(Written 5 Sept 2010 in response to the discussion on the collapse of social systems.)

Dear All,

Bernard Levin (Times of London, 1969), in reference to his predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, is quoted as saying something to the effect that “Oppressive societies cannot survive the urge for freedom once (that freedom) has been expressed.” Something that appears to be generally true, but it certainly does not automatically follow that a society, once having achieved personal freedom for its citizens, will go on to be develop into flourishing nation. Nor will the acquisition of personal freedoms make it possible for a society to escape an impending collapse if such a collapse is imminent. At the same time, it also does not automatically follow that autocratic societies cannot flourish without granting their citizens personal freedoms, although this case seems to be considerably less likely. (China is an interesting case in point.)

A sense of personal freedom, particularly in an age where ‘rights’ are all the rage, certainly plays a role in the mix that allows societies to flourish, but I think for a society to prosper it needs more than that; sometimes it may even need that citizens be prepared to forego what they see as their personal freedoms for what appears to be a greater good. Kenneth Clark, in Civilisation (1969), when illustrating what he calls the Hellenistic imagination by contrasting the art in the sculpture of the Apollo of the Belvedere with that of an African mask, puts it like this. “At certain (civilising) epochs, man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to the ideal of perfection.”

It is when people in a community have this sense ‘about themselves’ of a purpose (not necessarily religious), coupled with the notion that the purpose is achievable, then their confidence may ignite their collective imagination, and the society is able to flourish. To quote Clark again, “Civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity – enough to provide a little leisure. But far more, it requires confidence – confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in its own mental powers.”

In returning to Levin’s prediction about the timeline in the collapse of societies, I would suggest that the wrong question has been asked. The important indicator is not whether people are free or oppressed, as good an indicator as that may be, but whether they are confident of the society ‘about themselves’. Confident in a way that prompted C. J. Rhodes (South Africa’s very own 19th century robber-baron) to say, “You are an Englishman, and have consequently won first place in the lottery of life,” a view I imagine very few Englishmen now a’bed would still believe to be true.

Certainly white South African society is failing because of a lack of confidence, not because of a lack of freedom. By and large, white South Africa does not appear to have confidence in the South African Nation as it is represented by its government and its smiling president. As an aside, may I suggest that this is not just a minority thing; the Nazi party never won a majority vote prior to Hitler becoming the German Chancellor in 1933 and they certainly weren’t peddling freedom. Wherever and whenever they set out their stall they displayed one unambiguous message, total confidence in their purpose.

Sadly I have a suspicion that the confidence acquired by black South Africa, along with personal freedom, when the rainbow nation started out 16 years ago is evaporating. If that is true, then it suggests that the whole of South Africa will eventually fail. There was a time just a few years ago when, despite the negative press, the relatively naïve leadership of the ANC had so much confidence that they did not overly bother themselves with the sniping by the fourth estate. They believed that they would fix the education system, that they could get the economy to grow, that they could provide jobs. They believed that millions of houses could be built within a year or two and that they could ensure the functioning of hospitals and the provision of health care. They believed that they could give dignity to people who for many years were considered by others and possibly even themselves to be inferior.

But now the ANC leadership no longer has that confidence – so the negative press must be silenced by other means (Protection of Information Bill in 2011) – and it remains to be seen whether the South African people will sink into an aimless malaise, like Zimbabweans, to be abused by a despot and his cronies. Or will some new miracle come about that will change the confidence of the Nation, that will replace the deployed but entirely self-serving  officials in government, and, if not actually change the structure of government, will make it accountable to the people who pay for it. And that will allow the country to rejuvenated itself; in the way that China seems to have done.