Designers of self-driving cars must transcend technical challenges while calibrating how much faith to have in other drivers. Navigating South Africa’s current threats and opportunities also requires blending an odd set of skills and perspectives.

Humans must make sense of the world around them to drive a car or to steer a national economy. We routinely take much on faith. This is usually sensible. If we didn’t presume other drivers would obey stop signs, we would drive very slowly and defensively. South Africa’s inability to escape its remarkably slow growth trajectory traces to ANC apathy toward the particulars of how global trade now drives economic development – while the party places much faith in authoritarian regimes.

Last year Elon Musk tweeted that self-driving is a ‘hard problem’ that ‘requires solving a large part of real-world AI’. The AI experts have worked out that understanding how humans make sense of their surroundings extends from data processing to deep cultural and philosophical considerations.

That Europeans and Americans give directions differently reflects culturally inspired differences in spatial descriptions. Such differences between, say, urban Japanese and rural residents in Asia or other continents are often quite extreme. 

Exceptionally clever AI scientists who have been coding from a young age, aka supernerds, have been seeking to objectively unpack how cultural forces influence how we interpret our environment and expectations. The assumptions we make about other drivers and pedestrians are culturally based.

Trevor Noah notes amusingly how faith in drivers breaking for pedestrians varies between New York City and Johannesburg. While social scientists have their scholarly insights, when AI scientists seek to understand how culture evolves, they see the influence of coding.

Software updates

AI experts perceive the evolution of cultures as a series of software updates. The West’s long trek from clan-level competing toward instigating a rules-based global order followed the programming of Plato, Saul of Tarsus and Thomas Aquinas. Unity was to be institutionally hard-coded through faith in morality-grounded beliefs. 

The 1980s versions of Windows imposed MAC features on an MS-DOS dominated system before achieving its own identity. South Africa’s 1990s transition sought to swiftly inspire institutionalised unity through negotiating the wording of our new constitution and having an open contest to design a new flag. South Africa’s distinct black and white cultures were to further cohere by singing the world’s only national anthem that starts in one key and finishes in another.

Comparing software to cultures and religions is fraught with shortcomings but it helps to explain why none of our leaders can offer workable growth plans. The pursuit of unity through articles of faith grounded in morality was not a new formula. 

Mandela’s exceptional wisdom, humility and compassion were amplified by the courage he showed at his 1964 trial when, facing the distinct possibility of a death sentence, he famously said: ‘I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

Faith in Madiba and democratic principles delivered us from the evil of a civil war. Pride in our constitution reflects a shared belief in moral principles. Designing a successful economy is a different type of exercise. 

Unresolved

While it was never clear how, and to what extent, our black and white cultures should be rapidly blended, there was a broad acceptance of the need to redress historical inequities through redistribution. But how, and to what extent, the inherent tradeoffs between redistribution and growth should be managed has also remained unresolved.

What is clear, thirty years after the referendum supporting a new constitution, is that a majority of black South Africans are condemned to live in poverty. Rather than even considering pivoting policies to unlock high growth prospects, the ANC now frames its debating of subsistence payments for the majority of young South African adults who are unemployed as moral-versus-fiscal tradeoffs. The big picture is that a moral imperative to benefit the poor was repurposed by ANC elites into a patronage feeding trough. 

Given the country’s perilous economic trajectory, there can be no excuse for continuing to have anti-competitive policies, such as BEE requirements, blocking development of value-adding export channels. Economic success today requires having a significant portion of young adults adding value to global supply chains which provide goods and services for affluent consumers.

Unless we include international tourism, South Africa’s participation is remarkably meagre in this era’s primary upliftment escalator. DTI’s recent ‘localisation’ initiative doubles down on the ANC’s prioritising patronage while evidencing disinterest in pursuing Mandela’s courtroom plea for ‘equal opportunity’ – which echoed globally for decades among those protesting for his release.

The president of a democracy formed in the 1990s has stood up to a patronage-reliant regime which has exploited those who were far too willing to err on the side of imprudently indulging cherished values. He has put his life on the line and countries across the East and West have rapidly responded by pivoting toward more realistically balanced policies.

Invaded

His country is being invaded because his people want the freedoms Mandela’s 1964 speech alludes to and which our constitution is intended to protect and advance. The Ukrainian people are fully committed to integrating into the rules-based global economy – which the ANC aloofly criticises. Ukraine’s democracy threatens its neighbour’s despotic regime by reminding ordinary Russians that their freedoms and opportunities are restricted to benefit oligarchs.

Self-driving vehicles might soon offer journeys between places as special, and distant, as the southern tip of Africa and Kiev. For SA to reach the destination implied by the 1990s political transition, we need to appreciate that the courage to pursue freedom against great obstacles must be accompanied by a sober appreciation of why some countries create great wealth while others squander theirs.

In today’s highly digitised integrated global economy, physical factors, like distance from the world’s great wealth-creating clusters, is not what limits us. The ANC’s inward-focused policies are as toxic to our prospects as the international sanctions are to Russia’s economy. 

[Image: https://pixabay.com/vectors/brain-ai-artificial-intelligence-4863428/]

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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Shawn Hagedorn worked in banking, finance and capital markets in New York City and London before emigrating to South Africa. He holds degrees in finance, economics, and international business and his writing has appeared in a number of publications including Business Day, Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, and Politicsweb, amongst others.