Beware the dangers of blind optimism

We love a diet of hope. As much as we are capable of being easily depressed about the state of the nation, we are equally capable of instantly being hopeful again.

There are many examples of this dynamic, in both the current news cycle and our reaction to it and in more complex historical examples.

But a diet of hope, although it can serve a function, about which we shouldn’t be glib, is never a substitute for truth. Ultimately, the only sustainable way to tackle our most serious and urgent social, economic and political challenges is to anchor our analysis of what is going on in empirical reality rather than in myth-making.

I thought it might be useful to work through a few examples of how the hope motif can be both useful and dangerous for our democracy.

Take, firstly, the energy crisis. For a few weeks now, we have been experiencing blackouts, although we had been guaranteed several years ago that Eskom would be fixed, after the first wave of unprecedented power outages.

This time round, out of the blue, the scheduled blackouts escalated from level one to the dreaded level four.

READ MORE: Eskom escalates to stage 4 load-shedding

And then, last week Sunday, the government sent out a press statement telling us that in the forthcoming week no blackouts were “anticipated”. South Africans were elated. One media colleague, reporting on the story, even headlined the news report with the words “Good news for South Africans!”

Many of us became hopeful that perhaps the public enterprises minister, Pravin Gordhan, is managing to crack the whip and get the folks at Eskom to sort out the mess.

But wait a minute. Why on earth should we be hopeful? For one thing, just the week before, it was explained to us, in painstaking technical detail, how everything from a loss of the intellectual property needed to deal with our infrastructure maintenance challenges to the effects of the cyclone in neighbouring Mozambique meant we would have a short-term and a long-term crisis for a while yet.

READ MORE: Tropical cyclone Idai: The storm that knew no boundaries

Then, suddenly, we are being guaranteed no blackouts for a whole week and, in tandem with that announcement, hope is suddenly in full national swing.

This yearning for hope is part of our national psyche. After we eventually tired of the arrogance of former president Thabo Mbeki, many of us were hopeful that an era of pro-poor governance and responsive and ethical leadership would become the new normal after his dramatic axing from the ANC-led state.

Jacob Zuma, who succeeded him, was not analysed dispassionately by more than a handful of observers, because too many of us were pinning hope on the change in leadership rather than being led by lessons from history and by the contemporary empirical realities that are inherent constraints even on the most well-meaning new person to take over a leadership position.

Consequently, the affable, dancing, laughing Zuma immediately set out to ruin almost our entire state apparatus with the help of his dodgy friends, subverting the Constitution, eating at the trough and doing serious damage to our democratic institutions.

One of many explanations, and no less important for only being part of the whole story, for why state capture happened is that our yearning for good news often results in our critical faculties flying into exile when there appears to be even the smallest chance of a positive change compared with what came before.

And now, of course, we are living through the nightmare of auditing the consequences of trading hope for realism. We watch the Zondo commission recording on live television for us what happened while we were all feeding on a diet of hope and while the Zuma cronies were instead feeding on our public assets.

READ MORE: Zondo commission: ‘What did the ANC do?’

And now we are doing it again. We are over-investing in President Cyril Ramaphosa. We are again desperate for hope and making all sorts of excuses for the signs of continuities with the past. Ramaphosa keeps constitutional delinquents like Bathabile Dlamini in his Cabinet and how do we respond?

READ MORE: The ‘will of the people’— Dlamini on ANC list inclusion

“Ag, shame, man, it is complicated! Timing is everything in politics. And, like, he is waiting till after the elections before he makes his moves!”

We engage in confirmation bias in order to avoid any deflation of misplaced hope.

With the ANC’s elections list, we again had an opportunity to get a grip on reality. Ramaphosa, just like presidents before him, is not bigger than the ANC, and not bigger than the ANC’s recent institutional, leadership and political cultural sins. The list of names being seconded to the next Parliament as ANC representatives may as well have been drawn up by Zuma himself.

What do the hopeful say?

“No, man, don’t despair! The criminals will be smoked out. The brand- new National Prosecuting Authority will get the lot convicted and then it will be easier for the party leadership, including Ramaphosa, to exclude the rotten apples from Parliament and from the executive.”

But there is a problem with this logic. Sure, it is a decent explanation of how the ANC works. But this explanation of the internal machinations of the party misses the truth that the effect is that the democratic project in the state suffers.

Why the hell must citizens lower their expectations of leadership excellence in Parliament, in Cabinet and within the state just on account of the complexities of the ANC’s internal dynamics?

More important still, how can you be blindly hopeful about Ramaphosa when this kind of explanation of how the ANC works contradicts the idea that one can rationally hope that one person can succeed in “renewing” the ANC when others before him have failed to do so? We are, yet again, being seduced by our addiction to hope.

Don’t get me wrong. Hope is powerful. Myths are powerful. There is a functional value to myth-making in many societies. Myths can be used to keep us motivated, to help us work hard, to help us dig deeper than we thought. Hope can make us fight, make us work towards ideals that seem impossible to reach. It is probably better for an ill person’s recovery prospects to be hopeful than to be glum about their chances of recovering.

Politics is probably the same. By tapping into the hope for a better future we may yet tap into our collective energies to realise that future sooner rather than later.

But blind hope is pointless. Only the politicians benefit from us thinking that hope, on its own, is sufficient to rescue a democracy in deep trouble. I am not saying Ramaphosa is doomed to fail us. That kind of fatalism is unhelpful.

We need to be ruthlessly committed to combining an ability to remain hopeful in the face of horror with an equally strong addiction to empiricism.

Facts matter. And if we do not anchor our approach to our problems in cold logic and evidence, we will continue to play and replay PJ Powers classics while our democracy crumbles, and we let it do so with hopeful smiles on our faces. Healthy scepticism, not blind hope, is what we need now more than ever.

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Eusebius Mckaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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