The commitment of many leading media organisations and universities, locally and internationally, to objectively scrutinise events has been corrupted by pervasive ‘knowledge provocateurs’.

The assertion that trust has been ‘corrupted’ has an alluring quality that promises an emotional payoff – few emotions are as fervent as betrayal, particularly in SA today. ‘Knowledge provocateur’ is also a loaded term that creates expectations that evil-doers will be unmasked. Such stirring-emotions-and-vilifying formulas are effective for the wrong reasons.

Whereas societies that are quick to judge are easily manipulated, objectively constructed, fact-based critiques are central to creating a solutions-oriented national dialogue. The first line above, and the headline before it, seek to mimic – half-mockingly – articles that follow an emotion-provoking formula. As a counterpoint, the argument below attempts to dispassionately unpack why such formulas are toxic to SA’s progress.

As the internet is not a physical newspaper with a meagre selection of articles, online news publishers often compete for readers’ attention by weaving into their articles a compelling emotional experience. Objectively reporting developments is dialled down to favour criticising them. Readers are steered away from learning toward judging. A media company’s brand is then built around confirming the biases common among its collection of viewers. This provokes partisan reporting, polarisation and often political paralysis. 

The recent BRICS summit tested the willingness of democratic societies to tolerate unsupportable claims if they are packaged within alleged pro-justice narratives, such as de-dollarisation. This fits the broad trend of defocusing on workable solutions to prioritise present and past injustices. We have seen that such tolerances are high but that some healthy scepticism remains.

Judging others is probably less fulfilling than being well informed but it requires vastly less effort. Also, judging is frequently accompanied by the socially satisfying adoption of vantage points shared by like-minded others. But the costs become excessive; democracies and international forums are created to balance the interests of disparate groups, not disparage them.

Epiphany-inspired pivot

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused Western governments to snap out of a complacency inspired by delusions. Without a similar epiphany-inspired pivot by leading information curators and their audiences, it will become ever more difficult to reverse SA’s grim trajectory. Recent BRICS rhetoric challenges such hopes.

Notwithstanding the world’s capacity to gather and manage data having expanded exponentially, the Covid pandemic exposed the modest capacities of contemporary societies to make evidence-based decisions. As this era’s political cultures indulge judging others to the detriment of focusing on solutions, they are less effective at balancing complicated tradeoffs, such as between saving seniors and child development. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been no less revealing. Europe’s largest economy, Germany, showed that long-standing political complacency – induced by ideals and dismissive of facts spotlighting risks – could be overcome. 

Judging over solving

SA’s prominence on the global stage was provoked by apartheid which, in hindsight, resembled a gateway drug to judging – with little fear of intellectual retribution, particularly internationally. The 1994 celebrations produced a high whose lingering after-effects still favour judging over solving, notwithstanding this country’s economic malaise. The Mandela-effect had shielded the ANC until the Gupta emails helped to trigger a rehabilitation effort. Much coverage of the BRICS summit evidences the relapse which followed. 

Today’s managers of information gateways project an image of being wise arbiters of fairness. Meanwhile, they show little interest in the messy business of solutions – or even in acknowledging the need to prioritise challenges or manage trade-offs with compromises. In this important sense, they are kindred souls with the ANC.

Just as politicians in commercially robust countries, such as China or Germany, must now acknowledge the harms caused by their reluctance to restructure their economies, global and domestic opinion-setters should be recognising that they have prioritised criticising injustices to the point of causing great harm. Nothing epitomises such harmful overindulging more than how racial inequality has been exploited in SA to mask the creation of a metastasising patronage network.

The father of China’s economic miracle, Deng Xiaopeng, famously said, ‘Let some people get rich first.’ Today, China’s per capita income is 25 times greater than it was when he came into power. At that time, nearly 90% of Chinese were extremely poor versus less than 1% now.

