Friday, July 22, 2011

FIONA FORDE: Scenarios

Walking together to a new SA is meant to look like this

Published: 2011/07/22 07:11:16 AM

WHEN Adam Kahane facilitated the Mont Fleur scenarios 20 years ago, someone trotted out a joke that lodged in his mind.

"In the face of our unbelievably complex challenges, there are two options available to us: a practical option and a miraculous option," the story went.

"The practical option would be for us to get down on our knees and pray that some miraculous person will intervene and do it for us. The miraculous option would be for us to argue and talk and work together and figure it out ourselves."

Those words echoed loud when he facilitated the Dinokeng Scenarios a couple of years ago, which got SA talking about where the country was headed and what the future held. The scenario planning started out in 2008 and Canadian-born Kahane was brought in to facilitate it. He was joined by a group of conveners and a team 30 or so people, drawn from different walks of life. Between them they crafted what has become known as the Dinokeng Scenarios .

It was against the backdrop of extraordinary political disquiet. The African National Congress had elected a new leadership in Polokwane who were opposed to the members of the party who were running the country and it wasn’t clear whose hands were on the steering wheel.

In hindsight, Kahane feels the timing was perfect because it is during periods of uncertainty "that scenarios should be carried out, when you can’t see the road ahead, it’s foggy. And you want to pause and think about what’s going on and what our choices are."

But just as the Dinokeng team was about to hold their first three-day workshop in September 2008, the fog became thicker. Jacob Zuma had become the subject of a high-profile case of corruption and days after that first workshop, Judge Chris Nicholson invalidated the charges and implicated then president Thabo Mbeki in what he believed was political interference in the saga.

By the time the team gathered for their second session in October, Mbeki had been ousted; and by the time the third took place in November, the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE) was under way.

"We had the feeling every time we met we were in a completely different situation," says Kahane. "And it was really difficult to articulate what was happening", which made equally difficult the task of interpreting the period from 1994 to that point and particularly contentious the challenge of casting their minds into the future.

"The biggest disagreement was over the question of how bad things were. Was the tone, ‘We’re doing OK, we have to keep doing OK’? Or was the tone, ‘We’ve made mistakes. There are real problems and we have to deal with them or things will go downhill’?"

It was only after much debate that the second interpretation prevailed and the team recognised they were storing up trouble if they did not address the problems. And from there, the three scenarios eventually emerged which they put words on during their final workshop in February 2009: "Walk together", "walk apart" or "walk behind".

"Walk apart" imagined an unhealthy world by 2020 where everyone was looking out for themselves or their people in the face of such problems, be it their family, their organisation or their faction, depending on how they defined people.

"Walk behind" depicted an interventionist state that would try to manage challenges on behalf of all who lived in the country.

"Walk together" captured a country where the various actors — the government included — worked in concert towards a better future.

Not surprisingly, the team took the view that the ideal scenario was "walk together". In "walk behind" they felt the state didn’t have the capacity to be any more interventionist than it was , while "walk apart" imagined a situation that went from bad to worse.

The scenarios started a conversation that kept the country talking for the rest of 2009. They tapped into extraordinary goodwill and an undeniable sense that South Africans wanted to make this country work. But they died a sudden death at the end of that year and little has been heard of them since.

Yet two years on they are as relevant, if not more so, than they were then. And Kahane believes, perhaps surprisingly, that SA is already falling into the ideal third scenario — walk together.

"Let’s not forget ‘walk together’ is the high-conflict scenario," he says. "By definition this is the scenario with lots of voices, lots of actors, therefore lots of contestation, lots of protest marches, lots of arguments in the press, lots of court cases, lots of yelling and screaming. And if you don’t realise that you will be alarmed at the conflict. But if you understand that ‘walk together’ necessarily implies a high level of conflict, then you will interpret that conflict in a different way."

Hence SA in 2011 is a place "not of ill health, but of health. That’s what walk together looks like."

Yet there is a definite tug in certain quarters to lure the country into a situation where we would end up "walking behind" our leaders. Since the scenarios were launched there has been a sense that the democratic space is diminishing, not expanding, a point magnified by the continuing debate around nationalisation, for example. And that’s where it is important to reflect again on what the scenarios highlighted.

"The argument the team made is that the South African state does not and cannot have the competency to play that role. It is a state that wasn’t designed to serve the population as a whole and because of that, today it is struggling to accomplish even its current tasks," he argues.

"So having the state take on more functions raises understandable concerns. We have a complex economy and a poorly functioning state. And if the municipalities can’t deliver and the state is doing a mediocre job of managing parastatals, how pragmatic would it be to take over the function of the private sector by nationalising the mines or any other sector?"

The debate today is nationalisation. Tomorrow it may be something else. But the message two years ago from Dinokeng was that it was not a good idea to leave the future of SA up to the government.

So why are we feeling that tug today?

"My sense is that the situation is particularly fluid. We are going through another transition."

Is it time to plan another set of scenarios? "No. The Dinokeng Scenarios are still a perfect fit."

I want to ask him why we don’t hear more about the scenarios today, but then I’m reminded of the practical versus the miraculous option. Two years ago, we were all talking coherently about the scenarios. They provided something of a compass, a practical guide. But today we are living through the scenarios in what often feels like an incoherent way.

Perhaps Kahane is right. Perhaps we are walking together. And as he would say, that’s miraculous.

But maybe the practical gave way to the miraculous too soon. Maybe a little more of the practical — more guidance on how to frame these pressing conversations — would make us miraculously more able to inhabit this miraculous state.

• Forde is a freelance writer.