Wishful thinking leads to bad analysis

Gareth van Onselen
26 March 2012

Gareth van Onselen asks why Eusebius McKaiser is so reluctant to take the ANC at its word

In an 'on the one hand, on the other hand' article, typical of much political analysis in South Africa today, Eusebius McKaiser bemoans in a New York Times blog that "no leader has yet cracked South Africa's post-democratic development challenges". Mbeki was good, but he was also bad. Jacob Zuma was bad, but he is also good, etc. The piece was written for an international audience, so it's designed as the kind of bland nothingness that allows one to highlight a problem in a generic kind of way without really causing any offence. A bit like describing fog. And perfect for posturing.

One of the things McKaiser complains about is that Zuma "has also been vague about whether the powers of the constitutional court should be revised."

Well, hardly. The ANC has been very upfront about its intentions. They are all set out in various different policy documents, in great detail. No doubt Zuma has waxed lyrical about how none of this should be seen as a threat when pressed about this in public. But there should be little about the ANC's, or his, actual intentions. Remember, this is the same person who has argued several times the ANC is more important than the constitution and who has a very obvious personal axe to grind with the courts.

What is it that constantly drives our political analysts to sacrifice sound analysis in favour of good will and optimism?

Usually the cause is one of two things: first, a politically correct desire to be patriotic and therefore constantly to downplay anything problematic or negative as "not that bad"; second, a disbelief that any organisation or individual could never purposefully act in an undemocratic manner and so their motivation in pursuing some undemocratic agenda is best explained as misunderstood or the result of good intentions that have, through no fault of their own, been misconstrued or misrepresented.

Often it is done under the guise of 'reasonableness'. That is, in order that an analysis might appear measured, even palatible, disproportinal weight is given to optimism. Often to negate any moral outrage that too harsh an opinion might attract in our overly senstitive political environment. No doubt when on the international stage that impulse is at its strongest. But, if that kind of optimistic bias isn't supported by evidence it serves only to skew analysis and is to shy away from necessary criticism.

The affect of this kind of deferential thinking can be prfoundly problematic.

By way of illustration: when the ANC first set out its cadre deployment policy in internal party documents, in stark black and white terms, not only did the media deny its intention was to politicise the public service but that anyone who suggested as much was unpatriotic, if not, racist. Of course the ANC, which is anything if not single-minded, then proceeded to do exactly what it said and, through the deployment of those loyal to it, subverted the public service and place as many "levers of power" under its control as possible. Now the problem is widely acknowledged as acute and its consequences far-reaching.

(Indeed, cadre deployment constitutes a direct assault on the constitution - so you could quite plausibly argue the ANC has been in the anti-constitution business for years.)

Likewise, a thousand other ANC policies: the ANC does what it says it wants to do. It doesn't put ideas out into the world to ensure its moral compass is guided by the country's response to them, it does so as a formality, so as to give the pretence it is a political party - perhaps even to convince itself of that fact - only to then do as its revolutionary agenda requires. It might tinker on the margins, appease a bit here and there, sand down the edges on certain specific things, but its primary purpose is to consolidate its position as the ‘vanguard' of the people; if not unfettered then as close to that as it can get.

There's a distinction between what the ANC says in its internal party documents - which have to be taken seriously - and the assurances it may given to external audiences - which don't.

If anyone is in any doubt about that, just look at the proposals has put on the table in last while: a single public service, scrapping the provinces, consolidating the police, a media appeals tribunal, the secrecy bill, re-organising the judiciary, and so on and so forth. One can debate as much as one wants about clause five in a specific piece of legislation, and that is good and necessary, but don't confuse it with the ANC's broader programme of action. And one shouldn't confuse a media conference where someone alludes to best democratic practice with the ANC's long standing desire to reshape South Africa in its own centrist image and govern unfettered by constraints.

It is comforting, perhaps, to constantly reassure ones' self that the ANC has the best of intentions at heart and, sometimes, through no fault of its own, it makes a wayward suggestion, and that, when that happens, we really ought to give it the benefit of the doubt, but to believe that absolutely is just delusional.

And, as I say, it leads to political analysis that is just, well, wrong. It also acts as a sort of Valium on public opinion and opposition - a soporific that actually makes it more likely the ANC will succeed in pushing through with its policies.

For example, take this piece written by Eusebius McKaiser and Sasha Polakow-Suransky for the international publication Newsweek, in April 2009, just after Jacob Zuma's ascension to the Presidency, and titled ‘South Africa will survive Zuma'.

Just like the New York Times blog, it was for an international audience and so was written in the same wishy-washy kind of way; which is all well and fine, but compromises the analysis.

