Friday, 25 October 2019

Digital Pronouncements: The Celebrity-Populist Tweets!

In history the role of the town crier pervades all cultures and geographies; from Asia to Europe to Africa and North America, the town crier was an invaluable source of information. This was especially important when the vast majority of the populace was illiterate, and before move-able type was invented.

In medieval England the town crier or bellman was elaborately outfitted in black boots, white breeches, a red and gold coat and a tricorne hat. He carried a handbell and yelled “Oyez!, Oyez!, Oyez!” (“Hear Ye!”) and delivered a range of announcements and pronouncements, everything from new births to royal edicts and decrees. These were read out in the town square or whatever official station was appropriate. A great deal of scripting likely went into these grand pronouncements, so that the subjects were both reminded of the power of the monarchy that ruled over them and left in no doubt as to the essence of the pronouncement. Power and grandiosity characterised the performance, yet clarity remained essential. Clarity ensured that order flowed from the monarch's, or the monarch’s representatives’, pronouncements.

President Donald Trump’s tweets, however, are unfiltered, straight from the source. They lack any semblance of officialdom, yet still reaches supporters, opponents, detractors and enemies alike. His reach is not just his base; it is much broader, and perhaps that is precisely what he, in his self-acknowledged “unmatched wisdom”, seeks to achieve. Yet it must be noted that while the ‘digital pronouncement’ is effective in terms of its broad reach, it is delivered through a system (i.e twitter) that is designed for more conversational stream of consciousness-oriented interactions. Hence it can become unwieldy, even contradictory, and in no small part due precisely due to the varied audience his tweets are intended for. It is difficult to strike a coherent officially sanctioned line through an un-managed twitter account. Long sanctified institutions of the state and government are left trailing in his wake.

The digital pronouncement is more about the projection of power and influence – in the circus of political drama that now prevails in the public realm – than it is about making official statements. At the same time it speaks to identity and its empowerment or reinforcement on a regular, almost daily, basis. Leveraging the fact that a particular set of values characterises the personal and group identities of his followers, his digital pronouncements reach deep into his base and its sympathisers. Detractors and enemies are also targeted at the same time, and so are potential deal-partners. No matter where you sit in the system – through a digitally enhanced media and social media (multimedia) that amplifies his messaging while distributing it ever widely at the same time – you cannot escape the digital pronouncement, whether directly or indirectly. It pervades and persists in all the spaces available to it. It can reach you on a desert island, a submarine, pretty much anywhere, anytime … as long as you are connected of course (i.e. to the global media stream and its many interfaces). It has system-wide impact.

With the digital pronouncement, he is able to control and influence – not just the narratives – but also the reality of those whom he is targeting. He’s on to something, and he knows it. In that respect, President Trump is a bloodhound. He can smell fresh blood a mile away and any weakness, any chink in the system that allows him to pursue his typically self-interested agenda is quickly and thoroughly exploited. He’s not whispering in their ears on twitter, he is trumpeting his agenda out. It is an advance attack on his enemies and an affirmation of his supporters’ values and identity at the same time. He is constantly announcing himself as ever present and dominant. In this way he multiples and amplifies himself and his messaging, in no small part with the help of the global media establishment - but also with ours, who transfixed by the spectacle cannot bear to turn our heads away from it. What a tangled web is woven by the digital pronouncement; it is the new 21st Century propaganda conveyance system for the ‘voice of the leader’, so to speak.

What a brave new world this is, where leader can reach followers and detractors alike with equal ease! Where the institutions no longer hold significant sway over the words and actions of an individual leader, one who despite his broad reach is more atomised than ever in his own administration. So alone that the company of millions on a mobile phone constitutes his access to power, his validation and his misery alike. So insecure that the members of his leadership and administration are set up against each other; where they are forced to vie for his affections, competing against each other as though in the court of a monarch. Whoever he anoints the latest holds sway with him, but only temporarily. The attrition rate of those serving at the White House bears testament; it is worse the closer to him they are!

What is lost in this brave new world of democratic monarchy is precisely what was most important in times of old; clarity and order. The ancient world was not a world like ours; there was no surveillance state, so it relied on the exercise of clarity alongside power to ensure order. The world of digital pronouncements is not a world that acquires more order through the grandiose pronouncements of the leader. Institutional power (generally, and not only that of the White House) is dissipated, spent, after being wasted on misdirection and internal contradiction. The centre ceases to hold the institutions of government together; the centre is adrift in a sea of endless noise. The great leader proceeds disjointed from the institutional purposes, directives and infrastructure that is there to support them. And to be sure, Donald Trump is not the only celebrity-populist with quasi-monarchic aspirations in this new era, although he might be the only one who literally sits on a golden toilet.  

In the hyper-connected, post-literate, information overloaded world of today we are experiencing increasing levels of disorder, rather than what we might have originally expected the internet revolution to bring i.e. increased mutual understanding, tolerance and space for healthy debate. Perhaps it was inevitable that the virtual realm would mirror real-world prejudices, alterity, exclusions and the myriad fragmentations of human experience, but it was not foreseeable a few decades ago. It is undoubtedly of great concern and consternation that it has hamstrung institutions of government that have kept the post-war consensus of the 20th Century intact. Moreover; that social and political polarisation and antagonism have replaced tolerance and dialogue in the public realm, rendering the polis fragmented and unable to act coherently to exert democratic power when it is needed the most. It cuts a sad and pathetic picture; one that augers no good for the 21st Century.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

“Empowered Powerlessness”: Who Runs the ‘Official Opposition’ in South Africa?

