Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Adapt or die: ANC’s political evolution in South Africa – Viv Vermaak

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In Viv Vermaak’s thought-provoking piece, she challenges the conventional narrative of political evolution in South Africa, urging a reconsideration of adaptability and survival in a changing landscape. Reflecting on the ANC’s resilience and strategic agility, she critiques Western ideals of progress and dominance, likening political ideologies to evolutionary strategies in a diverse ecosystem. Vermaak’s analysis underscores the necessity for political adaptation amid shifting dynamics, questioning assumptions about stability and progress in societal development.

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By Viv Vermaak

We often say: “The ANC has had 30 years to govern, but hasn’t fixed the country yet.”  We shake our heads at how unevolved ANC politics is. We then lament about how unfair the GNU cabinet appointments are.

By ‘we’ I mean ‘I’ as a self-identifying white liberal and, by extrapolation of my averageness, I also assume others. I don’t have these thoughts anymore. I now understand nothing unfair happened here. We are being outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed by a group of people who are remarkably adaptable to changing political landscapes. Think about it: by all accounts, the ANC lost the recent elections, but retained power in parliament plus the opposition. Consider the EFF and MK to be naughty children of the same family who will nevertheless carry the genetic material of the NDR (National Development Revolution) and RET (Radical Economic Transformation) forward.

Regarding GNU negotiations, the ANC showed up to the table with bigger balls than the DA, who appear not to have developed the necessary survival skills in such a situation. The miracle of the end of load-shedding can at least partly be ascribed to sheer political will as a crafty pre-emptive electioneering tactic. This shows tremendous dexterity and growth for a group that entered government as a resistance movement merely 30 years ago. In this environment, they are the best adapted. They are the fittest. For now.

Alpha males

I suspect many of us are unconsciously so taken aback by the thought that the ANC could be the legitimate alpha males in the SA human troop as we thought it was a position that belonged to us by us being the moral and just ‘winners’ in history. Democracy, liberalism, and capitalism dominated Western civilisation during the 20th century. It felt like we had ‘won’ because it was the natural endpoint of human development. Therefore it must be the ‘best’ way. Part of this perception can be attributed to a misunderstanding of the evolutionary phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ This, plus the Christian religious narrative which suggests that God has already planned the future with a blueprint left a mark, even on the atheist. We philosophically operate in a paradigm where progress is linear and forward-moving in incremental instalments towards a type of peak. In reality, this is not how evolution operates at all.

We were taught, for instance, that the giraffe grew its long neck in order to eat the highest leaves of the highest trees, thereby outcompeting the others. The giraffe could then look down on the others from its superior position with the privilege of the juiciest food supply. Survival of the fittest? No. It doesn’t even make sense.

Read more: Coalition struggles: ANC and DA’s significant challenges over ideological divides – Corrigan

Evolution does not work like that. It is often random and reactive. Creatures are faced with environmental changes all the time, which lays to waste any ‘plan’ the species might have had. The fact that the giraffe has a long neck is not the best or the only way to survive on the savannah. Short-necked antelope like the wildebeest (gnu)  also survive just fine and eat the same acacia trees. Elephants can reach the high branches with their trunks. Having a long neck is one way to survive, but for every adaptive strategy, there are many competing ones. There is rarely a ‘best’ way.

The giraffe’s long neck has evolutionary benefits, but they come at a cost. You need a turbo-charged heart to pump blood two meters from your chest to your brain. You have twice the blood pressure of other mammals and without those special safety valves, you will faint every time you bend down for a drink. After all that, what if climate change wipes out the savannah or fundamentally alters its features? Then the 2 million years the giraffe spent developing its long neck will seem rather silly.

Similar patterns

Political ideologies show similar patterns to the migration across the grasslands.  At any given time, a wide variety of creatures or political systems manage to survive. The ones who do, reproduce. If there are enough selection pressures only parties with certain characteristics will make it to the next round. Changes happen slowly as each generation is slightly different to the previous one but essentially still recognisable. Everyone adapts, except if you are a crocodile. Then you don’t change.

It is then ironic that PW Botha, nicknamed the ‘Groot Krokodil’ was the SA politician who made the phrase ‘adapt or die’ famous in 1978 when he warned white South Africans that they would need to adjust to the future and that Apartheid reforms would have to take place. He then struggled to make the leap himself. In a much-anticipated speech in 1985, he declared that SA had crossed the Rubicon, and then promptly refused to cross it, failing to announce the far-reaching reforms everyone was expecting.

Read more: De Beer: GNU – The rocky pillar is… the ANC

Modern evolutionists will tell you that if you want to judge the adaptability of something, don’t look where it is now, look where it has come from. Trying to predict a long-term future is futile, except in hindsight. Individualist thinking and free markets in South Africa have had a good run. I am proud to be part of it and believe it to be the most productive way of being in society. At the same time, we have not figured out how to grow. Not enough copies of our political genes will be passed on to the next generation.

Looking back to where we have come from, liberalism is an adaptation to conditions of relative stability, not the cause of it. It is a reaction. It doesn’t thrive in conditions of turmoil. The former steadiness of the economy in South Africa itself was the result of many previous years of forceful submission which can feel like order or peace. Until it doesn’t.

Tyranny of the weak

Statues of colonial leaders are being pulled down. Former heroes are now pariahs. The powerful have become the vulnerable. But if the strong can be subjected to the tyranny of the weak so readily, were they ever really the strong or just lucky? Yes.

As it happens, what I was taught about the giraffe’s neck as a child was wrong. More recent genomic sequencing of the animal’s DNA reveals that the unusual length and girth of the magnificent body part is due to wanting more sex, not better food. Genetic markers support the theory that the neck-fighting courtship ritual of the giraffe is what drove the super development of the neck. Having access to higher leaves was purely opportunistic.

So when your political representatives sit down at the watering hole on the unforgiving African political landscape, hope they know how to stick their neck out and have quite a big one, otherwise, your seeds are going nowhere.

Read also:

  • Gareth v Onselen: Is DA a ‘White’ Party? ANC multi-racial? What Election’24 data shows.
  •  RW Johnson: ANC/DA/IFP is SA democracy’s last hope – without it, all may be lost
  • Cathy Buckle: Letter from Zimbabwe – Visible scars of torture

This article was first published on Daily Friend and was republished with permission

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