Dreaming of Heaven

John Moodey MPL

DA Gauteng Caucus

The astrophysicist Carl Sagan, a towering intellectual of the last century, once remarked that one of the seminal revelations of space exploration was seeing the earth, not as a collection of territories, but as a single entity. “A new consciousness is developing”, he said, “which sees the earth as a single organism and recognises that an organism at war with itself is doomed.” I doubt that there can be any better framework for South Africa’s aspirations.

The history of space exploration teaches that dreams can be realised. Space travel was first accomplished in the 1950s, nearly 1 800 years after it was first envisaged by Lucian of Samosata, an Assyrian writer and author of the first work of science fiction. A common sense of belonging to South Africa is no more an impossible dream. And it is essential, even if we have some considerable way to go before reaching this goal.

Like Sagan’s conception of the earth, South Africa is an organism, and cannot survive if it perpetually wars against itself. This is the South Africa of the “tweet” scandals, of the Kommandokorps and the ANC Youth League. Down that road, the very best we can hope for is a society permanently retarded by its own contradictions and tortured by its unfulfilled hopes. We cannot let this happen.

South Africans want a common nationhood and a common future. This is the message contained in any number of studies and opinion surveys. That this aspiration is frequently held hostage to suspicion and fear and anger is hardly surprising, given our history. We in the Democratic Alliance have no problem acknowledging this and offering to play our part in addressing it. We have even less difficulty in willing and envisioning that future. Indeed, more than any other political formation, we have attempted to grapple with it – and that we may have done so imperfectly does not alter that.

We look forward to the future and to what can await us: One Nation, One Future.

Our racial divisions have their origins in the colonial and apartheid experiences. Do we look at these divisions as challenges to be overcome, or as an obstacle to hide behind? We need consciously to choose. There are no easy answers or quick fixes.

One non-negotiable is the idea of redress. To redress is to put right, to correct what is wrong and to bring a just and equitable solution to grievances. Redress is an idea that in its vision goes beyond mere redistribution, and consciously avoids retribution. It is about acknowledging the roots of injustices and seeking creative and positive ways of dealing with them.

The harm that was done in the past is justification for a programme of redress. I challenge anyone to identify denialism about this on the part of the DA – it does not exist. But conversely, merely seeking to redistribute the assets and opportunities (which has been the thrust of much policy) is neither sustainable, nor effective. In fact, I would not be alone in saying this. To cite two examples: what has passed for land reform has seen some 90% of projects collapse because they were seen simply as passing assets from one group to another, while empowerment policy (irrespective of how many Bs are prefixed onto the acronym) is rightly lambasted – often from within the ANC itself – for having enriched a small group of the connected.

Redress looks both at the roots of the problems and how they can be addressed. It does not attempt to turn tables or reconstruct a past that is no longer possible. It seeks an outcome that will ameliorate the grievances, and replace them with justice.

This implies understanding of both the present and the possible. Launching a vehicle into space was not made possible by denouncing the earth’s gravity, or by denying its existence. Nor would it have been possible to launch a spacecraft with inappropriate technology – Lucian’s writings envisaged sailing ships being driven through the sky on winds, which we now know to be impossible. What was needed was to understand the solar system, physics, and to develop propulsion systems to drive a vehicle through space.

Herein are lessons for us, to understand exactly what it is that divides us, and how we can meaningfully deal with it.

Building a common sense of South Africanism must go in tandem with building South Africa. As a country, we sometimes forget this. To engender a sense of pride in a community, we must begin by ensuring that the community is worthy of pride. Excellence and exceptionalism, after all, attract followers. We glimpse this occasionally, as during the 1995 Rugby World Cup or when we hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Shortly after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, I recall an Afrikaans newsman commenting: “Jy bou nie n nasie deur n rugby wedstryd to wen nie. Nasiebou is harde werk”. I can’t put it any better than that. And the work we need to do is hard indeed!

We must furthermore learn how to debate. It falls to all of us to attempt to understand the perspectives of others, and to engage with them, as responsible citizens whose destinies are interwoven. Just as astronomy developed progressively by setting aside what was once believed but subsequently found to be incorrect, so must we all. To quote Carl Sagan again: “Whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not how we wish it to be.”

