Who is in the saddle?

cyril rampahosaHow can one make sense of the just-completed elective conference of South Africa’s African National Conference? Certainly, it was no triumph of good over evil. Rather, the glass seems half-full (which I prefer to half-empty):

(i) In Cyril Ramapahosa, the ANC selected a leader with a track record of effectiveness, committed to constitutional democracy (score +);

(ii) its delegates were evenly split between supporters and opponents of these core values (score +/-);

(iii) up to half of its leadership team seems (to put it mildly) to not embrace these core values.(score -).

So, despite what was hoped for, the ANC’s and South Africa’s politics continues to be profoundly uncertain. I use uncertainty here in a very specific way: It’s not just that we do not know; it’s that what comes next is not, as of now, knowable, including by  the protagonists involved. Events will play out; one thing will lead to another;  only retrospectively will a path become evident. (This approach to uncertainty, by the way, comes directly from John Maynard Keynes.)

I will venture one prediction, though – that what we have is not a stable stalemate. Perhaps ‘events will be in the saddle’, with an accelerating downward spiral. Perhaps Cyril Ramaphosa and his allies will assert mastery, and a sense of renewed possibilities will take hold. This will become evident sooner rather than later.

This is a classic moment for Albert Hirschman’s ‘bias for hope’. Not naïve hope, but a recognition that when things can go either way our task is to embrace a ‘passion for the possible’, to ask how we might act (however small or large our influence) in a way which tries to nudge things in a positive direction.

Which brings me to the interpretation of the conference in the piece by Richard Poplak which I link here. As with much of his work, its turns of phrase are superb; it offers the reader the pleasure of sharing in one knowing chuckle after the other. And it has the special energizing frisson of its subtext: ‘we’re all doomed’. Perhaps in moments of uncertainty fatalism feels good. But it also contributes, in whatever small a way, to the fulfillment of its own predictions. Perhaps better to withhold applause at such displays of virtuosity and ask instead: what is to be done?

[Note: I’ve been very quiet with this blog – my recent months have been pre-occupied with trying to finish an upcoming book (to be published by Oxford University Press) on the politics and governance of basic education in South Africa. The final manuscript will be submitted in early January, and then I will become more active here again. But I couldn’t resist posting something on the recent turn of events in South Africa….].


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