South Africa is on track to remain the country with the world’s highest income inequality for decades – we are in the pole position and no country has a youth unemployment crisis as severe as ours. Over 70% of our young jobseekers persistently fail and the closest thing any of our leaders has to a plan is the hope that sub-subsistence payments can be funded in perpetuity.

Our inequality is a statistical side-effect of persistently high unemployment and poverty. The core problem is that, as our political discourse ping-pongs from judging inequality to lambasting corruption, it fails to acknowledge how fundamentally misconceived our economy is. 

Broad prosperity

A path for African countries to achieve broad prosperity is taking shape and it is unrelated to any of the feeble plans promoted by our public or private sector leaders. It doesn’t rely on BRICS, investment-led growth, political renewal or a prolonged upward swing in commodity prices. 

Companies like Amazon and Cisco seek to train and hire young South Africans for commercial reasons driven by the entrenched geographic mismatch between the supply of, and demand for, young workers. There is a dearth of new entrants entering the workforces in many nations – particularly in wealthy Western nations – whereas Africa is home to a massive oversupply of underutilised young workers.

An alternative reality is projected by the BRICS promoters who tout Africa’s potential not in terms of its people, but rather by emphasising the continent’s consumption prospects based on purchasing power parity. Such metrics increase income estimates for Africa’s per capita GDP from about $2 100 to $6 300. But the emerging economies that have sustained high growth, such as China, have added value to exports destined for countries with high discretionary purchasing power. Otherwise, both revenues and margins will be insufficient.

Measuring incomes using purchasing power parity metrics is misleading for assessing international trade prospects as cross border transactions are settled using prevailing exchange rates. With just over $2 000 in total income, it is also misleading to suggest that the average African has meaningful discretionary income. This is a crucial consideration in that trading in staples typically involves meagre margins, particularly compared to high-end products and services. Also, the low value of food staples relative to their bulk and weight means transport costs rapidly erode already narrow profit margins.

A simple proxy for estimating a region’s discretionary income is its portion of the world’s individuals with a net worth exceeding a million dollars. Whereas North America and Europe account for over two-thirds of the total, Africa’s share is well shy of one percent. Thus, the potential for African development through trading with the West is probably a hundred times greater than intraregional trade in Africa – even before technology transfers are considered. Neither anti-Western BRICS promoters, nor today’s influential knowledge provocateurs, show any interest in acknowledging this.

Our political economy was denied access to the up-escalator of value-added exporting during the sanctions era and our patronage-focused post-1994 regime rejects this high-volume upliftment path, resulting in localisation-induced economic decline.

The compounding damage has been far too severe to be remedied by relying on domestic or regional demand plus some commodity exporting. It doesn’t suit pro-autocrat BRICS participants, particularly China’s leaders, to acknowledge these core economic realities and they are able to spur prominent domestic and international voices to echo their spurious talking points. 

Demographic trends

Due to the most formidable economic forces being demographic trends and technological innovation, the new cold war will not reverse globalisation but rather reconfigure it. As the largest concentration of under-utilised young workers were in Asia when the first cold war ended, this helped set the stage for the world-changing rise of Asia. How will this country and region respond to today’s similarly advantageous set of circumstances?

The service sector globally outpaces manufacturing at job creation by about 20-to-1 and many of the new jobs can be done remotely. Many emerging service-sector jobs require high academic qualifications while other positions require people skills or an ability to endure much tedium.

Despite South Africa’s perilous trajectory, a rush to judge sidelines debates about realistic solutions. Meanwhile, BRICS voices promote authoritarian interests by weaving dodgy economic propositions into a pitch for a multipolar world. We need more and better scrutiny.

[Image: Gino Crescoli from Pixabay]

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

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For 20 years, Shawn Hagedorn has been regularly writing articles in leading SA publications, focusing primarily on economic development. For over two years, he wrote a biweekly column titled “Myths and Misunderstandings” without ever lacking subject material. Visit, and follow him on Twitter @shawnhagedorn