If we wish to make a common nationhood a reality, there can be no justification for appeals to chauvinism and ethnic bigotry. This does not mean that questions of identity and heritage must be suppressed, dismissed or ignored. International experience should make us aware of the dangers of doing so. Our unique cultural backgrounds are part of who we are. They represent ways of being both South African and human. The potential for conflict is a part of this – but not an inevitability, provided we cultivate the goodwill and mutual respect to negotiate our differences.

In this regard, we should take notice of the recent Social Cohesion Summit in July. It is less important whether or not this was a talk-shop, than that the talk was at least going in various directions. Prominent members of the opposition being placed on the programme is an important development. Compared to the one-sided hectoring that characterised the Human Rights Commission’s Conference on Racism a decade ago (billed inaccurately as “a nation in dialogue”, and described bombastically as more significant than the formation of South Africa in 1910, or the Kliptown Congress in 1955 – until it was forgotten), we have come a long way. The talk is still too infrequent, it is punctuated by aggression, but we should be encouraged that it is taking place.

We must get the country working. A sense of belonging for all of us will exist when it exists for each. Here we must succeed in creating comfortable, safe and liveable communities, and providing opportunities of self-sufficiency. A country in which a quarter of its workforce (conservatively speaking) is out of work, and in which half of young people have no jobs or prospects of acquiring them, is neither stable nor sustainable. Neither can we be satisfied when millions live in shacks, suffer from preventable diseases or are preyed on by criminals.

The response so far has been welfare measures. But these can only go as far as the productive economy will allow. At present, each taxpayer is supporting some three welfare recipients. Whatever the morality of this, the economic logic cannot be extended indefinitely. According to Moeletsi Mbeki, in a decade or so this will begin to unravel. And in any event, welfare measures tend to be offered as a substitution for inclusion, rather than a means of inclusion.

The solution, of course, is to expand opportunities for employment. This will amount to real redress. The question is how? The one-stop populism of nationalisation or land seizures offers no solution, but it is not enough simply to dismiss them -they offer a mirage of a solution, which is more than many have now. Rather, we need to focus elsewhere. To generate employment, we need employers. To redistribute wealth, we must first create it. South Africa is lagging badly in this regard. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, entrepreneurship in South Africa is amongst the lowest in the world.

Turning this around will be difficult. Governments cannot “create” entrepreneurs. But they can create the conditions within which entrepreneurship can flourish. It is a false debate to talk about whether or not the state has a role to play in the economy. It does, but whether its role is positive or negative depends on what it attempts (and history is littered with examples of government action literally and consciously destroying economies) and how efficiently it is able to carry out its mandate.

South Africa falls woefully short here. Studies show a clear link between education and successful entrepreneurship. By any standards, education in South Africa is in a dismal state. A massive problem was inherited in 1994, but the crazy teacher redeployment scheme (Alistair Sparks called it “one of the most bizarre acts of self- immolation that it is possible to imagine”), the outcomes-based education farce and providing SADTU with an effective veto over education quality were guaranteed to compound the problem.

And our education failures are about employees as much as employers. If South Africa is to aspire to a well-paying economy, it will have to rely increasingly on a capacity for innovation, on skills and on value-add. When – as research by the Small Business Project revealed – employers find basic literacy and numeracy to be problematic, the country is in a crisis; the prospects for high value-adding work are slim. That this has its roots in apartheid is true, but it must be confronted, here and now. For millions of young people, overwhelmingly of the black poor, they are paying an horrific price for a failure to do so.

Governance failures are widespread beyond education. Government itself acknowledges this, and so does the ANC. This is a tragedy, and it makes nonsense of the idea of a “developmental state”. A state that struggles to deliver textbooks, or issue proper accounts, is a state unable to manage complex economic institutions. Calls to “capacitate” the state are well and good, but until the hard choices are taken – ending cadre deployment, depoliticising the civil service, imposing an unsexy culture of procedure and performance – they will come to nothing.

For this reason, we need leadership. Those of us in leadership positions have a special responsibility to be exemplary in our conduct and to demonstrate the highest standards of probity. When we accept mediocrity, we fail to lead. We condemn the country. And when leaders take the easy route of appealing to visceral passions and grievances, they threaten the future.

Carl Sagan wrote that humanity is an organism, and that all we know about biological development tells us that humanity is unique. This is a powerful reason, as a species, to survive. “There will be no humans elsewhere. Only here. Only on this small planet. We are a rare as well as an endangered species. Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” That too is our challenge in South Africa. We have an opportunity to make of our country something unique and beautiful. There will only be one South Africa, and one fate for us all. How we use it is in our hands.

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