We should all be feeling Mmusi Maimane’s pain. For the cycle of events that have arrested his leadership is so old, so worn in the tread, that it should be instantly recognisable to all black and brown South Africans. How does a young black leader, carrying all the promise and hope of a new future, come to a pitiable end such as this?

Indeed there will be many who will say that he deserves it. That his naivety in believing he would be allowed to lead a majority and historically white party, unencumbered by the trappings of tokenhood, was sure to lead to his undoing. Did he not understand that those who believed that they had ‘made’ him, would equally believe it their place to unmake him?

Is this not a tragedy that black and brown South Africans have seen and experienced for themselves a hundred-fold over? Is not the ultimate end of tokenism to be hung out to dry? To whither under the searing heat of criticism, alone, surrounded on all sides; unable to mount a defence worthy of merit, discredited before one speaks?

Yet it is an undeniable fact that without Helen Zille’s endorsement he would likely never have stood a chance – even remotely – of becoming the leader of the DA. His victory was not won from her but bestowed upon him by her.  It was Helen Zille’s side-lining of the vastly more experienced Lindiwe Mazibuko in favour of Mmusi Maimane – her carefully selected prodigy – that put the wind behind his sails, propelling his ascendancy to power. He was effectively fast-tracked to the leadership of the party. Little did he know that a far worse fate awaited him as the new black leader of an historically white DA.

In all likelihood he was carefully courted, even flattered, into believing that he was the hope for the future of the DA. They believed they needed him to attract a broader range of the rainbow nation’s inhabitants – namely black and brown – into the fold of the DA; he spoke many languages, was relatable and pious, was in a mixed marriage himself, and had the ability to deploy visionary rhetoric reminiscent of the US’s Barack Obama. Perhaps he would be able to take the party where it had never been before; rendering them political representatives of black South Africans for the first time in their history.

Yet, comfortably ensconced in her premier’s home in the leafy foothills of Table Mountain, Helen Zille was the very first to render Mmusi Maimane’s newfound leadership toothless. Her adamant, tone deaf denial of the existence of any notion of systemic racism, and her single-minded, almost religious, faith in ‘meritocracy’ became the key irreconcilable differences between them.  

She singlehandedly sowed the seeds that undermined the new black leader and leadership of the DA without pause for thought. Her twitter account reads in the same way as Donald Trump’s does, except that she actually does read – albeit in an intellectually undisciplined and patently biased manner – and feels comfortable enough to challenge scholars and intellectuals who have spent decades studying, contributing to, and growing whole fields of knowledge. Simply because she thinks she knows better. After all, is that not the foremost of liberal white privileges; to be able to weigh in on any topic as though all opinions are equal regardless of one’s actual knowledge?

Very early on in Maimane’s leadership, Helen Zille, as Premier of the Western Cape, began a twitter campaign that would prove disastrous for the DA. With over 1.4 million twitter followers, she took to her twitter pulpit and very actively, began to raise a conservative caucus within the DA that would challenge the more social democratic black leadership of the DA, who were naturally prepared to acknowledge that race (in particular, systemic racism) is a critical factor in South African politics, and still matters for the majority of black and brown people today. It must be remembered that Mmusi Maimane rose to power at a critical political moment in South Africa. One where the ‘born free’ generation rose up and rebelled against the ‘rainbow nation’ narrative; seeking to destabilise utopian notions of a race-blind politics and re-assert the importance of race as a class delineator, one that could not be ignored in the service of an artificial ‘peace’ any longer. 

Zille was ultimately suspended (albeit temporarily) from the DA for her twitter rants, under the leadership of Maimane. But this wasn't enough to stop her, she was soon back at it!

More recently, Zille joined the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), whose ‘research’ barely qualifies as reputable scholarship; an outfit that is essentially a lobbying group for right wing neoconservative views. It was her subsequent election to the position of chair of the federal executive of the DA that led to the resignation of Herman Mashaba – the mayor of Johannesburg – and later Mmusi Maimane as leader of the DA, and ultimately from the DA itself entirely. Mashaba specifically mentioned Zille’s association with the IRR as one of the key reasons for his departure. Zille’s response was to assert that Mashaba was more right wing than her, labelling him a free market fundamentalist.

Yet Zille’s absolute and total denial of systemic racism is not a liberal position. It is an extreme conservative position. In the South African context, it ranks right up there with Donald Trump’s denial of climate science. Her belief in meritocracy is ahistorical, as though South Africa began from tabula rasa – a blank slate – after the 1994 elections. It is a dangerously delusional and divisive position; one that profits off white victimhood and the alt-right pretensions to intellectualism that is typified by the IRR.

The illusory ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ politics no longer has an audience among the black and brown middle and lower classes, who have endured growing unemployment, inflation and wage stagnation that is largely delineated along racial (and class) lines. Race and class intersect heavily in South Africa and to deny the importance of either is sheer ignorance (or lunacy). These are the key issues for the majority black and brown South Africans who are on the losing end of 25 years of growing inequality that is ranked the highest in the world by the World Bank.

