South Africa's democracy: Complexity theory in action

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Image“The edge of chaos is the balance point where the components of a system never quite lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into turbulence, either…The edge of chaos is the constantly shifting battle zone between stagnation and anarchy, the one place where a complex system can be spontaneous, adaptive and alive...” - M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity.

We human beings do not like uncertainty. We seek to understand what events portend, taking comfort in coming up with an answer. So whenever something new in South Africa makes headlines – and that’s been happening quite often recently, the news not always happy – people ask me, “What do you think? Is the political settlement falling apart?”. And always, the expectation is for a definitive answer, one way or the other.

Yet sometimes there is more wisdom, and more comfort to be taken, in acknowledging a more humbling truth – that which of many alternative futures (including ones we cannot imagine) will come to pass is unknowable, is a product of decisions and actions that have not yet been made. This understanding of change as something ‘emergent’, evolving, which can unfold in far-reaching yet ex ante unpredictable directions, is the key insight of ‘complexity theory' – an insight which can offer a useful dose of humility to governance prognosticators.

In a previous post, I described South Africa’s abiding tension between democracy and inequality. As that post suggested, one of the results of that tension could be a rise of patronage, personalized decision-making as to how to share the ‘spoils’ of power. Indeed, the strains on the country’s constitutional democracy are visible in the drumbeat of daily headlines, as I found when I recently spent some time in the country. Consider the following: 

  • Over the past year, the country’s estimable Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, investigated and made public compelling evidence of corruption on the part of two sitting cabinet ministers, and the chief of police. For many months, President Zuma did nothing – until October 24th  2011, when he unexpectedly fired the cabinet ministers, suspended the police chief, and announced the appointment of a judicial commission to re-investigate long festering allegations of corruption (including against himself) in a weapons procurement deal.
  • Then there’s the populist demagoguery of the leader of the ruling African National Congress’s Youth League, Julius Malema, whose political star, and polarizing influence on South Africa’s political discourse, seemed to be rising – until a disciplinary committee of the ANC announced on November 10th, 2011 that it had found Malema guilty of bringing the ANC into disrepute, and suspended him from the party for five years.
  • There’s the China connection. Across Africa, a context is raging between China and Africa’s erstwhile Western colonial (and post-colonial) hegemonies – for hearts, minds, natural resources, and business more generally. With its sophisticated institutions, and proud transition to constitutional democracy, it might be thought that South Africa would be unambiguously in the Western camp. So against that backdrop, the failure to grant the global human rights icon, the Dalai Lama, a visa in time to attend the October 2011 80th birthday celebration of his friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is startling – and can best be explained by a desire to curry favor with the Chinese.
  • Finally, there’s the on-again, off-again – but then on again – Protection of Information Bill which (after numerous delays, and promises of consultation before finalization) was rushed through South Africa’s parliament on 22nd November 2011. Passage of the bill was seen as a catastrophe by many in South Africa’s civil rights community. Indeed, it signals a startling turn away from a post-apartheid commitment to openness. But no less an observer than The Economist, noting that the bill had been ‘vastly improved’ over earlier versions, suggested that some of the doomsday criticism ‘may be over the top’. And, in light of the ANC’s hitherto ironclad hold on the loyalties of its core constituencies, it is surely no small matter that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (a stalwart part of the ANC alliance) has threatened to take the bill to the Constitutional Court if it is not amended to incorporate a ‘public interest’ exception for whistleblowers.

In the face of all of these cross-currents, any claims of certainty as to where this interplay of forces will lead is surely illusory. Each of them could turn out to be a salutary example of checks and balances in action – of how democratic institutions can keep a country on track, even in the face of pressures to the contrary. But they could also be portents of a future that will become increasingly challenging for the country’s constitutional order.

But in South Africa’s case, and surely elsewhere, too.   perhaps the lack of certainty is a source of comfort. Knowing that the future is not preordained can free us from endless preoccupation with what is inherently unknowable, enabling us instead to direct energy towards action, in service of a hopeful future that we can, perhaps, yet help to create. 

Photo Credit: Flickr User Marion Schriber


Brian Levy

Professor at SAIS and University of Cape Town

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