OPINION: Time to face forward

Norman McFarlane

When Clem Sunter wrote his groundbreaking book The World and South Africa in the 1990s, he contrasted traditional methods of forecasting with the emerging practice of scenario planning.

Traditional forecasting methods he pointed out, relied on history as a predictor of the future, adding that for decades this practice had endured because it worked.

It was standard practice up to that time, to assume that if a business had grown its revenue by 10% per annum for the preceding decade, it could safely expect to do so for the forseeable future.

He characterised this practice as “walking into the future looking backwards”, adding that with this approach one will likely trip over something one did not see coming.

Scenario planning on the other hand, popularsied and perfected by Royal Dutch Shell, eschewed history as a predictor of the future, relying instead on current happenings and trends as indicators of what might come to pass, because change in pretty much all contexts was happening at an ever accelerating pace.

“The future,” he famously quipped, “is not what it used to be.”

In a nutshell, traditional forecasting methods relied on history to predict a static future, whereas scenario planning examined current occurances and trends to craft “if this, then that” possible active futures.

It only emerged quite some time after our miraculous transition to democracy, that Mr Sunter consulted to the FW de Klerk apartheid government, and visited the late Nelson Mandela in prison to discuss the future shortly before his release, which helped to pave the way for a negotiated settlement – Mr Sunter’s now famous “High Road” – rather than the “Low Road” of continued confrontation which would inevitably lead to civil war and a wasteland.

A quarter century later, we find ourselves not on that much sought-after “High Road”. Rather, if one is charitable, we find ourselves instead desperately clinging to the illusion of a “High Road”, with the yawning abyss of racial animus, political opportunism, economic calamity and a toxic mix of neo-apartheid and the ghosts of our colonial past, dragging us inexorably toward a “Low Road” of increasing civil unrest.

We are, as a nation, largely unhappy with our respective lots, no matter where on the political spectrum or the economic ladder we find ourselves.

There was a time when our future looked bright and hopeful, when, to coin a phrase, there was more that drew us together than drove us apart, but as the years of relatively good economic growth and progress under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki were followed by almost a decade of stagnation and accelerated plundering of the public purse under Jacob Zuma, our future grew dim, and the witch-hunt began. We had to find somebody, something, to blame for the sad, sorry state in which we find ourselves.

Our political leadership had failed us for two decades, and our initially hopeful future had been trampled underfoot in pursuit of personal aggrandisement and material gain, at the expense of the nation as a whole.

The poor became poorer, unemployment skyrocketed and inequality deepened.

The shift in perspective was subtle at first, born out of understandable frustration with the status quo.

#RhodesMustFall was rapidly followed by #FeesMustFall, and our society gradually began to turn through 180 degrees and focus firmly once more, on our past. We had again begun to walk into our future looking backwards.

The spectre of state capture reared its head, and the dilligent work undertaken by the now infamous Bell Pottinger, at the alleged behest of the Gupta family and Mr Zuma, incarnated the prefect scapegoat for all our ills – white monopoly capital (WMC), assiduously propogated by Bell Pottinger’s misbegotten child, Black First Land First (BLF).

At last, we had something we could blame for all the calamities that had befallen our nation – our enduring poverty, lack of economic growth, rising unemployment and ever-deepening inequality.

No sooner had the narrative of WMC gained currency, than our beloved Madiba was accussed of being a sellout, that he pandered to the mandarins of WMC while neogtiating our bloodless transition to democracy, guaranteeing their continued economic hegemony, at the enduring expense of the previously disdvantaged majority.

The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the misguided perception that “giving back the land” will miraculously eradicate poverty, inequality and unemployment can be directly attributed to this entirely false narrative.

Once more, the past was deemed more important than the future, but as Mr Sunter pointed out all those years ago, the path to our future does not lie in our past.

Our colonial history is what it is, and no amount of soul-searching or finger pointing or vituperitve accusation can change what has happened, yet the notion that colonialism was a product of its time, rings holllow when we contemplate its legacy.

Similarly, the horror that was apartheid and the destruction that it wrought upon our nation cannot be wished away.

Although we can never alter our past, we must never forget it. Not because the solutions to our future lie there, rather because it tells us what must never again be allowed to come to pass.

In his book Western Empires, Christianity and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest, Sampie Tereblanche delivers a stinging condemnation of colonialism and the enduring impact it has had on our nation and post-colonial societies all over the world.

In an informal review of the book I read, the point is made that colonialism is what it is.

We live in a society that is forever altered by its effects, and it’s what we do with this knowledge that is important.

It is time for us to face forward once more, for that is where our future lies.

We cannot change our past, but we must change our future.