Helen Zille’s racism is not malicious or personal. It is pompous, self-righteous and defensive, born of ignorance of the lived experience that underpins the plight of everyday black and brown South Africans. It is dangerous because it legitimises and reinforces systemic racism. It is precisely the racism that conservatives deny exists, but which they propagate and reproduce without end. Their ignorance of it is fuel for it. It is a vicious cycle; the more the ignorance and denial of it prevails the more it grows and endures.

Moreover, her vision of ‘meritocratic liberalism’ is even more irrelevant in the South Africa of today. In a society predominantly characterised by drastic inequality, talk of ‘meritocracy’ is more utopian than pure communism. It has no place in any South African discourse that is characterised by a semblance of realism. It is simply delusional, yet it enjoys the support of many white South Africans in particular, who have remained politically ignorant since the “dark days of Apartheid”, as Zille puts it.

Clearly, these dark days of Apartheid inequalities, exclusion and lack of upward mobility have not ended, and the well-evidenced plight and experience of the majority black marginal and poor bears testament to this. The importance of race and class is also evidenced in part by the student protests for free higher education in 2016 and the rapid rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, but more-so by the turn that the internal politics of the ANC itself took under Jacob Zuma (i.e radical economic transformation). It is clear as day that aspirations to a meritocratic society are grossly misplaced in the current South African context, where historical legacies persist and endure.

Zille, however, and this is clear, will not be stopped. She will carry the holy but peculiar cross of new South African ‘liberalism a la IRR', where colour blindness and meritocracy intersect, in the vain hope that the majority of black and brown people, who are direct victims of systemic racism and rampant tokenism, will take the bait. Either that, or the DA’s venture into securing black voters is over – prematurely I would add – and that the ‘powers that be’ in the DA have decided to hang on to the old conservatives they absorbed when the National Party collapsed (and merged with the ANC).

What the DA’s old senior politicians and federal executive do not understand – and likely do not care a fig about – is how black South Africans, who have endured the politics of tokenism and exclusion, will experience and judge the DA’s most recent actions. It is true that in the political climate of today’s world an Obama styled rhetoritician is bound to fare badly. Nonetheless, how Mmusi Maimane has been systematically undermined from within as the first black leader of  the official opposition – a majority white party – speaks volumes for the skewed racial power relations and inherited injustices that permeate current day South Africa; the most unequal society in the world. Helen Zille’s return to power as a Trojan horse, (buoyed by the IRR) for the disgruntled conservative core of the DA was the ultimate nail in the coffin to the DA’s diversification drive. The rank hypocrisy of it all is spellbinding. 

Moreover, the manner of Musi Maimane’s exit epitomises the stark contradiction that lies at the heart of the DA’s ‘race-blind’ politics. That is, it constitutes a perfect demonstration of the very systemic racism that Zille’s IRR-oriented DA camp so vehemently denies exists. How Mmusi Maimane was systematically undermined brings to mind a phenomenon that a close colleague of mine, refers to as “empowered powerlessness”[i]. By remaining blind to it, they enact and perpetuate it. It is a banal evil, born of a cognitive dissonance driven in large part by half-baked intellectualism, arrogance and denialism. 

And is it not entirely peculiar that both Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane met their ends after proclaiming their opinions – grounded in their own black experience – that recognising the historical and current condition of the black majority in South Africa is unavoidable in South African politics? They clearly went off Helen Zille’s preferred script for the DA and paid the ultimate price for it.

Cry the beloved country, for its history lives on regardless, promulgated in large part by the messianics among us; those who would view themselves as saviours from above, and not representatives from within. As long as this brash Trumpism prevails there is precious little hope for an opposition politics that ‘gets it’ and can unite South Africans across the racial and socio-cultural spectrum.



On 27 October 2019 the media announced that John Steenhuisen has been elected as the new parliamentary leader of the DA. It is ironic that the party that denies the existence of white privilege and systemic racism undermines and pushes out its elected black leader who has two masters degrees, and promptly replaces him with a white male who only possesses a matriculation certificate as his highest qualification.

That's not to suggest to that Steenhuisen isn't up to the task, but the optics are pretty bad, especially when considering the near-religious fervour with which they have defended their "classic liberal" belief in 'meritocracy'. The truth is that the reverse would be inconceivable for the DA. 

The DA's ideological schizophrenia continues, fueled by a profound cognitive dissonance and utter incapability to put themselves in the shoes of black and brown South Africans, who have endured these injustices for far too long, and at far too high a cost.


Other related posts that chronicle how events unfolded in the DA leading up to Maimane's exit (and discuss it's political lack of coherence) can be read here:

[i] Note that the term “empowered powerlessness” was originally coined by Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso and Professor Kurt April at the University of Cape Town.

They researched how emerging, younger and first generation African black executives are fast-tracked into senior positions – without necessarily having the requisite experience – and thereafter suffer the adverse effects of their majority white governance structures (i.e. “white boards of directors/trustees”)

As they account for the experience of black professionals in South Africa who are empowered (i.e. whether through education, station or other) but remain powerless;

“Failure to give voice to an experience is to perpetrate the myth that such an experience does not exist.”

