Too much take, take, take

It was an unusual commission: speak to the subject of your biography and find out what he thinks about the Dinokeng Scenario Report, released this week on the cusp of a new ANC administration.

The Dinokeng report is not really my work, however. I was a “sherpa”, part of a team of writers responsible to the 35 South African leaders who comprised the Scenario Team, which gave robust, often stinging, feedback on our work.

The team comprised politicians, religious leaders, government officials, writers, business and trade unionists; South Africans who first gathered in the tented camp of Dinokeng, north-east of Johannesburg last August to talk about possible futures for the country.

At around noon on the day of the launch we sent Manuel the report. By 1.20pm, with just 40 minutes to spare before president elect Jacob Zuma’s first parliamentary caucus, he had already read it and absorbed it, immediately casting doubt on the report’s conclusion of a weakening state.

Manuel was part of the Mont Fleur Scenario team in 1992. Those scenarios were facilitated by the Canadian scenario planner Adam Kahane, as were those at Dinokeng.

At Mont Fleur two possible macroeconomic futures were identified: Icarus, named for the character in Greek mythology who escaped from prison with wings affixed to his shoulders with wax and who, in the heady exuberance of freedom, flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he fell to his death. The alternative was “Flight of the flamingos: take off slowly, fly high, fly together.” Manuel presented the flamingos scenario. This, and especially the Icarus warning, has hovered in his peripheral vision since. But it was almost accidental at the time that the central tenet of Mont Fleur became macroeconomic policy.

In the Dinokeng scenarios, the central message relates to the quality of the relationship between citizens and the state. Like Mont Fleur, this was not planned: it emerged toward the end of a series of workshops.

So, what does Manuel think of this era’s effort, 17 years on, to imagine futures both bleak and promising?

He was, in a word, trenchant. On the “diagnostic”, possibly the most hotly debated part of the report, he pointed out that it did not adequately deal with the “expectation gap”—that is the expectation of citizens that national government can fix everything. This is because the report does not grapple with the three tiers of government: schools, for instance, are a provincial competence. “However much you hammer government, that’s not going to change. If the diagnostic excludes those challenges it constructs a straw man.”

The scenarios hinge on the relationship between citizens and the state. In the first (“Walk Apart”), an unaccountable, weak state and a disengaged citizenry leads to disintegration, anarchy, even authoritarianism. In the second (“Walk Behind”), a pro-active state directs economic development, but the citizenry is compliant; in the third (“Walk Together”), an engaged citizenry challenges government at its nodal points of delivery; a weakening state, instead of battening down the hatches, makes a social compact across all sectors.

Manuel’s concern is threefold. One is that the three scenarios are “mutually exclusive”: so an engaged citizenry comes with a weakening state, as in the “Walk Together” scenario. And a strong, coordinated state presupposes a weaker citizenry. “There is almost a sense that one can (attain) ‘Walk Together’ without any leadership from government,” he says. And on the implicit criticisms of the “Walk Behind” scenario, he says: “If you improve on development and coordination in government, you do so to ensure there is bang for the buck; it’s not a high-falutin’, parachuting-in of government.

“When Obama said, ‘We’re not a nation of quitters’, that’s very strong language; the defining feature is that it comes from government; it can’t come from a local school governing body. If they said it, it doesn’t carry the weight.”

His second concern centres on the responsibility of citizens themselves. Where the report talks about the high school drop-out rate or the increase in infections of HIV/Aids, he points out that the drop-out rate is also something “that families must take responsibility for — And, sure, government must take responsibility [for HIV/Aids], but when do people start taking responsibility for themselves, saying I must condomise, I mustn’t just sleep around?”

Manuel was in Bonteheuwel on election day. “I’ve never seen the place so filthy. But people still voted for the DA. A few weeks before that in Mitchells Plain the place was also filthy. A woman said: ‘They come and clean the place from time to time, but people send their children to drop rubble and rubbish and all kinds of stuff [in the streets].’ Then you can’t just blame the council.”

His third concern relates to a section of the diagnostic that speaks about the “deep structural flaws in the economy” and the high levels of unemployment. “But nowhere in scenarios is there adequate reference to job creation.”

Here, I should put up a brief defence. It is perhaps the most critical challenge facing the country but it flummoxes the brightest in government. In an interview I did with him last July, as I was completing my book, Manuel admitted that unemployment was the most “intractable difficulty” that confronts us. “If we had answers to the fundamental problem of unemployed youth in this country, then we would have solved [it].”

In our July interview Manuel was preoccupied with issues of citizenship and accountability. Actually, then, he was not so far from the concerns of the Dinokeng team. He was as concerned as they about the quality of teaching in the schools. Some of the attitudes of the teachers’ union “are very unfortunate”, he said. “No country has been able to develop without educators who see themselves as the shock troops of change.”

The key failure, he said then, had been the failure to “communicate the fact that change is a process that actually involves people themselves. This idea that you have this kind of victim syndrome: crime happens, people can’t do anything about it — Societies aren’t built like that. Our whole struggle against apartheid was actually largely premised on the idea that we had to do something for ourselves.”

This week, in his response to the Dinokeng report, he echoed some of those thoughts. There are oversight laws, such as the Municipal Structures Act, which deem that the integrated development plans be discussed in ward committees before being taken back to councillors. But it doesn’t work. “In design it looks good, in practise it stinks.”

It is hardly a surprise that one of the most resonant lines for him in the report the “voice” of a team member, among those run alongside the report itself: “We are a society of take, take, take: a society that wants to receive rather than to take the initiative.”

Dinokeng’s quest was not to produce a definitive piece of analysis. Rather it was to open a conversation in the country about issues close to the heart of democracy and development. Manuel’s response, no matter its trenchancy, is an important step down that road.

Pippa Green was a member of the Dinokeng secretariat. She writes in her personal capacity

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