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Lessons from the Mont Fleur Scenarios: Moving beyond stone-throwing politics

Akanimo Akpan
June, 2024

Drawing from the Mont Fleur Scenarios, this article explores how to move beyond "stone-throwing politics" in South Africa, by embracing collaboration, conflict, diverse perspectives, and experimental approaches for a transformative future. 

By Akanimo Akpan

In the midst of growing polarisation, and the threat of electoral violence in South Africa, I call on South African leaders and citizens to move away from divisive politics towards an inclusive, robust and transformative polity.

In this article, I draw lessons from the Mont Fleur Scenarios — a multi-stakeholder process in 1991 and 1992 where diverse entities met to imagine possible futures for South Africa and how a transition might occur — to proffer four lessons in the lead-up to the 2024 general elections in South Africa. 

A question on the minds of many recently has been whether the recent signing of the NHI bill by President Cyril Ramphosa is an election ploy to sway voters in favour of the governing party. Many detractors of the bill point to the fact that the government cannot be trusted to implement such a bill amid growing corruption and the failing of state-owned enterprises. Others point to the fact that the government does not have the money to fund the NHI — a concern that is reminiscent of the “Icarus scenario” of the Mont Fleur Scenarios

The Icarus Scenario outlined a transition in which an incoming democratic government attempts to address inequities in public spending too quickly, draining the fiscus and bankrupting the country, symbolised by the Greek myth of Icarus. Icarus tried to escape from Crete on wings of wax and feathers but flew so high that they melted from the heat of the sun and he plunged to his death.   

NHI sharply highlights the divisions and the palpable tension in the country, fuelled by frustration over problems such as the lack of jobs, public safety, and general basic services. These divisions and tensions raise concerns about possible violence during the elections.

It was reported by the SABC News on 20 May that two people, including a nine-year-old child, were shot during the ANC’s and Economic Freedom Fighters’s (EFF) electioneering campaigns in Seshego, Limpopo. “Police spokesperson Hlulani Mashaba says several other people were wounded when members of the two parties threw stones at each other,” the report said.

As the country counts down to the 29 May elections, we can prevent “stone-throwing politics” by drawing on four important lessons from the Mont Fleur Scenarios.   

The Mont Fleur scenario exercise brought together a group of diverse stakeholders, including political parties, civic organisations, professional bodies, government departments, trade unions, and business groups. 

The goal was to imagine what South Africa might be like in 2002. Many of the participants had very different projections of what the new South Africa might look like after the release of Nelson Mandela and the first democratic elections. There was public antipathy between some of the stakeholders but, through a carefully facilitated dialogue process, they co-created four plausible scenarios for possible futures.

They were titled Ostrich, Lame Duck, Icarus and Flight of the Flamingos and were originally published in The Weekly Mail & The Guardian in July 1992. A quick summary of the scenarios as put forward by Beery et al. is as follows:  

  • Ostrich, in which a negotiated settlement to the crisis in South Africa is not achieved and the country’s government continues to be non-representative;
  • Lame Duck, in which a settlement is achieved but the transition to a new dispensation is slow and indecisive;
  • Icarus, in which transition is rapid but the new government unwisely pursues unsustainable, populist economic policies; and
  • Flight of the Flamingos, in which the government’s policies are sustainable and the country takes a path of inclusive growth and democracy.  

These stories played some role in creating a shared narrative and understanding among very different actors of what could happen without the prescription of concrete solutions. 

More than three decades after the exercise, there will be no consensus on which scenario has played out during this time but such an agreement is not necessary. However, the circumstances that birthed these scenarios offer timely lessons for today. 

I distill from this exercise four lessons that could shape the country’s current and future polity. 

1. Collaborate with the enemy

The Ostrich Scenario was necessitated by the fact that “elements of the National Party (NP) government and the business community wished to believe that a deal with their allies, instead of a negotiation with their opponents, could be sufficient.” (Beery, et al., n.d.) 

Wherever one’s ideological or political commitment lies, it is clear that no one sector, political party or single institution has the answer to the complex challenges that face the country. Friends and allies who see and think alike cannot bring about the needed transformation that puts the country’s people at the center. To move the country forward, friends and enemies must collaborate. 

The facilitator of the Mont Fleur Scenarios, Adam Kahane, who later became one of the co-founders of Reos Partners, advocates for what he calls Stretch Collaboration in his book Collaborating with the Enemy

At least in some quarters, there is recognition that no one party has the solutions. According to a report in Business Day on 12 May 2024, in a recent campaign trail speech, former president Thabo Mbeki acknowledged that the governing ANC does not have the answers to all of the country’s problems and called for a national dialogue after the elections. 