Their study concludes that:

“ … the empowered powerless phenomenon begins with a perpetrator who, as a result of racism, sexism, and/or ageism, has a fundamental mistrust in the abilities of the emerging top executive. As a result, the perpetrator is convinced that the executive is not good enough to play the role they are playing in the organisation. Feelings of superiority are an integral part of this belief system. The perpetrator may then do a number of things to create an uncomfortable and hostile environment for the black executive. He/she may directly undermine the executive’s decision-making space; or he/she may silence the executive through co-option, collude against the executive, or exclude the executive from important work processes. All of these efforts fundamentally come to the same thing, which is undermined decision-making space.”

See the full text here:

Vassilopoulou, J., Da Rocha, J. P., Seierstad, C., April, K., & Ă–zbilgin, M. (2013). International diversity management: Examples from the USA, South Africa and Norway. In B. Christiansen, E. Turkina, & N. Williams (eds.), Cultural and technological influences on global business (pp. 14-28). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Making Africa a Future-Fit Continent

An address delivered by A. Prof Camaren Peter of the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership of the Graduate School of Business at the University of Cape Town; to the participants of the Leadership in Extractives and African Development Programme (LEAD).

It may perhaps appear ironic that in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, we entered an era of long overdue afro-optimism. In 2010, McKinsey released a report entitled, “Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies[i]. This was followed by a range of similarly optimistic projections for the future of the continent, and from a wide range of sources; from the African Development Bank in 2011[ii], to global multinational corporations, who were looking for new markets to access in a stagnant post-collapse global economy. Let me read you a quote from UN-Habitat’s State of the African Cities Report in 2014 [iii] (full disclosure: I was one of the authors):

“In recent years, Africa’s economic growth has seen real gross domestic product (GDP) increasing at a rate twice that of the 1980s and 1990s. The spread of growth over economic sectors has been relatively uniform. By 2020, 128 million African households are projected to have transited to “middle class”, boosting consumption and spending potentials; and by 2030 Africa’s highest-performing 18 cities might reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion. Projections over the longer term include growth of the middle class from 355 million people in 2010 (34 per cent of the total population) to 1.1 billion (42 per cent) in 2060, exceeding that of China today.”

UN-Habitat State of the African Cities Report, 2014

This optimistic turn quickly came to be reflected in the media as well, as can still be evidenced today from the ‘good news’ media stories that we are exposed to about the continent on international news channels such as CNN and the BBC. Everybody, it seems, was queuing up in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse (i.e. from the US, to Europe to India and China); in a ‘new scramble for Africa’. To be sure, on a continent such as this, that has undergone such drastic exploitation over centuries, strong warnings also emerged. Many on the continent were not quite sure whether to trust this new version of their continent that was doing the rounds in the global media discourse. As the State of the African Cities Report of 2014 went on to warn, a more cautious optimism was necessary. After all, at the time;

“… despite ten years of high economic growth continent-wide, around 50 per cent of Africans today remain at incomes below USD 1.25 per day, while only four per cent receive more than USD 10 per day. Using the range of USD 10 to USD 100 per day, Africa constitutes a mere two per cent of the global middle class and has only one per cent of its purchasing power.”

There is more to this picture, and I will address some of the dimensions that require serious attention if we are to understand; (1) how future fit the continent is, and (2) what needs to be done in order to secure an affirmative future for the continent. And to be sure, we face difficult and complex challenges; not least because it is difficult to speak of such a large, diverse continent in singular terms. Context matters and generalizations often do injustice to our understanding of the developmental challenges we face, as well as to the solutions we adopt. So it is a difficult task that I am faced with tonight, and I must beg your indulgence. In problematising the ‘African condition’ I may be omitting some of the nuances of it. However, we have a short amount of time, and despite the difficulty of the task I have been set, we need to ask some basic questions.

And the very first question is, “what do we mean by ‘future-fit’?” In simple terms, we can think of future fitness in terms of resilience, sustainability, equity and prosperity. There is perhaps more to add to this, but for now this broad characterization will have to suffice.

Additionally, the question of how ‘future-fit’ the continent is; is linked to the questions such as:

1.      Is the continent undergoing a transition in the first place?

2.      If it is,
a.      What kind of transition is it?
b.      Who are the protagonists?
c.       Where is it leading?

3.      And most importantly, what can we begin to do now to secure a more equitable and sustainable future for the people who live on the continent? What elements, seeded now, can grow a more sustainable, resilient and prosperous future for the continent and all those who live within it?

The short answer to the question of whether the continent is undergoing a transition or not is, “yes”, most certainly! That does not mean that historical inequalities and negative trends are not being reproduced in this transition. What it means is that it is undeniable that some fundamental changes are unfolding on the continent. So let’s take a look at some of the dimensions of change that are unfolding on the continent:

One of the key dimensions of change on the continent today is urbanization:

·         African cities are exhibiting the highest growth rates in the world, even though national urbanization levels remain low, especially in Eastern and Southern Africa.
·         Over a quarter of the 100 fastest growing cities are in Africa.
·         The number of African urban dwellers is projected to increase from 400 million to 1.26 billion by 2050.
·         The global share of African urban dwellers is projected to rise from 11.3 per cent in 2010 to a 20.2 per cent by 2050.
·         A critically important factor in the urbanization trends in Africa is the dominant growth of smaller, intermediate and secondary cities (75% of urban growth is being absorbed in small to intermediate cities).
·         Another critically important factor is that this urbanization is taking place without significant industrialization.

