilence.

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The peasantry has not been devastated by this detour. Indeed, they have been rewarded in small ways by gifts appearing richer than what they truly are, as compared to opportunities for general upliftment foregone, sacrificed on greater altars of ideology, populism and traditionalism. So a societal revolt in the good old Chinese tradition seems unlikely soon, even as the Left, Far Left and the truly Loony Left will claim that mantle indefinitely. And might even succeed. In which case yet bigger detours and deeper destruction awaits, as so often observed elsewhere in the world, in great horror. That too would be yet a newer Age, but of Destruction.

Is it possible, however, that within our society there remain strong currents of common sense, whether gender (women), beliefs (churches), non-political groupings (NGOs), educated elites, intellectuals, minorities, even in the ranks of the Majority?

They all might share the same goals as the other streams observable in society, namely eradicating unemployment, poverty, inequality. But they would go about in a somewhat different manner.

Some of these strands would have their own utopian will-of-the-wisps. But there might be also those who imbibed enough modernity to know technique and tools that can do the job, without the pitfalls of Ages of Decay and Destruction.

Such a movement would need a Shepherd to lead it, to provide example, point the way, unite, bring all along, even the weak and the headstrong, someone who knows how to persuade, cajole, gently reach out, twist an arm where this is needed, have understanding for the past iniquities and its deep heat pain, but not losing track of the way forward that will not forgive missteps.

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The tools and techniques to be used are today of all ages, worldwide dispersed. There is no secret about what works and what doesn’t. But to escape from the traps of Decay, and sidestep the siren calls that would lead to destruction, the good shepherd will especially have to address our common emotions.

Decades ago, there appeared a theoretical how-to management book called “the human side of enterprise”. We aren’t automatons. We don’t respond well to orders once having achieved democracy and its deepest freedoms, where self-actualisation becomes the highest need and motivator. We need to be treated as human beings, taken serious, and be taken along rather than trampled.

Such leadership style is not easily found, least of all among Big Men, where ego trippers tend to congregate. But history has yielded its fair share of them on all continents, statesmen like Lincoln, Ghandi, Lee Kwan Yew, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Deng Xiaoping in modern times, compared to mostly religious figures in distant historic times.

Such currents, such leadership, is needed to start a new era, in the tradition of the Rainbow ideal if indeed all those living here are to find themselves in it. This might offer us an Age of Renewal, where all the bits of society are freely invited to participate, and make it happen.

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Where parliamentary politics will still engage, but where nothing would prevent informal discussion and negotiation, establishing what will work, what won’t, what will need extra support, and will need more confidence to feel that participation will offer greater reward than penalties, overcoming traditional confrontation in informal ways, seeking closure of old wounds and opening new pathways.

In a young, wayward, fragmented society bend on destruction, it won’t be easy to re-establish rules of the road, getting cooperation needed to achieve rather than to destructively obstruct.

But if the Age of Renewal is to dawn, that assuredly will be needed. Otherwise Decay and Destruction await to take us yet deeper into the mire, a reality that many in any case foresee as inevitable, given the fragility of human nature and the extreme difficulty of overcoming truly deep heat pain.

And yet we owe it to ourselves and the generations coming after us to at least try?

*Cees Bruggemans is the chairperson at Bruggemans and Associates, Consulting Economists and Professor Willie Esterhuyse is a political commentator