When national strengths become weaknesses


Back in 2010 I hear Dr Vincent Maphai speak on “Understanding the levers of our Society” during a BYM conference. Seriously smart guy and I find myself remembering parts of his speech almost every time I read the news. His comments and thoughts seem more relevant every time there is a new crisis, such as the Limpopo textbooks or Lonmin. Here’s some parts of his talk that I scribbled down and really stood out for me: [Note: I’ve paraphrased a lot as it is reconstructed it from my notes]

South Africa is still a very young democracy. Most countries took a very long time to become a stable democracy. Think of the UK which took over 400 years, Sweden who took 80 years or Turkey who 70 years later is still wrestling with the concept. We mustn’t be in such a hurry. Things will settle, we must be patient.

Being very involved in the ANC struggle all the way through apartheid, he observed that “the tools that you use to liberate yourself are not the tools you need to successfully run a country.

It is the 4 foundational pillars that the ANC is built upon that allowed it to successfully overthrow the apartheid regime, but it is the same foundation that will cause a democratic society to fail if the culture of the leadership is not changed. The 4 pillars were: underground work, armed propaganda, international propaganda and local mobilisation.

1) Underground work – this speaks the to cell network and the way that the decisions and communication happened during secret meetings under-the-radar and only between trusted ‘compatriots’.

Impact on democracy:
Cronyism, nepotism, tenderpreneurship, back handers and corruption, a culture of operating outside of the law

2) Armed Propaganda – This was a tactic to make the country ungovernable and break the systems that supported the apartheid government. It involved violent guerrilla warfare in the form of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

Impact on democracy: 
large publicised events and violent marches (Lonmin),  public strikes with lots of destruction to property, road blockages (and recent ANCYL threats)

3) International propaganda – By publicising the atrocious human rights violations and racist actions of the government, the ANC sought to stop international support and sanctions that would prevent foreign capital and support.  This was done quite effectively in a number of ways

Impact on democracy: 
South Africa is still trying to break the international perspective of being either very dangerous or completely poverty stricken. It also meant that it was very important for SA  to get US and Euro endorsement, with China  becoming more so. Vincent claimed that this leads to us being internationally bullied very easily, with us not drawing the line enough.

4) Local mobilisation – manifested in many large public gatherings and marches. The likes of Sharpville come to mind.  It also contributed to making the country ungovernable, but mostly through peacefully protests. (Just like Gandhi did).

Impact on democracy: People believing that Striking is the best way to be heard and that it is the way to be taken seriously. True for everyone from teachers, factory workers, to mineworkers.

It is these 4 pillars on which the ANC has built it’s foundation. It is the root of the political culture. It is what enabled them to bring democracy and equal rights to South Africa. It is what will make them fail in taking us the next steps as that democracy matures.

“Human minds do not switch rapidly to a new way of thinking – changing a culture takes a long time. “

 Interestingly, he also noted that: “media does not educate. That is not it’s role and it’s far too cynical.” The press are there to inform us of events and information, not to educate us is what should be done or how.

The talk was a very interesting look into the drivers of the political culture and helped me to understand why it is the way it is, how it developed and gave me a different perspective of the news.  He ended off with a apt (albeit cynical) warning about the public sector:

“Anyone who relies on the government or BEE will be on the streets begging.” – Vincent Mphai

One thought on “When national strengths become weaknesses

  1. Well, any strength may lead to a total disaster when it’s the only thing that you rely on; and any weakness may become a special cherry on a top of a cake when a suprising workaround being found that lead to a brand new point of view on a problem and its solution.

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