When it comes to population growth:

·         The African population is projected to double from 1Bn in 2010 to 2Bn in 2020 and may surpass 3Bn by 2070 (SOAC, 2014)
·         Average densities will increase from 34 to 79 persons per km2 in the period between 2010 and 2050.
·         Africa’s labour force is projected to reach 1.1Bn by 2040, when continent will be more than 50% urbanised.

Another critical feature of the transition that is underway on the continent is the ‘youth bulge’:

·         In 2012, Africa was recognized as having the youngest population in the world, with around 200 million of the population between the ages of 15 and 24 (i.e. 20%). This is projected to double by 2045 if growth trends persist.
·         To put this into perspective over 40% are under the age of 15, and 20% are between the ages of 15 and 24.
·         According to the World Bank, African youth constitute about 60% of the unemployed on the continent. The upshot of this is that most youth are absorbed into the informal sector, or into insecure work. Lastly, it is important to mention that this youth unemployment is also drastically gendered.

It is also very important to account for the emerging African middle class, as it is a complex phenomenon, not to be compared to the middle classes of the developed world:

·         By 2020, 128 million households will be middle class.; from 355 million people in 2010 to 1.1 billion in 2060 (i.e higher than that in China today).
·         This middle class is defined as those living on between USD 2-20 per day, and constitutes around 34% of population.
·         Floating middle class: USD 2-4 per day (60% of the aforementioned 34%)
·         To put this into perspective, as mentioned earlier; only 4% of Africans living on incomes higher than USD 10 per day, and  50% live on less than USD 1.25 per day.
·         If we compare Africa to the ‘global middle class’ (i.e. those living on incomes that range between USD 10-100 per day) then Africa constitutes only 2% of global middle class.

Yet the transition that is underway on the continent is a fraught one, primarily because of the predominant and pre-existing conditions that plague the socio-economics of the continent. The majority of African cities are constituted of slums and informal settlements (between 60-80% from West to Central to East Africa). Poverty remains the majority condition of most people on the continent. Infrastructures such as road, rail and air are severely lacking in many parts of the continent. So are service provisions such as electricity, clean water, sanitation, healthcare and internet access. Food insecurity continues to plague many Africans.

Moreover, there are severe institutional challenges – whether in government or the private sector – that need to be confronted across the continent. The dominance of national and local elites – who are typically connected across public and private sectors – serves to deepen entrenched, inherited inequalities on the continent.

Maintaining political stability is also a critical challenge, as political turbulence and insecurity wreaks havoc on developmental agenda’s, and serves only to thwart the kind of stable investment that is required for long term growth. It may be that political models – in particular democratic political models – may have to evolve to fit the African context more appropriately. That is, African countries may have to negotiate what democracy means for them on their own terms, rather than simply importing democratic ideals and practices.

So where does this leave us in terms of our options? How can we make decisions today to secure a ‘future-fit’ trajectory for the continent?

One of the most critical factors to consider when formulating strategies is “where are we now?”, and “where to from here?” What is emerging, that can be leveraged to bring about the kind of outcomes we desire. In this respect, it is – in my view – great folly to overlook the vast potential that sustainable solutions, green technologies and infrastructure, as well as the emerging innovations of the fourth industrial revolution; have to offer the African continent.

The African continent is – in general terms – largely characterised by a lack of adequate bulk infrastructures and the high pre-existing levels of unplanned slums and informal settlements (particularly in cities). These negate the easy introduction of these bulk infrastructures and commensurate service provisions. Green technologies and systems, however, are largely decentralised or semi-decentralised, and can therefore function in the absence of bulk infrastructure provisions, or link into existing bulk infrastructures.

Moreover, from a developmental perspective, the absorption of green and sustainable technologies can help seed small to medium scale enterprises on a large scale, driving economic growth and circulation of cash flow at the levels where it is needed most. This can also help absorb unskilled and semi-skilled workers into the workforce, that is, at precisely the levels that employment creation is desperately needed.

Employment can be significantly boosted through the introduction of technologies such as solar panels, solar water heaters, grey- and black-water recycling systems, biogas digesters, energy savings devices, energy savings companies, renewable energy micro-grids, small-scale wind and hydro energy technologies, urban agriculture and permaculture operations, agro-industrial processing, public transit systems, waste recycling systems, and so forth.

The introduction of semi-decentralised and decentralised green technology solutions and systems can also help lower costs and buffer producers and households from exogenous shocks. Fifty to seventy percent of the household budgets of poor African households are spent on food, water, energy and transport, rendering them vulnerable to external shocks. Buffering poor households from these shocks can go a long way towards making these households – and local authorities (who will then be able to collect local revenues and decrease their dependence on central governments) – more viable.

This is not just healthy for households and governance, it is also healthy in the sense that it will help stabilise and promote the emergence of an African middle class. Stabilising this middle class in genuine terms, and enabling them to be able to afford assets, have disposable income and grow into a consumer class, requires more than a conventional industrialisation programme. It requires a transformative programme of industrialisation; one that purposively seeks to innovate in service of the future sustainability of the African continent.

