When it first appeared in 2006, Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret swept the publishing world. It has since gone on to sell some 30 million copies, and has been translated into fifty languages. 

It’s no surprise celebrity talk-show host Oprah Winfrey featured the book on her show. But a little-known fact about The Secret is that it is used by the ANC as a manual for policy-making.

Byrne’s self-help book argues that the secret to getting what you want is tapping into the universal ‘law of attraction’: if you really want something, all you have to do is think about it with as much emotion as you can, and you can be sure it will somehow come true, as the universe will reward your passion. 

You want to go on holiday to New York next year? Don’t worry about saving for the trip, just will it, and somehow the trip will materialise. The same goes for wanting a new car or a new house or a better job, The Secret would have you believe. No need to worry about actually working towards the goal.

Of course, this is new age fluff and nobody believes that you get what you want without working towards it, and putting the plans in place to reach that goal. This isn’t to say it’s not useful to visualise one’s goal, but that’s no way of securing it. Successful sportsmen will tell you that visualisation is part of their preparation before a match, but they will also stress that this goes hand-in-hand with years of training, practice and hard work. Daydreaming is never enough.  

Unfortunately, however, it seems that the ANC government believes that it can use this technique of magical thinking to reach its goals, and not put anything in place to actually make these dreams a reality.

This is the only conclusion one can draw from reflecting on some developments of the past few weeks.

First, consider the NHI Bill. 

It was recently passed by the National Assembly and has now gone to the National Council of Provinces for further consideration, which will include public hearings.

Much has been made about the fact that the NHI in its current format is simply unaffordable. Health minister Joe Phaahla and the senior official in the Department of Health who is responsible for the NHI, Nicholas Crisp, have waved away concerns about how South Africa will be able to afford this reorganisation of its health system. Taxes, whether consumption taxes like VAT or income taxes, will be raised, say Phaahla and Crisp, seemingly believing that South Africans are simply money cows capable of being milked into perpetuity.

But the estimates about how much tax would need to be raised make NHI a non-starter. Some estimates say that personal income tax collections will need to go up by about 33%. This is almost impossible, given the current economic environment and how taxpayers – whether they pay only consumption taxes or those and incomes taxes – are already being squeezed for every cent.  

A wide range of institutions, from the Institute of Race Relations, the trade union Solidarity, business advocacy group Business Leadership South Africa and the Medical Association of South Africa to the National treasury itself, have warned that NHI is financially completely out of reach. Even if the country could pay for it, it’s questionable whether the system, as it is currently designed, is even desirable or workable for South Africa.

But this does not seem to bother the apparatchiks in the South African government, who have succumbed to magical thinking, and seem to believe that if they envisage the NHI it will simply happen.

Alas, this is not the only area in which the government is beholden to magical thinking. 

Its track record on black economic empowerment (BEE) is similar. This is even more so following the new Employment Equity Amendment Act (EEAA), which seeks to impose racial quotas on private companies.

The government seems to believe that just through legislation it will manage to ensure that the economy will become more inclusive. Instead of doing the hard work of creating an environment which sees jobs be created, business formed, and value emerge, the government continues to put forward laws which make these things harder. Infrastructure needs to be built and maintained, policing must be efficient, and education must prepare people for the world of work and tertiary education for a country to have a sustainable and growing economy. But this is hard. Far easier to simply envisage a South Africa as you would like it rather than do the work which builds the South Africa you want.

The recent travails of the South African peace mission to Eastern Europe is another example of this magical thinking. While there is still some debate over what exactly caused a South African plane to be detained in Warsaw and its passengers prevented from leaving, at least some of it seems to be because South African officials did not follow the correct procedures, especially considering there were reportedly weapons on the plane.

Not following the correct procedures and seemingly believing that this would not be a problem for the Polish authorities is another form of magical thinking. It appears that it was believed that a solution would present itself, without doing the work to ensure that a solution would, indeed, appear. 

It’s time for the magical thinking to end and the hard work to begin.

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Marius Roodt is currently deputy editor of the Daily Friend and also consults on IRR campaigns. This is his second stint at the Institute, having returned after spells working at the Centre for Development and Enterprise and a Johannesburg-based management consultancy. He has also previously worked as a journalist, an analyst for a number of foreign governments, and spent most of 2005 and 2006 driving a scooter around London. Roodt holds an honours degree from the Rand Afrikaans University (now the University of Johannesburg) and an MA in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand.