The last 25 years in South Africa have been free of war and intergroup conflict, yet our country, the Rainbow Nation, is not and has never appeared to be in a state of permanence. This is the tragic fate of most pluralistic societies. They are, as the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor put it, always a process in the making.
This atmosphere, coupled with little to no economic growth in the last decade, is allowing new dangerous ideas to take hold.
While the prospect of the country descenting into a nationalist or communist hell is as real today as 25 years ago, we should also be concerned about another dangerous scenario of the future; one that is getting more popular among South Africans from all race groups and sides of the political spectrum. This idea does not originate from the former communist or right-wing nationalist countries, but rather from Singapore. The country’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, once remarked that the key ingredient for a society to succeed is not a unique ideology, but rather strict discipline.
This governance model holds that the state is supposed to act as a father figure that can guide its children in the right direction. It is premised on the assumption that if we only elect a good government or a strong leader, then he will instill the necessary behavior patterns and lead us to the promised land. The authoritarian regime coupled with a good civil service should instill the necessary discipline and habits into a population and eventually lead it to affluence. Economic prosperity is thus possible if forced at the barrel of the gun. The scary truth is that this model proved that that an authoritarian regime can often give more economic prosperity to their own citizens than a liberal democracy.
This concept has spread in one way or another throughout the Asian Tigers, Pinochet’s Chile and then later the Communist Party of China adopted it for themselves. These countries’ citizens will be left with little to no civil rights, and the recipe for economic prosperity will be forced onto them. The children will be broken until they study the right amount of mathematics and science. The businessmen won’t dare be corrupt, or they will face anything from life imprisonment to the death penalty. The country will be efficiently governed, economically free, but left with no artistic self-expression. It will be deprived of that very element that makes liberal democracies unique: Self-criticism, and more importantly, the right to exercise self-discipline.
In this future scenario, dissidents are interned, the police state governs, and we are all scared by the tyranny of the benign order of the day. The Singapore model has already spread throughout other countries at the Horn of Africa, in particularly in Rwanda and Ethiopia, and the question for the modern South Africa is whether we will be able to make a temporary sacrifice of our freedoms in order to have food on the table.
There are many South Africans that are seriously considering this model as a basis to organise our future and can we truly blame them given the daily frustrations that we face? Just look at the inept civil service, the corruption in the parastatals, the chaos in Parliament and our almost-absent police force.
This scenario can be just as dangerous as a communist takeover, for it is premised on the same authoritarian concepts and ideas. The ideology is that of a parental state that treats us all as its children for its own grand design. The only aspect of human endeavor that it gets right is economic exchange, but it will deprive humans of their raison d’être and individuality.
In contrast to Singapore, South Africa’s Rainbow Nation ran the opposite experiment in the last 25 years. We have a society that is largely free in terms of expression, but there are extensive state controls over the economy. The former is the success story of our post-1994 order and the latter is where the new South Africa failed us. The result has been a frustrated population that sees little or no economic advancement for themselves in the next decade. In short, we have a right to complain, but the government prevents us from creating wealth to feed ourselves. This rare combination is responsible for the South African boiling pot zeitgeist that constantly wants to shoot its own lid of.
We are going to face this question in the coming decade: “Are we going to be allowed to be economically prosperous and at the same time enjoy the freedoms of expressions that makes us human or are we going to trade one freedom for another?” This is the question that lies at the core of the Rainbow Nation’s existence and the so-called promise of freedom that took root in 1994. Are we a pluralistic society that allows individuals to be masters of their own destiny or one that lets the state act out its self-righteous patronage?
Fortunately, there is another alternative to the Singapore model. It was put best in the words of General Dwight Eisenhower: “Liberty is only the opportunity for a country to exercise self-discipline.” He gave this to be the reason as to why liberal democracies have in the past been able to confront tyrannies and crises that on the outset were more intimidating than themselves. Self-discipline is the value that demands of us to give personal sacrifice, but not will we give up the core values that makes a society free and open which is the right to dissent and be self-critical.
If South Africa is to emerge in the next decade in a more prosperous state than today, then we will have to scale back the state’s grip over the economic endeavors of its citizens. There is simply no other proven way to bring the masses of poor people into affluence. The problem is how do we do it?
We can either give up our freedoms and appoint a lot of benevolent industrialists, or we can master it ourselves through private business endeavors. In the case of Singapore, it was discipline through force, South Africa can do it by practicing self-discipline while still having the right to be self-critical, open and largely free.