Ismail Lagardien: Whose truth’s important?

IsmailLast week I was reminded by some colleagues that there were many truths. I was banging on about how academic research and scholarship were necessary means to get us as close to the truth as humanly possible.

They reminded me that there were many truths . . .

What I would suggest, however (and I suspect they would agree), is that the significance of truths lies in the ways that we position them to match our values. Indeed, we foreground some, prefer others and ignore those truths that sit uncomfortably.

Psychologists explain ignoring those truths that sit uncomfortably as confirmation bias.

This bias comes into effect when a person observes something, and uses the evidence as confirmation of his or her own beliefs and values. These beliefs are often linked to desires and, I would suggest, to senses of nostalgia and longing for “when things were better”.

How often do we hear people say that they remember a time when a loaf of bread was, say, 50c or when life was a lot more organised, simple, predictable and, well, safe? Let us avoid the technical language of prices and inflation, or income, and focus on nostalgia and the arranging of truths to confirm our own biases – with some reference to our most recent economic history.

There is this very convenient belief that the post-apartheid government has “destroyed” the economy – and there certainly is some truth to that – and that the country was, somehow, a better place when it was all “braaivleis, sunny skies and Chevrolet”. This nostalgia draws on imaginary pasts, or at best, on partial truths.

South Africa was most definitely not a better place for millions of people. That is a truth that some people will probably suppress to foreground their own.

In truth, by the mid-1980s, a little more than 20 years after the National Party unilaterally declared a republic, South Africa was fast becoming an economic basket case. In his book, The Last Afrikaner Leaders: A Supreme Test of Power, the Afrikaner academic, Hermann Giliomee, recounted the words of Pik Botha, the country’s foreign minister at the time:

“I will never forget the night of July 31 when [Minister of Finance] Barend du Plessis phoned me . . . [He said]: ‘Pik, I must tell you that the country is facing inevitable bankruptcy . . . The process has started.’ ”

Within another decade, in the period before the first democratic elections, there was a looming catastrophe that forced the new government into a corner, desperate to recover a political economy that was in tatters while being the midwife of western liberal democracy in South Africa.

Given as I am to taking the long view, it is also true that by 1994 South Africans had never experienced western liberal democracy. Over 400 years we had gone from the undemocratic European colonial empires to the undemocratic apartheid state almost without missing a beat.

There were parallels with post-Cold War Russia, which had gone from the absolute monarchy of the tsars (from about 1440) to the single-party dictatorship of the proletariat, which started in 1917 and finally ended in about 1989. Consider these truths: in both cases, over about 500 years, Russians and South Africans went almost overnight from having no democracy to embracing full democracy.

The Russians, on their part, scrambled for democracy while the economic and financial spoils were shared among an elite made up largely of persons who were connected to the former Soviet regime. In South Africa, well, sharing of the economic and financial spoils were between those who were in power during apartheid and those who negotiated the settlement.

Back to the time of the conversation between the former finance minister and his counterpart in the foreign ministry. Between about 1985 and 1994, average per capita incomes in South Africa fell in real terms (in constant 2000 rands) from R23 006 to R19 996.

In other words, South Africans were, on average, 15% poorer in 1993, on the eve of democracy, than they were in 1984. This data is from the South African Reserve Bank and the World Bank.

So, a little more than 30 years after the declaration of republic, the National Party project had collapsed and the economy was in ruins, but financial might remained in the hands of a small group of people. A little more than 20 years after democracy, the ANC’s project appears to be in tatters and as the Sunday papers reminded us a few days ago, financial wealth remains in the hands of a small group of people.

Is there any absolute truth in all of this? I’m not sure.

What does seem clear is that we often think our truth is more important than the truth of others.

• Dr Ismail Lagardien is executive dean of business and economics at NMMU

Leave a Reply