THE BIG READ: Mountains from molehills
Philosophical questions are often thought, wrongly, to have no benefit when dealing with urgent and difficult matters of the present. Yet philosophical questions often stem from practical problems, and the answers to those questions become the basis of solutions to problems.
Given the potentially explosive labour relations and economic difficulties currently affecting the wine and mining industries, we have to ponder some philosophical questions to deal with three areas that might stand us in good stead if we learn our lessons.
The first is whether these developments could have been predicted; whether we are at all predisposed to find lasting answers to these difficulties and, finally, the extent to which we understand the potential for a violent climax to our social, political and economic status quo.
Last year, several platinum mining companies indicated they were facing serious difficulties because of poor demand, low prices and rising input costs.
The minister of mineral resources responded by forming a task team to deal with the devastating implications of such realities, which included massive potential retrenchments.
The outcome of the task team's work has not yet been published but could be extremely useful in the context of Amplats' announcement that its restructuring programme may result in 14000 employees being retrenched at its Rustenburg operations.
The possibility of this catastrophic outcome was also confirmed by detailed notes from local and international investment banks last year.
The analyses indicated the global platinum market is oversupplied, prices will remain stagnant and crucially, South Africa's major platinum miners were making operating losses and would have to close shafts. This was before Eskom released its current application for another price increase.
Meanwhile, violent strike action in the Western Cape has caused the DA and farmers to allege that it is being instigated. Even if the assumption of instigation is accepted, as an excuse it remains extremely poor. Only the inattentive would not have long ago pondered whether or not the wages paid to farmworkers could sustain general stability in the face of rising costs.
In both instances, the awful realities we are now facing were entirely predictable, but the propensity to avoid depressing questions force us to call those who foresee such calamities "prophets of doom".
This allows us to escape the responsibility of acting with urgency ahead of approaching crises. We fail to imagine what could happen if existing arrangements are not mitigated or changed.
Brazilian scholar Roberto Mangabeira Unger puts it succinctly in saying "the task of the imagination is to do the work of crisis without crisis".
We have to ask seriously whether our problem is lack of imagination, an inability to "do the work of crisis without crisis" or both.
Answering this question is important if we are to stop our costly habit of outrage and weak action after the fact rather than before. It might also help us put an end to the stream of sub-optimal solutions we fashion because each of the stakeholders involved wants to protect their individual interests made possible by the absence of leadership gravitas.
The public response to the crises also suggests we are not predisposed towards coordinated, urgent action.
Instead, it appears to accentuate ideological and other sectorial divisions in which each set of interests hopes to achieve victory over the other. It is an unsustainable bunfight that is both an outcome and a further cause of general institutional paralysis.
The effectiveness of individual institutions, as well as the relationship between them, is critical in responding to opportunities and crises.
What makes such effectiveness possible is a combination of technical competence and a high leadership quality able to conceive and implement difficult decisions which might be unpopular but necessary. In turn, implementing difficult decisions requires legitimacy in the eyes of those affected or the general population.
We must, therefore, consider very carefully whether our incapacity to deal honestly and ahead of time with the potential outcomes of unsustainable realities should not worry us all.
In the context in hand, the realities of both the mining industry over the last two years and the conditions of farmworkers on the other, were visible for long enough for our institutions to have foreseen where they were going. It is indicative of the poor state of our institutions and the arrangements between them that these problems have come to a point at which they might violently "resolve themselves".
When institutions function sub-optimally, molehills are left unattended until they become mountains, and those affected by the incompetence of institutions begin to look for solutions outside the established institutional framework. In the South Africa of the past 10 years, that almost certainly means violent public protest. Usually the outcome is yet another unsustainable stop-gap measure, as will likely happen in both instances in hand.
That is not the basis upon which any society can build prosperity. We don't always have to learn through painful experience, but from its imagination.
Zibi is the convenor of the Midrand Group