Ismail Lagardien: Signs of hope in dismal world

Ismail LagardienIt is becoming rather tedious to write about the problems that beset South Africa. It is probably uncool to say that. The truth is that barely a week goes by without a new revelation of maladministration, outright graft or something absurd that poisons our waters – or adds to our body of comedic work.

Almost two years ago Justice Malala published his book, We have Now Begun our Descent.

Every week Mondli Makhanya reminds us, most eloquently, about the slow burning fuse of ruination.

I share both their views and differ only slightly with Malala’s belief that there is a way to stop the descent.

Blame it on my having read too many Russian writers. I am not referring to those pesky 20th century revolutionaries, I should add.

Anyway, most South Africa writers and public intellectuals not beholden to vested interests have described what in Japanese is called hi fun kou gai, a feeling of misery, anger, frustration and disappointment caused by a situation that seems impossible to repair.

Sometimes, writing about how far we have drifted from the ideals of our struggle for a better world is like searching for a black cat in a dark room – when there is, actually, no cat.

If there is anything that lifted the spirits over the past couple of weeks it was the EFF’s endorsement of Pravin Gordhan’s budget.

Imagine some lightness, dear reader. As the theorist and social activist bell hooks said, somewhere, we cannot have a revolution with humour.

But seriously, the EFF were among the members of parliament who showed deference to Gordhan. They turned nasty only when the finance minister referred to President Jacob Zuma’s leadership.

In general, the EFF were supportive of the budget.

This marked a distinct break with the EFF’s economic policies, which seem to draw more on Soviet communism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution than on any firm understanding of 21st century global capitalism – such as it is.

For instance, like the Soviets almost 100 years ago, the EFF wants to nationalise banks, mines and all public institutions, and forcefully erase all class differences in the country.

It is hard to imagine class differences dissolving naturally, now is it?

Like Mao Tse-Tung, mutatis mutandis, the EFF wants to mobilise the masses and restore the country to a time “before the white man came” and when we, Africans, lived in peace and harmony.

Once this happens, we would all be like the paradisiacal children of Abraham, where only good things will come upon us.

In this primordial/paradisiacal state we will, once again, have everything we desire, and there would no longer be want or need, no anxiety or sorrow, sadness and regret.

Whenever I hear these longings by the EFF I recall a passage from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

“Totalitarianism is not only hell,” he wrote, “but all the dream of paradise, the age-old dream of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another.”

Slipping into some kind of paramnesia the EFF imagines that nobody will reflect on the human cost of Soviet or Mao’s social engineering.

With its red-tinted confabulations the EFF would have us ignore the fact that Mao’s Cultural Revolution destroyed China’s economy, ruined millions of lives, and thrust that country into a decade of conflict, turmoil, bloodshed, hunger and stagnation.

It was only until after Mao’s death that China began to grow into an economic powerhouse.

It tapped into key aspects of democracy and social democracy, and in 2001 China joined the World Trade Organisation. This was a key shift. By joining the WTO China opted into 21st century global capitalism, instead of retreating into isolation, the way that North Korea has.

For the next decade, China’s economic expansion was epochal.

What is clear, if one takes a fuller look at history and not just those aspects that we find most pleasing, there is enough evidence to suggest that undemocratic economic policies (from the earliest Soviets, to the dictatorships of Augusto Pinochet, Mao or Mobutu Sese Seko) come with high human cost.

For example, Joseph Stalin increased output of the industrial system and propelled the Soviet Union to a global superpower with a highly industrialised political economy.

His achievements in healthcare and equality for women, especially in education and employment, were laudable.

It was, however, costly and shortlived.

The numbers seem astronomical, but through his forced labour and system of gulags, Stalin was responsible for at least 40 million deaths.

We know, now, how the Soviet Union ended.

At any rate, that the EFF did not oppose the budget is a good sign.

We just will not ask about those diabolical economic policies that it seems to cling to.

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

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