WARREN Buffett, the famed US investor, noted: "Only when the tide goes out do we see who has been swimming naked." This seems an apt metaphor for diagnosing the ills afflicting South Africa and the world at present.
On Sunday, The New York Times, so often a cheerleader of South African exceptionalism, published a grim piece, as a result of the recent waves of violent strikes, under the headline, Upheaval Grips South Africa as Hopes for its Workers Fade. In similar tenor, Lex, the Financial Times’s anonymous but hugely important arbiter of investor sentiment, recently heralded South Africa’s rainbow’s end. Noting the "volatile cocktail" of flat-lining growth, currency slide, surging protests, inflationary pressure and government paralysis, it suggests a "South African Spring" will soon be upon us. This is, of course, not a reference to the seasons but to the sociopolitical revolution that gripped much of North Africa and the Arab world last year and which continues to hold Syria in its grip.
Since my return to our shores just two weeks ago, after three years away, I have been struck how we seem to be displaying collective signs of a national nervous breakdown. And this is not just the noises from the "usual suspects" in the opposition ranks and the suburban chattering classes. It appears to have afflicted, in equal measure, some significant personalities in and many ordinary, and increasingly disenchanted, supporters of the governing party.
On the basis that misery likes company, it is comforting, although not reassuring, to look around the globe. Last week, the Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to the European Union. It might have helped keep the postwar peace, Yugoslavia excepted, but the grand design of an increasingly close and more inclusive and prosperous union is unravelling, especially in its southern flank.
To return to Buffett: many of the institutions we built to bed down democracy in South Africa and the world and improve its condition do just fine when growth is up and conflict is down. But they sometimes falter when they are stress-tested by adverse currents and rough tides. The paralysis of the United Nations Security Council over Syria, the inability of the eurozone to arrest the fear of debt default in its southern flank and the difficulty of the Group of 20 in turning around the global financial crisis are three instructive examples. Simply put, some of the challenges we face are simply too big for the institutions designed to contain them.
There is much talk, as well, of the decline of the world’s hyperpower, the US, and whether it is temporary or terminal. Another endless debate concerns whether China’s rise is assured and what this means to the Pacific and beyond. The developing world is also "enjoying" a better financial crisis than developed economies, but according to the latest International Monetary Fund forecast, both are severely underperforming.
But however fundamentally these shifts in the tectonic plates of international economics and diplomacy reset the future world order, right now we are somewhat suspended in a leaderless world. Political consultant Ian Bremmer described this new order as the unstable "G Zero World".
South Africa spends much time and effort exporting to the world the example of our constitutional "miracle"; indeed, in my recent work abroad, I found it to be an excellent example of South Africa’s "soft power". However, the other day I felt obliged to ask: "If our constitution is so good, why do things seem so bad?" Perhaps the great Thomas Jefferson gave us the answer more than 200 years ago when he noted that the best constitutions are those that are "most sceptical about the virtues of the powerful". This is something Parliament and the African National Congress should remember as they go about poking into the work of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, who appears to share this Jeffersonian scepticism.
A recent official visitor of mine in Buenos Aires, one of our Cabinet’s wiser and more distinguished members, was engrossed in reading arguably the most important recent addition to the vast literature on what separates winning nations from the also-rans. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, reaches an influential conclusion. Good institutions, they argue, separate the winners from the losers. These in turn take root and flourish in countries that are "inclusive states" that give everyone access to economic opportunity. Political power in such places rests with a broad coalition or a plurality of groups. This is a relatively elite set of countries.
Far more crowded is the losers’ circle, the "extractive states" controlled by a narrow ruling elite that tampers with institutions in order "to extract as much wealth as they can from the rest of society".
As our ruling elite goes about selecting its next leader, I hope my recent visitor passes the book around the Cabinet table.