The distinct voices shaping South Africa’s future: Where do you stand? – Steuart Pennington

In a world of commentary and critique, Steuart Pennington outlines the three distinct voices shaping South Africa’s future. The sanctimonious cynics perpetually criticise, alienating themselves with their negativity. Possessive antagonists protect their interests, harbouring cultural prejudices. Yet, developmental protagonists advocate for balance, unity, and equal opportunities. The upcoming 2024 election will reflect this ideological battle. Amid the noise, a counter-revolution emerges, urging South Africans to “State Proof” themselves, fostering self-reliance, and challenging a failing government. It’s a call to action, away from defeatism and towards a brighter, cooperative future.

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By Steuart Pennington*

There are three types of people in the World “Those that make things happen; those that watch things happen; and those who criticise everything that is happening” adapted from George Bernard Shaw, and appropriate to the spread of population psyche in most countries. As we lead up to our 2024 election there will be considerable commentary out there, some of it alienating, some of it constructive, and some of it babble.

In this regard, I think South African commentators can be divided into three groups:

  1. There are those commentators who know what’s best for the rest, think they know who should be in the cabinet, think that 115 CEOs are pathetic appeasers, and think that ‘VOETSEK’ is an appropriate term to deal with those who they don’t like or disagree with. If they are from the business sector they say things like ‘I love this country but I don’t have to live here’; ‘no future for my kids’. If they are from the NGO sector they finger big business as being ‘selfish, government collaborators with no backbone, spineless deserving a special place in hell’. They have nothing good to say about government, ever, and criticise no matter what. Alienation and polarisation is where they feel comfortable. Sanctimonious egotists.
  1. There are those commentators, as Canadian philosopher CB Macpherson explained, “asset/possession owners who feel they owe nothing to society because whatever they have they acquired through their own efforts. They believe the government’s job is to protect them from society, not to force them to contribute to it, this often expresses as cultural prejudice.” Philosopher Richard Turner explains further “possessive commentators believe that ‘western civilisation’ is superior to all others, further, those with the benefit of a Western education already feel superior — those that don’t have this need to be educated if they want it.” Steven Friedman concludes  “This has deep roots in our society. Under apartheid, they supported a qualified franchise, which meant people could vote only if they acquired the property and culture which showed they were civilised. They kept a distance from black people so as not to offend white sensibilities. Predictably, they now reject measures to redress racial inequality.” Antagonistic condescension is where they are most comfortable. Possessive antagonists.
  1. Those commentators who don’t protect asset owners alone, but strive to balance their rights with those of others, which means that owners must contribute to society in exchange for the recognition of their rights. This approach is about developing the capacities of individuals, it insists that no culture is better than any other — and that, because no one has the right to claim that their opinions are better than anyone else’s, the view of the majority must be respected. Steven Friedman explains “Here in SA, this expresses itself in respect for majority opinion, in avoiding cultural prejudices and in support for measures to ensure that past victims of discrimination can realise their potential. It is represented by those commentators who insist that everyone should have equal opportunity.” Cautious path-finding, building trust, constructive comment underpins their conversation. Developmental protagonists.

Gloom and Doom vs Hope

Depending on who we follow we may struggle to decide between those commentators who ‘sing from our hymn-sheet’, as opposed to those who ‘sing from a different hymn-sheet’, analyse, consider and present an informed and contextual view. What we are being subjected to on public platforms, in talk shows, in mainstream media presents this mix — there are those sanctimonious/possessive commentators who assert their superior knowledge and perspectives for the chosen few (and it’s all gloom and doom) versus those developmental commentators who analyse, understand, listen and appreciate diverse perspectives, hopefully arriving at workable alternatives for the many (often with messages of cautious optimism). Because so much is at stake, the battle between these three ‘camps’ will be part of what we are subjected to daily, particularly as the run up to 2024 intensifies. 

So, how do we choose?

We have many out there: Justice Malala; Peter Bruce; Rob Hersov; Ian Cameron; GG.Alcock; William Gumede; Mark Barnes; Songezo Zibi; Tim Cohen; Alec Hogg; Frans Cronje; Sara Gon; Jonathan Katzenellenbogen; Lucky Mathebula; David Ansara; Clem Sunter; Rex van Schalkwyk; Barney Mthombothi; Martin Van Staden; Zakhele Mthembu; Russel Lamberti; Johan Botha; Anne Berstein; Sihle Zikalala; Sam van Coller; RW Johnson; Ivo Vegter to name just a very few, some very much out there, some behind the scenes. And then we have the Think-tanks; CDE; FMF; IRR; AfriForum; BLSA; BUSA; Solidarity; Sakeliga; Biznews; OUTA to name a few. And of course many CEO’s and NGO leaders make their voice heard often.

And we rank 29/140 globally in terms of media freedom, ahead of the UK, Australia and the US

I think all the above want a better South Africa, all talk of the State failing; all talk of what needs to be done to ‘save South Africa’.

So personally when I analyse ‘comment’ I find myself sub-consciously or consciously parking these commentators into one of the above three camps. I sometimes lurch between the three myself, especially when I am confronted by arrogant, incompetent, dismissive civil servants frustrating my attempts to constructively build for the future. 

But recently there seems to be a new message evolving, encapsulated one way or other by all three camps.

Is this the beginning of a Counter Revolution, State proofing, Selfdoen?

Against all this ‘noise’ there seems to be a significant mood swing, a new, more rebellious proactive message in the South African narrative. David Ansara recently (CEO Free Market Foundation) talked openly of South Africans learning to ‘State Proof’ themselves. He talked of the state trying to divert attention from its complete inability to deal with the its core functions  by introducing a myriad of additional nefarious regulations (NHI, EWC, SABC, DoE etc). He talked of taxes being abused, the collapse of the social contract, the centre not being able to hold, the State becoming a threat not a protector.

Avoid defeatism

He advocated ‘what fills the void of a collapsing state is up to us, don’t be defeatist!” 

  • Ratepayers associations taking power away from local municipalities
  • Big business imposing conditions/concessions in return for assistance
  • Job seekers exempt from draconian labour laws
  • Negotiated privatisation of State functions
  • Support, and working with some of the 150 000 NGO’s out there who have been filling the gap for decades
  • Individuals/communities becoming involved and engaged in looking after themselves and their towns
  • Enabling the informal sector to thrive
  • Avoiding defeatism, changing the narrative.

So, I’m done with the commentators who constantly rubbish the country and the government, they are ‘defeatists’ in themselves, sanctimonious and antagonistic. I want to hear and read about South Africans that are out there, part of this Counter Revolution, ‘State proofing’ themselves, doing stuff, making a contribution, fixing things. In that way we may well end up with government being coerced into doing what it is supposed to do. As John Endres of IRR points out “South Africa may well become a case study of how private initiative succeeds where states fail. And in the future, South Africa could end up with an enabling, compact state, a lean state, which co-operates with non-state actors instead of trying to stifle them.”

Read also:

Steuart Pennington: CEO South Africa – The Good News

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