This quote from the piece, for example:

"Then there's the ANC, which has generally shown a commitment to the rule of law. For years, it has had the votes to change the Constitution without opposition support but hasn't done so."

First, it is misleading. One doesn't have to change the constitution to undermine it - packing the civil service with party loyalists is just as damaging, if not more so, because it more pervasive and less easily countered. The ANC has had a conflict with constitutional checks and balances from day one. Second, it is to confuse the ANC's actions with its intent. And, as the past few years have shown, the ANC might have taken a while translate that intent into action, but its wasting no time making up for lost ground.

After all, if McKaiser was so certain back then the ANC has never intended to change the constitution, why does he need reassurance now? A little less certain perhaps?

But here is an even better example, from the same Newsweek piece:

"The ANC has also shown respect for a free, critical press. Almost all major publications bluntly criticize the party and its leaders. Yet the ANC has not used heavy-handed tactics to silence them. Such tolerance is all too rare in Africa ."

Only a few months after that had been written, the ANC would propose the establishment of a Media Appeals Tribunal and the Protection of Information Bill (both of which, despite endless appeals its has pushed on with).

There are numerous other examples of ascribed good will and optimism subverting accurate analysis in that piece: the rise of COPE will force the ANC to "reinvent itself"; the fear of losing more popular support should lead the ANC "to reject irrational policies" and that the ANC "does accept and respect the institutions that make up the country's political landscape."

With regards to that last one, McKaiser would in 2011 explain his decision to resign from the public broadcaster as follows:

"Self-censorship on the part of a sufficient number of employees suffices to keep our politicians happy. The chilling effect of previous interference reverberates culturally. That is far more powerful than politicians needing to call SABC executives every morning."

Hard to reconcile that analysis with the behaviour of a supposedly ‘respectful' governing party.

The long and the short of it is that good will makes for bad analysis. That might sound like a rather pessimistic statement but, in the same way an outlook influenced by prejudice will be skewed, so a worldview that is overly optimistic will ascribe to certain decisions a motivation that just doesn't stand up to scrutiny. And, in South Africa our political analysts do it all the time.

Optimism has a place. But one needs to understand its relative. What is best for South Africa is not necessarily what is best for the ANC, certainly it regularly confuses the two. At the same time, well-meaning action and behaviour would be badly affected if every possible outcome was written off before it took place. But analysis is not about being optimistic.

It is about interpreting the world around us, whatever its nature, and describing it accurately. That doesn't lend itself to ascribing good intentions to every undertaking. Likewise, it might well be the case that, in certain instances, some more general positive intention is indeed the right explanation but, when it comes to the ANC, the facts suggest that is the rarest of exceptions.

The ANC's intentions and what it understands South Africa's best interests to be are not necessarily objectively the best. And to use a universal frame of reference to understand them is, in fact, to profoundly misunderstand them. That doesn't require shouting ‘blue murder', and certainly not being pessimistic in the other direction, only the intention to describe things as they are and not as we wish them to be.

This article first appeared on the Inside Politics weblog.

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If you come across comments that are injurious, defamatory, profane, off-topic or inappropriate; contain personal attacks or racist, sexist, homophobic, or other slurs, please report them and they will be removed.
 responses to this article

a debate is never won....
This is the kind of thinking that makes Africans who are disgruntled with the ANC choose not to vote rather than vote DA. They don't believe there's goodwill in the DA. As long as the DA is defensive and deny the effects of apartheid on the African . .more

by Sipho on March 26 2012, 17:26
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The duck theory
You all know what the duck theory is so I won't elaborate.
Buy Krugerrands before the price moves to U.S $ 3000 and the rand price to R50000.00 each.
is my assertion ridiculous?
perhaps not.

by Plutarch on March 26 2012, 17:58
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Where in this article is there evidence of being defensive and denying the effects of apartheid?

I really want to know because I fear that sometimes when I am doing math at work I also deny the effects of apartheid. I worry that when I talk to . .more

by South One on March 26 2012, 19:02
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Eusebius Mc Kaiser is a staunch ANC supporter, what else do you expect.

He honestly can't see beyond race and I believe is extremely damaged , I personally feel very sorry for him.

by Zinzi on March 26 2012, 19:12
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True, the ANC do articulate their policies and then disguise their implementation behind charm offences. Have done so since '94 and before. Take Mandela, but the veneer has worn thin.

The ANC's objectives were spelled out in the Freedom Charter . .more

by Moor on March 26 2012, 19:43
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So you see the Rand at 16 to the dollar?

Actually it is the dollar that could go into freefall. Should have years ago, even before Q.E..

So should most fiat currencies have gone into freefall against gold.

