BOOK REVIEW: A Time Traveller's Guide to South Africa in 2030 - Fin24 23 August 2017

Strategy consultant Ian Mann reviews Frans Cronje's latest book on South Africa's future and writes, "I cannot think of any citizen or foreign investor who can afford not to read this book. Whether you agree or disagree, you will be enriched and forewarned by the experience".

THERE cannot be a single thoughtful South African who is not concerned about the future of this country, if only because of the profound ways in which this will affect his or her life, and that of their family.

Author Frans Cronje is the CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a highly respected, almost 90-year-old liberal-democratic, thinktank, and has published his second book to help South Africans make sense of the future.

His position gives him access to troves of quality data and research. His method - scenario building - provides the best platform for understanding the dizzying complexity of our country and its possible futures. 

South African society, like any complex system, is outrageously difficult to understand, let alone control. All complex systems, societies, the weather, or morning traffic, display four characteristics. There are many actors (over 50 million citizens) who interact with each other in pursuit of their individual and often incompatible goals.

Their actions feed the system with consequences that affect the whole system, and these consequences can be huge when compared to the action.

One need only think of how smooth-flowing traffic, comprised of thousands of cars, is interrupted when one car causes an accident. This halts the traffic, incurs unexpected damages and expenses, causes innumerable effects on the others who are late for work, miss meetings, have to cancel appointments, interrupts the diaries of countless others, and wastes petrol.

The book opens with a sobering reminder. In December 2010 Mohamed Bouazizi, a young out-of-work Tunisian who had turned to fruit hawking to support his family, was constantly harassed and subjected to extortion by the police for not having a permit.

When this harassment happened once too often, in desperation he poured a can of petrol over himself and set himself - and the Middle East - alight. His action led to an uncontrollable revolt against the Tunisian president, the overthrow of the Egyptian and Libyan regimes, protests and regime change across 16 countries, and possibly the Syrian catastrophe as well.

Cronje bases his scenarios on a mind-boggling collection of data and interpretations of the South African situation. Over half the book sketches this mass of information in an accessible and clear manner that belies the complexity that underlies the sophistication.

“A joke we tell many groups we work with,” says Cronje, “is that if you are not confused about South Africa, then you have not been properly briefed.”

From all this Cronje distils seven key driving forces  and four scenarios. I will list them below, described succinctly.

Four scenarios

Will our expectations for a future with jobs, education, service delivery, housing and electricity be met? Will we remain trapped in a dated, Soviet-inspired worldview that will prevent our economy from reaching its full potential?

Will ordinary people support sensible leaders and policies, or will they follow charismatic populists? Will the state dominate and intrude on the lives of citizens? Will South Africa be an open society with free speech and association encouraged? Will we be able to benefit from the upturn in the global economy? Will race and ethnic relations deteriorate and endanger social cohesion?

These key driving forces, under which lie some 40 other discrete trends, cluster about two axes which produce four possible scenarios for the country.

The axes are the extent to which popular expectations are met or unmet, and whether the state is dominant or weak. From this 2x2 matrix the four scenarios for South Africa emerge.

One scenario is the “Rise of the Right”. Here popular expectations are met and the country has a dominating state. In this scenario, the South African government is authoritarian and suppresses the civil rights of the people to force very successful economic reforms on the country. The Constitution has been weakened, but living standards are strengthened.  We could even be the preeminent African example of an authoritarian capitalist economy.

Downward slide without end

In the second scenario, the “Tyranny of the Left”, popular expectations have not been met by the country’s dominating state. A powerful and once popular socialist government has destroyed the county’s democracy as well as its economy. The downward slide seems to have no end, and life for citizens is awful.

In the third scenario, the “Break-up of South Africa”, popular expectations have not been met and the state is weak. The economy has stagnated and many South Africans are poor. With leadership from the state, society has divided against itself. Only a few groups have built enclaves in which they lead largely normal lives.

The fourth scenario, the “Rise of the Rainbow”, is a combination of the meeting of the expectations of the population, and a weak state. The ANC-DA coalition still holds and economic growth is evident everywhere. The radical, populist and destructive elements in the body politic have been isolated, and the people are building a free and prosperous country.  

Which will prevail? Any one of these scenarios is possible. Clearly the last would be the ideal for any liberal democrat, but the first appears to be the most likely. The author has included sets of questions that will help the reader ascertain what is unfolding.

I cannot think of any citizen or foreign investor who can afford not read this book. Whether you agree or disagree, you will be enriched and forewarned by the experience.

Readability:    Light ---+- Serious Insights:         High +---- Low Practical:         High --+-- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update.