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What SA could learn from Israel

OPINION: Mike Berger says SA is lagging far behind Israel – the state that ANC activists love to hate…

On the 13 June Faiez Jacobs (Secretary for the ANC, Western Cape) published an unusually cynical letter (DA seems to be dependent on funds from Israel) in the Cape Times, even for the infallibly low-scoring ANC. Considering that Muslims outnumber Jews in the Western Cape at least 20-fold it should be obvious that simple mathematics, both financial and demographic, dictates that the DA would pursue the Muslim vote if short-term party politics was their only motivation.

The probable explanation for them attending the Israeli-sponsored “water event” is simpler: despite the predictable political fall-out the DA prefers to learn something to South Africa’s advantage than play to the populist chorus so ably represented by Jacobs. Sadly for the ANC, the peoples of the Western Cape seem to reliably choose honest and competent governance over the tired “outrage and grievance” diet of the ANC.

But I am not really interested in the DA’s motivations and Israel has long since accepted that, officially at least, ANC-led South Africa is committed to its inveterate preference for failed, dysfunctional and often outrightly totalitarian states so long as they are nominally opposed to “Western imperialism and capitalism”.

In the meantime, unofficially, the ANC and many of its constituents are avid consumers of the products of the same Western culture that they denigrate and should, heaven forbid, they need to immigrate or obtain top-flight medical care elsewhere than South Africa, one can be sure that the vast majority will not be looking to Iran, Cuba or North Korea, so beloved by the ANC propagandists.

Nevertheless, since Mr Jacobs could not resist the temptation to cynically exploit Israel for purposes of garnering a few votes from the more extreme fringes of the local Muslim community, I would like to explicitly contrast ANC-led South Africa with Israel and draw some important conclusions pertinent to the crossroads SA is now confronting.

I say “ANC-led” SA very deliberately, since the thesis of this article is that SA is much better than the ANC and, that if our electorate would only find the resolve to rid themselves of the ANC political albatross, we could also achieve the standard of living, education, quality of life and democratic freedoms enjoyed by Israelis – Jews and Muslim alike. It is to the DA’s credit that in the Western Cape where it holds power it is trying to do just that against a backdrop of ideological and physical sabotage.

I’ll start by contrasting South Africa and Israel on a number of well-established indices of accomplishment published by reputable international organisations.

To start with health, Israel is ranked by the WHO at 9th in the world (2013) while South Africa is ranked 167. This translates into an Israeli life expectancy of 80.5 years for men and 84.5 years for women. The corresponding South African figures are 57 years and 63.6 years. Some additional information is enlightening. South Africa ranks number2 in the world for drug use, 4th for HIV/Aids and 14th for violence. Israel ranks 92, 132 and 132 for these indices of social dysfunction, despite being afflicted with cross-border and occasional internal terror.

Perhaps that is because Israel is a totalitarian state ruthlessly suppressing any dissent within its borders – like Jacobs’ preferred state, Iran. But no, that does not appear to be the case either. In fact Israel just shades South Africa in the freedom and democracy stakes according to Freedom House. Israel has a global score of 80 compared with South Africa’s 79. Revealingly Israel’s governance is scored at 10/12 while SA is 9/12. Rule of law: Israel 11/16 and SA 9/16.

Hmm, that’s not that you expected from our media narrative is it? Well what about “Happiness”, a big global index that takes into account the subjective feelings of satisfaction in the population as well as measures of equality, absence of corruption, security and other measures of welfare and quality of life. Here are the numbers: Israel is ranked 11th in the world while SA is ranked 116. Bear in mind that all these indices apply to the totality of the Israeli population and that the 20% Arab-Muslim component is close to the Jewish majority on most of them and better than the Jewish population on some.

In reflecting on these data it is worth pointing out that Israel occupies one sixtieth of the land surface area of South Africa, one half of which is classified as seriously arid merging into frank desert. At birth, nearly 70 years ago, it had no natural resources, a tiny mainly Jewish, deeply scarred population who had just suffered the Holocaust resulting in the death of a third of Europe’s Jewish population and faced the immediate overt hostility of its neighbours. Given Israel’s hard-won qualitative military superiority, this struggle continues but is now carried on mainly in the economic and diplomatic fields punctuated by interludes of terror and on-going incitement.

These facts are well-known to any literate and informed person, which undoubtedly includes Mr Jacobs. The rote response, faced with such hard evidence, is to switch the debate to “the occupation”. Take away “the occupation”, so the sub-text goes, Israel is possibly, just possibly, fit to be admitted to the family of nations. This tack is riddled with hypocrisy and incoherence. To save time I’ll just take two points:

Firstly, any reading of the media over past decades shows that anti-Israel activists switch seamlessly, whenever an opportunity presents, from attacks on “the occupation” to assaults on the moral bona fides and legitimacy of Israel proper. In short, any stick is acceptable to beat Israel with. The only constant is envy and hatred of the Jewish state with “the occupation” simply serving as a negative brand and red herring.

The most important reason why “the occupation” still exists has very little to do with Israel but a great deal to do with the bankrupt culture and politics among the Palestinians themselves; a political culture which is shared with their neighbours.

Secondly, Israel is not simply another state; it is a quite remarkable nation maintaining the rule of law, a vigorously democratic polity and a technological, economic and cultural edge despite its own multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, religiously diverse population and location in a region awash in anarchic religious extremism, fascist and authoritarian governments and dysfunctional states.

It is thus compelled to devote considerable resources to what is euphemistically called “security needs” but, more realistically, means physical survival. Given its origins and context, its achievements are arguably unparalleled and constitute an object lesson in the importance of culture in the success and failure of nations.

And here we get to the nub. The point of this comparison is not to trash SA further. It has had enough of unproductive self-denigration and more than enough of the “injury and grievance” industry used to further inflame racial divides and the ANC’s dead hand on power. It is more profitable to ask why Israel and SA should find themselves so far apart on the spectrum of national success and failure?

To take this a step further I will use a point made by the most penetrating and articulate young South African I have heard in recent years, Mr Vusi Thembekwayo. In a recent appearance on Cape Talk Radio the thrust of his argument was that “the youth of SA are bigger and better” than the violent destructive protest politics which is rapidly becoming the favoured mode of political expression in this country.

They are bigger and better than the tribal and corrupt politics of the ANC. They are better than a politics which clothes itself in a narrative of “outrage and grievance”, tarted up in the fashionable memes of ” victim” and “oppressor”; a political culture which taps into reductionist and inflamed notions of identity and shame, a mindset hopelessly addicted to the psychological gratifications provided by a mythologised past and an inexhaustible sense of historical injustice which can only be remedied by the constant shaming and humiliation of the “oppressor”. Finally, we are better than implied by a politics which chooses perpetual failure over the assumption of personal responsibility entailed by a future-orientated vision.

The crossroads at which we stand is clearly marked. On the one hand is the narrative, (political culture – call it what you will) of “losers” in the real world. It is seen revealed in the floods of migrants from the MENA region to the “hated” and despised West, the abysmal state of sub-Saharan Africa and the violent and nihilistic protest politics of a considerable portion of the South African electorate, despite possessing the tools of a constitutional democracy which have been placed in their hands. It is also the subtext of Jacobs’ letter and will bring the same disastrous outcome here as it has everywhere it thrives.

On the other hand is the future-orientated, pragmatically ambitious leadership which has driven the Zionist enterprise and which, in large measure, accounts for the success of Israel today. Israel uses its past not to claim the status of perpetual victim but to drive home the message “never again”. It uses its history to strive, within the real world, for a better future based on its own efforts and alliances.

Its efforts are devoted to ensuring the success and safety of its population while remaining within the envelope of Western values and democratic norms, not simply based on the self-serving notions of “revolutionary virtue” which permeates Jacobs’ letter but because this culture has proven its value in the real world.

I love this country and believe it has the seeds of greatness. I believe we have chosen a leadership which presents our worst features to ourselves and the world. But we need to free ourselves of the ANC-albatross before an irreparable injury has been inflicted on the body politic of this country. The entrenched attitudes revealed by Jacobs’ letter and by recent events suggest the road ahead is likely to be exceptionally precarious.

We need a leadership that will call South Africans to their best potential within the constraints and challenges of a complex world. We need our people, especially within our educated elites, to transcend their narrow ideological trenches and to embrace the full reality of SA in all its pain, ambiguities and possibilities. Jacobs and the ANC are also part of this struggle. Are they to continue on their current dead-end path or can they too find inspiration and resolve in the best of their history and leadership?

Oh yes, before we end: Israel’s gross per capita income is $35 320 and SA’s is $6 800 (World Bank). Israel’s global innovation rank according to Bloomberg is 5th; SA’s is 49th. We can and must do better. It is within our hands.

This article appeared on PoliticsWeb on 28 June 2016.

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