The opportunities afforded by the fourth industrial revolution – for leapfrogging Africa’s development onto a more equitable and sustainable trajectory – are vast. For example, the fourth industrial revolution can facilitate the roll-out of green infrastructures and technologies through: financing, insurance, micro-credit and banking services; advanced revenue collection systems; sharing economy offerings; education and skills development; real-time data and information synthesis and analytics; coordination of resource and other material flows; automation, mechanisation and robotification; logistics, transportation, planning and spatial development; as well as capabilities that are yet to emerge or be innovated. 

As mentioned earlier; in Africa, unprecedented urban growth is proceeding in the absence of any significant industrialisation. The fourth industrial revolution presents a massive opportunity to leapfrog African productive economies into a wholly new space; one where its internal markets grow and its external markets are other developing world economies (preferably their neighbours).

Since the end of WWII the mantra proposition for the African Renaissance has been to beneficiate its resources by following the traditional industrialization trajectory that was undertaken by the global North. In the 21st Century, however, new opportunities are presenting themselves; opportunities that could be leveraged for a wholly different industrialization and diversification trajectory for the continent.

In this talk, I have primarily dealt with the question of what kind of developmental and economic diversification trajectories are available to us to actualize a ‘future-fit’ continent. There are of course, a broader range of factors to consider, and we do not have the time to go into all of them here today.  

Suffice to say that a future fit continent is something we have to begin building now; and what is clear is that it requires that the choices that African countries make are characterized by; (1) ensuring the sustainable and equitable use of its resources, (2) leapfrogging the technological and infrastructural developmental trajectories that were adopted in the Global North in the 20th Century, (3) building robust institutions that can deliver on their mandates in the interests of all who constitute society, and (4) embracing the potential for innovation and mobility on the continent, which in large part resides in its large youthful population, and (5) engendering political stability through leadership that is transparent, accountable and responsible, as well as bold in respect of the decision-making that is required to navigate towards the desired long-term horizons for the continent.


[i] McKinsey (2010). Lions on the Move: The Progress and Potential of African Economies, McKinsey Global Institute, McKinsey and Company.
[ii] AfDB (2011). Africa in 50 Years Time. The Road Towards Inclusive Growth, African Development Bank (ADB) (Tunisia, Tunis), September 2011.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Old Fears, New Terrain: How Political Contestation is Changing!

This address was delivered at the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation at the Old Granary building in Cape Town on the 6th of December 2018. The Citizen Dialogue Centre (CDC), The Citizen Research Centre (CRC) and the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO) held a fundraising event to motivate for a programme to protect the 2019 South African elections – due in May 2019 – from online and social media disruption and interference. The event was kindly hosted by the Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation and was opened by Dr Mamphele Ramphele.

We are living through an era of profound change. The democratic standards and ethics of the 20th Century – that were developed in the post-war consensus – are being eroded in service of political expediency and short term gain. The very fabric that constituted the post-war consensus; one that took a long term view on how politics is contested and conducted; is being undermined by the technological innovations – mobile phones, the internet and social media – that promised a new era of strengthened democracy, increased transparency and accountability, and active citizen engagement.

In the hyper-connected world of today, no country or region can fully escape the impact of these changes. It has already proven foolish to avoid dealing with them. The notion that tried and tested traditional methods of mobilizing political support will eventually win out has proven desperately wanting. Change is upon us and we have to evolve with the times. The only question around it; is how we choose to do so. Do we choose to descend to the level of cheap populism and inflammatory rhetoric, or do we want to harness change to help build more cohesive societies? Both options are available to us; the real question is whether we are caught up in short term scrambles for power, or whether we remain focused on what we hope to achieve as societies in the long term.

But first we need to correctly diagnose the changes that we are undergoing, as failure to do so will result in remedies that are bound to fail. So what has changed? Why is it so important to rethink how politics is being contested and to embrace the new terrain of political contestation, so to speak?

The first – and key – change to understand is that the internet, social media and new media have fundamentally altered how political messaging is developed and delivered to the public. Whereas in the 20th Century voters were targeted in broad demographic bands (say, white males between the age of 25 and 35, or white females between the ages of 45 and 55), the internet and social media have enabled political campaigners to target individuals and small groups more precisely with messaging that is customized to their personal preferences, biases and fears. Big data has allowed us to develop a more nuanced understanding of individuals and small groups than ever before. Political propaganda can now be delivered to a person or small group in such a manner that it takes into account what they are most likely to respond to on an emotional or affective level, as well as an intellectual level.

Moreover, mobile phones make us both constantly connected and instantly reachable. We now live in a world that is hyper-connected – on many levels – but especially with respect to information. We are inundated by news feeds, video clips, trivia, listicons, motivations, fear-mongering, moral prescriptions, Machiavellian prescriptions, echo-chambers (e.g. WhatsApp groups), and the like. In this information overload we cannot help but feel lost; there is precious little signal to grasp in the endless noise.