But, somehow, . .more

by Moor on March 26 2012, 19:53
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ANC is incrementalist - the end destination is a fascist kleptocracy much like North Korea
They put the principle out there for debate then promtly start incrementally implementing what has been proposed while denying that the principle has even been accepted - easy, as there is no such thing as an objective reality to the ANC.
The best . .more

by Brett on March 26 2012, 21:19
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"we all live in a yellow submarine"
The liberal-left has lived in denial for so long about the intentions of the ANC, which are now becoming patently obvious. However, for liberals to acknowledge how wrong they have been and are about the ANC would result in an existential crisis, so they . .more

by Realist on March 27 2012, 00:12
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......And the best of all is that liberals want to claim Nelson Mandela as their moral hero....

by Republican on March 27 2012, 08:18
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Well argued!
Gareth, I extend my hand to firmly shake yours on this one! The piece is well argued and, whatever your political views are, you tell it like it often is.

The point about not appearing to diss South Africa on the international stage is a . .more

by Solitoliquido on March 27 2012, 08:32
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be careful what you wish for!.
If the dollar falls out of bed, and frankly what other scenario is there in the face of a couple of trillions worth of QE ( which in my opinion only postpones the settlement date) then you can be sure the rand will go . .more

by Plutarch on March 27 2012, 08:40
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do you personally admit that you directly or indirectly benefited from apartheid......
@South One - you're being defensive. My point is I don't believe Gareth and the party he represent mean well with their criticism. As far as I can remember the DA is yet to acknowledge that apartheid disadvantaged Africans immensely and benefited white . .more

by Sipho on March 27 2012, 09:08
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Uyagula wena
@HomoFool - udinga ukuphalaziswa.

by Sipho on March 27 2012, 09:09
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I cannot see any good in the ANC. The only successful province is the western cape and that is despite the anc's best efforts to make it ungovernable using traditional African terror mayhem fire and crime tactics. Good? No. Bad? Yes.

by Jokers on March 27 2012, 09:34
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Groot Trek
And while all of this is going on the Afrikaners (the real ones, not those luny folllowers of Terblanche) who have not trekked like latter day Retiefs and who have been "cleansed" from the civil service and public institutions have quietly but . .more

by Bokdrol on March 27 2012, 09:40
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Tedious Eusebius
Finally someone takes on this issue of bland, predictable "analysis". It is politically correct to fault Zille's every twitch or twitter, and people like Karima and Eusebius are embarrassingly transparently part of the lynch-leaders every time. Re refugee . .more

by Phew! on March 27 2012, 10:13
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@ Sipho

The DA certainly do agree that Apartheid benefited the whites. They believe in broad based restitution, in other words , from the bottom up.

10 000 farm workers in the Western Cape have 50% equal shares in farms.

The DA . .more

by DM on March 27 2012, 10:58
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Your below the belt comment is disgusting. I am reporting you as your comments go against the grain of the rules of this forum.

by DM on March 27 2012, 11:01
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Let us all decide what is good or bad. Why must you be allowed to be the censor? Idiot

by DM on March 27 2012, 11:37
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@sipho, to refresh you memory
Hellen Zille extract
"My fellow South Africans, the Apartheid system was an affront – an often violent affront – to the very notion of humanity. By degrading some of us, it degraded us all.

Oppression is always driven by the worst instincts . .more

by Leon on March 27 2012, 12:22
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we see things...
@Leon & DM - I hear you guys. But it's important that whatever pronouncements we make should be matched by our deeds. I seem to recall people calling for qualified franchise in order to further exploit what was exclusively offered to them by apartheid. I . .more

by Sipho on March 27 2012, 15:23
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Editor C** Censor!
James Mybuurgh, Editor, Politicsweb.

What rubbish is this? Why did you remove my post? Heh? And if you remove it, why do you leave posts by the clowns like Sipho and DM, which are insulting me? Insultinng me for what then, pillock? It just shows . .more

by HomoFool on March 27 2012, 19:41
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@ Sipho on March 27 2012, 15:23

>>"I seem to recall people calling for qualified franchise in order to further exploit what was exclusively offered to them by apartheid."

Sorry, but backtracking without apologizing for your unsubstantiated smear "As long as the DA is . .more

by TheDrake on March 27 2012, 20:34
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"Gareth van Onselen, your protege, as a paid hired gun of the DA, who pretends he is an independent intellectual and commentators."
I don't recall van Onselen ever claiming to be an independent intellectual and commentator. His DA credentials are well . .more

by Jeff on March 27 2012, 21:26
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we're all socialised to a particular world view
@TheDrake - I don't think I should apologise for anything I said. In my private life I meet with well meaning, decent, upright white compatriots who dazzle me with inspiring stories of exceptional black kids who've made it way beyond South Africa inspite . .more

by Sipho on March 28 2012, 12:42
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