competing predictions about the future

Professor Robert Thornton (031RTHOR@MUSE.ARTS.WITS.AC.ZA)
Wed, 3 May 1995 04:12:52 -0400

One list member wrote the following. I don't have his name here now.

> I am a postgrad student, researching social movements. I want to
> look into examples like the one above so that I can examine the
> notion that bureaucracies are superior producers and consumers
> of technical rationality.
It seems to me, from the South AFrican side, that the predicions
about South Africa made by a vast range of political parties,
governments, individual experts, and social movements were wrong by a
long shot. It is by now obvious tht the bloodbath that everyone
predicted, and that some people fervently desired, has not come to
pass. ( I remember the egregious Mr. Robert
Johnson here)

In fact, I have argued in an Anthropology Today article (December
1994) that the vision and fear of political apocalypse is actually a
regular and long standing feature of Southern AFrican political
culture, but not its practice. As Max Gluckman pointed out long
ago, the processes of conflict in South Africa actually generate a
paradoxical social solidarity. After Glckman left South Africa for
Manchester, and founded a sort of School there, he generalised this
principle of southern African politics in\to a general theory of
social organisation. _Custom and Conflict in Africa_ (MUP, 1955),
_Order and REbellion in Tribal Africa_ (Freepress 1963), and others
are really restatements in theoretical terms of what 'everyone
knows' -- implicitly and never explicitly -- in SA itself. One of
the most earliest and most amusing example of this is the diary of
CAptain James Cook who landed in Cape Town on his way to Hawaii
(although he did not know that was where he was going then, or that
he would not be passing through lovely Cape Town again). When he
was there for a couple of weeks of provisioning, he commented that
the society had only twenty years to live! Now that was in 1789,
or thereabouts, and in 1989 when I read his comment, it did look
like he had just missed his guess by a factor factor of 10. Of
course, he just missed his guess entirely. The remarkable thing
about South Africa, of course, is that it has had every reason to
self destruct ever since then, and for quite ahile before then, but
it did not do so 20 years after Cook, nor 200+ years after Cook, nor
at anytime in between. In effect, the vision of apocalypse is a
political vision, it is not a reality, in part perhaps because the
power of the vision is itself so great that it enforces -- often at
the last moment, and only just enough'-- a resolution ot most
conflicts before they become comepletely unmanageable. There are
many reasons why this is so (see my ANthropollogy Today article for
some), but fundamentally the predictions that we are concerned with
here have been based not on a practical reality that has ever been
adequately researched (though Gluckman did discover some of the
roots of it and its fundamental dynamics), but rather on an
appropriration of a 'native model' of apocalyptic redemption that
has characterised southern African politics for some time. It has
been appropriated and amplified by emancipationists and reformists
connnected withthe British Reform Bill movements, anti-slavery
societies, and with the AMerican Civil war, by missionaries like
David Livingstone in his power struggle with the Boere, by the
British Imperialists (Milner, Kitchener) and Colonialists (like
Cecil John Rhodes) who wished to foment the ANglo- Boer WAr (which
Hobson and Lenin took to be the canonical example of the Imperialist
war), and eventually by the African National Congress, the Natal
Indian Congress (Ghandi's party -- he took the idea and the name,
borrowed from the ANC as the "Congress Party" to India where it
still famously exists) and teh Anti-Apartheid movements overseas and
inside SA. This is a pretty wide spread for any 'native model' --
into formal disciplines and into some of the chief movements of the
twentieth century that make us what we are today. The native model
of apocalypse, however, was not a political analysis, but, in
effect, a shot at secular redemption -- a belief that the cleansing
in blood would heal the wounds of the past and make the
dreamed-about unified nation of South Africa a reality. Well, unity
hasn't really happened -- perhaps we do need to be washed in blood
for that to happen -- but unity is almost always oppressive in the
extreme, even though in politico-religious belief systems, it is
often taken as the equivalent of utopia, secular redemption, and the
unification with the (political) godhead. South AFrica's current
transition (as we call it) No one is foolish enough to call it a
revolution, even a velvet one, and never a bloodless one since
there has been plenty of blood spilled in 'useless' --as it now
seems and as it described in all our newspapers and media in SA
today -- violence. There are example of transcendent heroic
violence, but curiously, these are not people who died fighting, but
who were assassinated or killed mysteriously because they were
willing to fight: Chris Hani, DAvid Webster, Steve Biko among many
others. I agree with the original poster that prediction is often
the core of social movements. He must be aware of what the AMerican
sect, the SEventh Day Adventists, call the GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT,
thta is, the day the world failed to end as predicted. Somehow they
poor followers picked themselves up after the great end failed to
materialise (or dematerialise?) and managed to have a respectable
movement even so. So the failure of prediction is not their end.
Notably,the of communism for so many in this centruy was not what
it did in the present, but what it predicted for the future. It is
only when the future finally 'came' as it were, that communism
failed. In other words, the final cashing-in of the political IOUs
that communism sustained itself with came as a rush on the bank of
political faith that sustained the system and when that stock fell,
the whole system fell. Apartheid fell in much the same way, and for
much the same reasons. The world-wide political events of 1989
including the end of Communism and Apartheid were all linked, I
believe, to a collapse of faith in the future that sustained them
both as long as the promised future could be put off indefinitely.
The end of the Modern, in effect, brought the future to the present,
and there was no 'money' --that is no political value, faith or
'power' -- left in the indeological bank. Any study of the failure
of prediction in social movelments must surely take these grand
failures into account. It seems to me further that the 'hypothesis'
that bureacracies are 'better' users of rationality derives from
precisely the same promises that Communism, Fascism in Europe and
Apartheid in SA offered to the 'common man' anmely that the State
would take care of him, and least 'in the future' since that is when
the payoff from state implemnted rationality was meant to come
about. The world-wide ecological and Green politics is still
oriented towards a future, but it is the inversion of the Communist.
Fascist and Apparteid futres. It is not a utopia for the chosen
but a dystopia for all. Paradoxicallyu, the present is held up in
the post- modern to be the salvation, and the future is the Fall.
What rude beast slouches towards Bethlehem to be born!? -r.

=====Professor Robert Thornton, Department of Social Anthropology====
University of the Witwatersrand, PO Wits, 2050 Johannesburg
South Africa
Office tel. : (011) 716-2900
Secretary, fax and answering machine: (011) 716-2766
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