And it may seem counter-intuitive, but this seamlessness is precisely what enables political propagandists to weaponise their messaging so effectively. The proliferation of information and opinion today makes it easier for people who feel disempowered by it to retreat into enclaves or “echo-chambers” as they are now being called. Previously that “echo-chamber” might have been a small community, a neighbourhood or a village – nowadays the echo-chambers are online; they reside in the virtual realm as well as in the real world. We are living in the era that is increasingly characterized by an augmented reality.

Moreover, hyperconnectivity and a high-frequency, constant-flow information stream has been coupled with an instant gratification culture; one where clicks and likes lend more weight to a piece of information than its actual veracity. There is less time for contemplation; the ‘post-literate’ world is characterized by the ability to throw a wide net and take in a vast array of inputs, but with little quality insight; we surf everything but have little depth in anything in particular.

There is also a clear history that has fed these developments. This era is preceded by one where political spin, soundbites and the concerted ‘dumbing down’ of political messaging became the norm and fed the news cycles of media that had become driven by advertising revenue rather than sales.

These are the ingredients that have been cooked up to produce the reality we are experiencing in the early 21st Century.  New online media technologies, coupled with advertising driven revenue models, have yielded a new status quo; where the popularity of something is more important than its veracity and its actual value. Throughout history, we have underestimated the impact that new technology has on the propaganda of its time; this goes all the way back to the printing press, with radio and television serving as more recent innovations in the greater historical scheme of things.

The technology-driven terrain of this era is serving as a basis for new contestations of power; not just the occupy styled protests of the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa, or more currently the ‘yellow vests’ in France – but between nation states and large multinational/commercial interests who are contesting the global political and economic order.

And how do they achieve this? More recent investigations have shown that it is not just “fake news” that is instrumental in these information warfare styled strategies but sowing discord in the ranks of the enemy – a divide and conquer strategy, so to speak. This is the exertion of soft power through asymmetric information (and psychological) warfare. When unity and cohesion within a group is lost they become more vulnerable and open to manipulation.

We know that state actors are active in this space. For example, the Russian government has invested heavily in creating well staffed capabilities that focus on sowing division in countries that they seek to manipulate. Other actors such as Breitbart news – the news media darling of the ‘alt right’ in North America, who are now making moves into Europe – have also been very successful at this.

But some skeptics still ask, “why South Africa?” Who would seek to manipulate our elections, and why?

In our provincialism we often fail to adequately appreciate our critical role in the world and on the continent in particular.

First, South Africa is of great geo-strategic interest to countries and multinationals that are looking to exploit the next, most significant, emerging class of consumers in the world; a market that is essential for global growth. Let me read you a short quote from the State of the African Cities Report 2014 by UN HABITAT. 

“By 2020, 128 million African households are projected to have transited to “middle class” (see also Box 1.1), boosting consumption and spending potentials; and by 2030 Africa’s highest-performing 18 cities might reach a combined purchasing power of USD 1.3 trillion. Projections over the longer term include growth of the middle class from 355 million people in 2010 (34 per cent of the total population) to 1.1 billion (42 per cent) in 2060, exceeding that of China today.”

South Africa is uniquely positioned to help access these opportunities, particularly because of its stable, reliable tertiary sector capacity (e.g. Finance, Insurance, Real-Estate, Banking), and could very well become the financial capital of Africa; so to speak.  

In addition, South Africa’s resources are of global import and significance. For example, we have the second largest uranium reserves in the world. Any country that has invested heavily in nuclear power offerings (e.g. Russia and France) would naturally have an interest in being able to influence how our uranium resources are administered. Moreover, we have globally significant coal reserves, platinum group metal reserves, rare earth metals, phosphates, and so forth. This is before we even consider the natural resources we possess above the ground, as well as the many other sectors in which we play a key role.

And perhaps most importantly, there is precedent for us to be wary of the use of social media to influence the public political discourse in South Africa. We need only look to the Bell-Pottinger debacle that unfolded towards the end of Jacob Zuma’s second term (they were hired by the Gupta family and Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane). The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting found that between July 2016 and July 2017 220,000 tweets and hundreds of facebook posts[1] were put out by Bell-Pottinger in a deliberate attempt to manipulate and divide public opinion.

Narratives such as that of “white monopoly capital”, “radical economic transformation” and “land reform” were artificially amplified and – in an environment that was ripe for populist sloganeering and divisive rhetoric – were quickly taken up and became normative. It soon felt like these terms had been around for a long time when in reality they had moved from the fringes of the public political discourse to the centre very quickly. This is precisely the objective of propaganda, and social media and new media have made it easier to deliver messaging more precisely, and amplify it more successfully at the same time; a dangerous combination.

More recently – according to the Digital Forensic Research Lab – during the December 2017 ANC presidential elections a host of automated ‘bots’ numbering “in the low hundreds” were mobilized out of the US to influence it[2]. Although it is doubtful that it actually played a role in swaying the election, it serves as an important warning of what may come next. Indeed, it may have actually been a ‘test run’, to help calibrate their approach.

What this tells us is that South Africa is already on the radar for those who would meddle with our political discourse and electoral processes. It would be deeply ignorant to imagine that we can wish these threats away; or simply hope that they will not prove significant.  

