Reader Blog
Reader Blog

Dinokeng scenario points to truth of Blindness

By Coenraad Bezuidenhout

Let me explain …

The Dinokeng study, launched last month, suggests three scenarios for a South Africa of 2020. Together, these three imagined futures gesture that an engaged citizenry will be key to ensure a South Africa that shows sustainable progress through an effective state.

We are fresh out of an election in which voter turnout impressed suitably — not that it has ever been much of a problem in the democratic South Africa — but the truth is that between elections, things do fall apart somewhat. If the Dinokeng exercise is correct, then the answer to this problem would be a national civil consciousness that is more independent of politics.

Over the years, there may have been various consciousness groups that have emerged on the basis of some sort of ascribed identity, but we have little in our history that points to a culture of a truly national South African civil consciousness. The nearest that we may have ever come to this ideal, was the United Democratic Front of the eighties, which encompassed a myriad of resistance campaigns across political boundaries, against the minority government of the day.

Today, the most vocal civil groupings, such as the broader labour movement, the South African National Civics Organisation and even the Treatment Action Campaign, are all very closely aligned to the ruling party. This is indicative of a citizenry which has become relatively compliant and dependent on the government of the day.

One of the scenarios portrayed by the Dinokeng effort, entitled “Walk Behind”, speculates about what we can expect, should this situation consolidate towards 2020. It imagines a situation that strongly resembles the direction in which the state has been restructured. This is a government that:

• Assumes both the role of leadership and management;
• Sees state planning and co-ordination as key mechanisms for the acceleration of development and service delivery; and,
• Propagates far-reaching interventions in the economy in line with international trends, to a voter corps that willingly accedes with a strong political mandate out of fear for the consequences of the international economic crisis.

Recent changes to the cabinet structure show that under President Jacob Zuma the developmental push will intensify and once again include the sectors where business wants to flourish. The functions of economic planning, state planning and co-ordination has been politicised to new levels by housing them in specific ministries. This may well facilitate better political oversight as long as Parliament stands strong, but it may also create a comfort zone that may paralyse active civil oversight over executive action even further.

The Dinokeng-team foresees that civil society and private enterprise will lose significant initiative, should we not be alert to the risks inherent to this developmental path. These risks include that South Africa will accumulate debt to unsustainable levels and that the state may possibly become more autocratic over time. The desire to improve service delivery through a better capacitated state is not being criticised here. The message is merely that if we want to avert the risks associated with the developmental state, it should be partnered with a civil society that is equally involved in its oversight of government action.

The question of the importance of civil involvement as Dinokeng emphasises it is not something new, will not go away soon and is also not particular to South Africa. It has even found a place in popular culture. It features prominently, for example, in the films of the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelle. He has already proved his knack for stringing together engrossing human tales with sucker punch civil conscious underbellies for the silver screen. Commendable efforts such as City of God and The Constant Gardner attest to this. But it is his latest effort, Blindness, which recently premiered here just more than a year after it was first shown at the Cannes Film festival, which best portrays that which the “Walk Behind” scenario warns against.

Blindness is based on a book of the same name by Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago. It tells the story of a nameless society that is suddenly plagued by an inexplicable epidemic of white blindness. Like in the book, the white blindness manifests in the film much like white noise is used in our everyday lives. It arrives like a siren to sow panic and initially disorientates the citizens of the anonymous city just as white noise is used to make prisoners more vulnerable and apathetic before a brutal interrogation. While the omnipotent government flounders, the viewer realises that this is a story about precisely the type of compliant and dependent citizenry depicted by “Walk Behind”, which now has to make sense of a crisis that is bigger than the prescriptive and interventionist state in whose hands they have entrusted their destiny exclusively up till now.

Horrible events are triggered, but soon the human condition is put front and centre as the protagonist in the story — the wife (played by Julianne Moore) of the ophthalmologist who treated the first victim of the white blindness, and who is also the only person resistant to the white blindness — steps forward. Her challenge? That she must shrug off the isolation and ignorance of the urban reality to which she was used to in order to lead to safety the impromptu family of defenceless people that form around her and her husband.

In this process, the white blindness recedes to little more than a sibilant nuisance — much like is found in open-plan offices to ensure that work talk amongst colleagues is clear, but subdued enough not to interrupt the concentration of others. The white blindness is therefore literally employed like white noise in order to lay bear that small thing — the isolation and ignorance that is so much a part of our daily live — that points to our broader unawareness about the societies we live in.

Blindness, like Dinokeng, asks us to let go of this lack of awareness and to empower ourselves about the decisions that affect us in our communities. It asks us to not only entrust our futures to the state and to political parties. It enjoins us to organise ourselves sufficiently in the various sectors where we are active at grassroots level so that we can cut through the beaurocratic and political noise when it is necessary, to reveal the insights and truths that may not be allowed to be undermined by the quest for popularity and power.

Coenraad has a master’s degree in South African politics and political economy. He currently heads the Business Parliamentary Office. He writes in his personal capacity. The Dinokeng Scenarios can be viewed at