Cees Bruggemans: SA economy – too much emotion, not enough science

The company you keep: Russian President Vladimir Putin with his only G20 friend at the Summit this week
The company you keep: Russian President Vladimir Putin with his only G20 friend at the Summit this week. SA’s foreign relations, like its economic policies, are shaped by old loyalties and emotion rather than rationality.

In this brilliant thinkpiece, Cees Bruggemans explains why those who draft the policies which guide the SA economy, persist with ideas that have failed here and everywhere they’ve been employed. It boils down to victory of emotion over rationality; too much guesswork, too little science. The approach also reflects a young democracy still trying to find its way. It is apparent in many other areas of political leadership – including foreign relations where SA often chooses the controversial option in direct contrast to global opinion. As happened again at the G20 Summit in Australia this week where Russian President Vladimir Putin was strongly criticised by virtually every other global leader for his actions in Ukraine. Such was the hostility towards Putin that he left the Summit early. The only attendee to share a smile with Putin was South African. – AH

By Cees Bruggemans        

The incoherence of SA’s contradictory policy making is by now well documented and understood.

World class fiscal and monetary macro policies living cheek-by-jowl with New Path collectivism, unfocused industrial and trade policies, disturbed labour relations, decaying infrastructure, lacking education reform, an overly preoccupation with political control delivering social change rather than allowing market action to deliver the distributional fruits of faster growth (jobs, jobs, glorious jobs).

It is an incoherence no longer interesting for its challenging “what” or “who” but for its “why”.

The cynical view merely notes political opportunism in acknowledging various streams of political support, and accommodating all, irrespective of what it all means, and what it might deliver.

But the sociology of the policy making fascinates, for there seems to be genuine belief in what is being done. This is supposed to work and deliver, while patently it won’t. So why such deep beliefs? Why the passion to implement and harvest stagnation, failing to break out structurally?

It is not as if we are alone. The same processes can be observed elsewhere. Brazil is a case in point. But the list of countries can be made to grow (and grow, in this, just about the only fertile soil around).

In our case, as with others, it isn’t only today’s problems seeking solutions that have a bearing. The distant past has its fingerprints all over this, too.

Why has labeling become such a pastime? Rejecting this and elevating that, even though the track record internationally doesn’t bear out the choices made?

When a nation historically has a complex past, this tends to distort world views, as so much has as yet not been resolved, been put to bed, world views cleansed and reintegrated. What applies to individuals certainly also applies to greater collectivities. But instead of our democracy showing “healthy” rational debate over competing world views, the clashes go much deeper.

This is often personal. Something is being worked out here that apparently increasingly defies rational analysis, except by starting to examine the sociology. Why are large classes of people behaving the way they are, claiming to belief what they do, acting the way they do, persisting the way they do, rather than being open to critical examination and compromise?

We don’t have focus delivering the goods (rapid societal progress). Instead, we have some change, but mostly obstruction and self-enrichment, and not only from old vested interests with much to lose, but even more so from newcomers with so much to gain if they make the right choices (but always thinking of the greater good or mostly personally in a greater society mostly adrift without direction?).

The trust deficit has long been noted. But it starts with mission definition. What’s it we are trying to achieve? What has been tried in other parts of the world that has worked? If it doesn’t work for us, are we trying to be what we are not? Don’t we see our way through the maze, cracking really hard reform nuts? Or do we have pet beliefs, learned where, tested by whom, yet not to be surrendered at any price?

The faddish term of recent years is “engaging” but that’s precisely not what is happening. Railroading and obstructing is far closer to the truth.

Disagreement obviously is healthy, but our national behaviour goes well beyond that. As they chanted in parliament this week “majority rules”. Indeed, so why then doesn’t it deliver what is most passionately wanted?

The seeking to my mind is genuine. But coupled to that is conviction that whatever is believed will work. Uncritically so. Like in pre-scientific times.

Why this closing of so many fine minds and wholesale surrender to deep emotionalism?

The past has much to answer for. Indeed, so much, that it still won’t fully sink in how distorting the past’s consequences are being on today’s thinking.

On the one hand, there are those who don’t actually understand how the past has distorted perceptions. And then there are those who don’t seemingly understand what motivates them when they propose this or that action, vehemently opposed to anything else suggested.

Is this expertise talking, or raw pain? And if raw pain, is more pain to come the real answer (reminding of self-flagellation beloved by certain philosophies stuck in the past)?

It isn’t necessarily doing the incoherent thing that needs to be criticized, though noting it is certainly necessary. But understanding why it happens is perhaps yet more important. It is this that needs to be addressed more comprehensively.

Thinking that changing political alliances will do it may miss the point. For is the historic pain and its many distorting prisms really being addressed? If not, variations of incoherence may keep popping up, in as many guises as there are people reinventing the basic message.

Don’t like what has been done or created. Don’t like those responsible. Don’t trust those bearing gifts. Do not wish to listen. Will seek my own truth. And when I find it I will change the world.

Whether or not true & tested, whether ready or not, here I come.

That can be very understandable, like being in an eastern trance from which there is no easy escape. And very costly, as the millennium stagnation of such cultures has historically attested.

We need more experimentation, but not necessarily on live audiences or to destruction. Instead, we need more laboratory work, though not more talking shops. Perhaps we simply need more expertise, rather than too many high priests mumbling refrains and muttering chants only they can comprehend.

We are not really unique on this score. History is full of it. Learn from it, please.


Cees Bruggemans

Consulting Economist

Bruggemans & Associates


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