Further afield, organisations such as Cambridge Analytica have been deeply involved in sowing discord and spreading dangerous, polarizing rhetoric in elections at home, as well as around the world; they were involved in Brexit, the 2016 US elections, the most recent Kenyan elections, and many others around the world. Cambridge Analytica even leveraged its network of retired intelligence operatives to support political campaigns and safeguard the interests of nefarious individuals and leaders, and were prepared to use devious, old traditional means as well.

Recently, reports of heavily staffed Russian government funded operations to leverage social media to influence the 2016 US elections have surfaced. While the Russian government denies it, it is clear that Russia has taken the gap provided by both Brexit and Trump to exert soft power and position itself more prominently in the global political order.

And you can be sure that China is already well equipped in this arena as well, as they already possess extensive capabilities to monitor online conversations in China.

There are also internal threats to consider.

Just last month a UNISA employee was exposed – along with his sister – of creating several fake news websites and distributing them via a series of Facebook pages. Apparently, the pair had been operating similar websites from at least early 2016.

We have also seen a dramatic increase in Trump-styled disinformation campaigns being carried out by political actors in South Africa. The EFF, in particular, have made use of twitter to make accusations against other politicians, their families and businesspeople; a few facts are often strung together to arrive at completely spurious conclusions. But they are not alone in their ‘shoot from the hip’ tactics; irresponsible rhetoric and spin has come to characterize our political realm.

And to be sure, South Africa is currently fertile territory for divisive rhetoric and misinformation campaigns. The reasons are simple. Even though South Africans now enjoy democratic freedom, South Africa endures that highest inequality in the world. And that inequality is even higher in our major cities. When viewed through a historical lens, this inequality is easily construed as a continuation of Apartheid era forms of exclusion. Rampant inequality, historical racial cleavages and the slow pace of land reform are but a handful of the broader issues that can and are being used to manipulate the political sphere in South Africa.

There is also massive frustration among ordinary South Africans with the political establishment; they are largely viewed as elites who are out of touch with the everyday realities that ordinary people face.  Among poor and marginal communities, major ‘service delivery’ protests have risen exponentially over the past decade or so; it is now convention to take to the streets and make localities ungovernable in order to draw government’s attention to the pressing issues that these communities endure. We are a society that is balanced on a knife edge; we are acutely aware that our current condition is not sustainable. This renders our body politic extremely vulnerable to populist actors – who may occupy the fringes at first – but can quickly move to the centre if tipping points are breached.

And to be sure; the internet and social media are the key avenues through which they can amplify their public voice and tip the scales one way or another. It is cheap, easy to use, and the damage it wreaks is difficult to undo once it has been done. Its fundamental asymmetry makes it attractive to those who are currently outliers or outriders, but aspire to greater power.

So to the point of why we are gathered here today; what can we do about it?

Well firstly, we need to understand that this problem cannot be ‘regulated away’. Regulations simply cannot keep up with the rapid changes occurring in the technologies and innovations that govern this space.

What we need to do is to begin building the capabilities that can actively engage and counter fake news and polarizing and incendiary rhetoric online. We need dedicated organizations that are well staffed, and possess the right intellectual capital, as well as the software and hardware they need to be effective. We also need to test and establish the methodologies that have been developed to counter online interference.

We need to become better at countering online interference through two key avenues; (1) through directly crippling the online ‘nodes’ through which messaging is artificially amplified, and (2) drawing on the self-organising capability of the internet to boost engagement by reasonable, level-headed people and key influencers who can help dampen out the loud and irresponsible actions of online ‘trolls’.

And importantly, we need to make sure that we share all the information about how to set up these capabilities and make them effective; so that other groups across the world can set up similar capabilities in their local contexts. Over time, a broad network of such organizations will become a ‘learning network’; sharing case studies, methods, techniques and the like to improve each other’s success rates at countering interference.

To reiterate, the strategy for dealing with online interference will not be successful if a purely regulatory stance is adopted. We need to be embedded within the new terrain and evolve with it. This asymmetric threat can be fought asymmetrically; and this is good news for us, as we can leverage knowledge based resources and bring them to bear on this nascent threat. And to be sure, as it is with any threat, measures and countermeasures will co-evolve in response to each other into perpetuity. We need active capabilities to be effective in our efforts to safeguard social cohesion and democratic politics. Our electoral integrity will increasingly be defined by our ability to be effective – in real time – in this new terrain of political contestation.

Having heard this talk, you may feel that it would be easy to convince those who can help establish such a capability to throw their support behind it. But we are faced with a situation where people are so overwhelmed by the multiple ‘threats’ they are constantly bombarded with, that they have become somewhat numbed, unable to clearly assess the threat before them.

We know that the internet, social media and mobile phones are changing society, but we are in deep denial about the extent to which its reach has rapidly grown. This is a very real threat. And as it is with elections; once they are over and the winners and losers have been announced, it is extremely difficult to roll back. There are no second chances, and the organizations who have come before you here today are not merely interested in studying how these political disasters occur retrospectively. Our central objective is to insert ourselves into this space in real-time so that we can play a meaningful role in actively protecting our democracy.

After many years of sacrifice, struggle and strife we emerged with a hard won democracy; and we have seen – in recent years – what it takes to safeguard it. What we must recognize, at this crucial point in history, is that the terrain of contestation has changed, and we must adapt with it, or face the consequences of lagging behind it.

Thank you!

Note: The author and speaker of this piece is the Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO).