Ismail Lagardien: No avoiding difficult questions

A long, long time ago, in a land far away, on a continent at the edge of the world, an organisation that represents the teachers of the land went to the government and demanded that each teacher be given a laptop computer. The agent that represented the government thought it was a good idea. It was a progressive idea, and it was achievable.

Then the agent made the fatal error, and asked questions that were ethically responsible and administratively necessary. Which type of laptop? What are the preferred technical specifications? Should the laptops be taken home by the teachers at the end of the day, or should they be stored at the schools?

Either way, what should be done to secure the safety of each laptop? What type of insurance would be acquired for each laptop? How would the laptop be paid for, and by which branch of the government? And, vitally, to whom should the tender (for the provision of laptops) go?

Since this is an apocryphal tale, I can elaborate at will. The immediate response from the teachers’ representative was that the authority was against the purchase of computers; that the authority did not trust the teachers; that the authority did not want the teachers to succeed at their jobs; that the authority did not have the interest of schoolchildren at heart, and (alarmingly) that the authority was counter-revolutionary and spoke like the enemy.

The teachers’ representative made it clear – give us what we demand (on our terms), give it to us immediately (without question), or you are the enemy.

This has, unfortunately, become one of the stand-out features of our democracy. The crude binary of either/or; the express claim that you are either with us, unconditionally and unthinkingly, or you’re against us, and you do so at your peril.

Nonetheless, in the apocryphal tale, above, we have some insights into the differences between rhetoric political demands, decision-making, policy-making and of financial expenditure.

As with most policy-making, more especially where it involves spending money, ethical, administrative and accountability matters are vital. This would apply equally in all utopias.

In the current political economic climate, marked as it is by political uncertainty, a fraying of ideological, historical and other solidarities, of escalating populist demands, institutions verging on collapse, reductions in manufacturing and industry of growth and distribution, shortages in energy, food and water supply, and fairly distinctive markers of a burgeoning security state, government expenditure should be approached with great responsibility.

This is not as conservative as it may sound. Saying something will be difficult does not mean in cannot be achieved.

I should be clear about two things. If, say, we start with the belief that fees for higher education must fall, there are any number of ex ante questions that need to be answered. This does not mean that we will agree on answers.

The questions in the apocryphal tale above should help us understand what these questions may be. However, since there is no immediate certainty, except the somewhat empty signifiers presented by populist rhetoric, and given the political economic climate described above, decisive political leadership is needed.

The second is that it is not a lack of money that has gotten South Africa to the multi-dimensional crisis we face in the country. Money alone will not get us out of the crisis. Even if we, somehow, found all the money needed to fund higher education under some mattress, the nagging questions will not go away.

What seems to be lacking in the current climate is decisive leadership. We need someone who can say, let us stop the conflict, let everyone return to their barracks or their homes and institutions, and let us resolve these matters, once and for all.

Of course, you need, on the one side of our crude binary politics, someone respected and trusted, someone who has emerged from the crooked timber of our vast body of leaders, and is as straight as an arrow. On the other side we need leaders who are prepared to answer the difficult questions.

Both sides may want to consider education as a public good, without resorting to the conventional economics wisdom that state provision of education is, necessarily, a problem. They may also want to take the long view, backward and forward, on matters.

There are truths, as the historian Fernand Braudel, wrote, that remain part of our lives “like soil to a gardener’s spade”. They are unavoidable.

We are a deeply unequal society, almost all of which is the result of purposeful historical interventions, and only purposeful interventions will help us become more equal. We may want to start by not avoiding the difficult questions.

I cannot tell you how the apocryphal tale ends. What I can say is that without answering the questions that were posted, the entire project was doomed to fail, very shortly after the first keystroke.