If we decide to bury our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, then we ignore what is evident and in front of us — that the adversarial and winner-takes-all politics we have inherited as features of majoritarian democracy cannot take us out of our national and Africa-wide quagmire.  

2. Embrace conflict and connection

Working with the enemy does not mean abandoning our ideological commitments and becoming friends. The Lame Duck’s Scenario “was that a weak coalition government would not be able to deliver and therefore could not last”. 

“This was important because the nature, composition and rules governing the Government of National Unity (GNU) were a central issue in the pre-election negotiations. The NP wanted the GNU to operate subject to vetoes and other restrictions, and the ANC wanted unfettered ‘winner-takes-all’ rules. Lame Duck explored the boundary in a GNU between compromise and incapacitation.” (Beery, et al., n.d.)

Coalition politics is no longer a future scenario, it has become a feature of politics in South Africa, at least at the local level. 

Many opinion polls, such as the recent one by eNCA, put ANC’s support in the elections at around 40% which will mean they will lack a clear majority to form a government on their own. This could be the first time coalitions are formed at national and local levels. 

Many political parties would prefer a clear mandate to form and run the government on their own and they often bemoan the disastrous consequences of coalition governments. 

When not approached with the right attitude and the enabling mechanisms, coalition governments do, in fact, become lame ducks. However, the disastrous effect of coalitions is not deterministic — politicians must have the maturity to be in conflict and connection with “adversaries” simultaneously. 

To embrace conflict and connection is to engage in a humanising politics that does not vilify the opponent. Failure to humanise across differences often leads to violence before, during and after elections. This is particularly important as there are legitimate concerns about outbreaks of violence, as reported in ISS Today on 11 April 2024

South Africa, as one of the most tolerant democracies on the continent, cannot afford to go down the path of election violence. This threat of violence that some political parties have promised if they don’t get their way, as reported on 5 March in The Daily Maverick, cannot be addressed only by state “force”. Politicians and the electorate must, in the first instance, demonstrate a strong commitment to a diversity of ideas and approaches and see everyone as bearers of inherent dignity. 

In this dispensation, where no single party holds an outright majority, political power would have to be negotiated and shared. This could indeed be good for the country’s fledgling democracy, with the right attitude by leaders and politicians.  

3. Remove the blinkers to limit narrow perspectives

The worry with the Icarus Scenario was the concern that the GNU would pursue populist economic policies and attempt to eradicate poverty too quickly (Beery, et al., n.d.). 

I favour large-scale change that dismantles colonial-inspired systems to make room for constructing inherently equitable systems from scratch. While there should be a place for this radical vision in the African polity, it ought to be balanced by a pragmatic stance where we see the world and how it operates for what it is while, at the same time, fighting all oppressive systems that subjugate and dehumanise our people through poverty, unemployment and inequality. 

Whether one one is of Marxist-Leninist leaning or of the social democratic tradition; whether one is nationalistic or pan-Aficanist in orientation; and whether one advocates for free-market capitalism or supports a mixed economic model, the complexity of the social, political and economic landscape of South Africa, and Africa in general, requires a clear, unblinkered view that acknowledges our own ideological influences in what we see and how we act.
 

To remove the blinkers is to demonstrate the will to see and listen to others or to see through another’s blinkers if one believes, as I do, that there is never a neutral view. This demands that we abandon, or at least interrogate, our assumptions of leadership and how to govern a country. 

In a similar process to Mont Fleur, progress was only made in the “war on drugs” in the Americas when the government and other actors abandoned their ideological positions and considered the problem from a different point of view. Former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos asserted that the process of imagining the future with unlikely allies allowed for “realistic options, without prejudices or dogmas”. 

With these elections being the first time independent candidates are standing for the National Assembly, and the rise of new political parties, we need to remove our blinkers and carefully engage both with the establishment and the emerging ideas and leadership, and, ultimately, have the courage to imagine and institute equitable systems and structures.

Building an equitable future would require everyone to step into the arena and not be a mere spectator. For example, big business would have to reimagine its role in South Africa’s development. 

While business is the single most significant contributor to the economy, we are at a critical time now when it can imagine not merely an economic role but one in the service of society at large. 

Inclusive and sustainable economic growth and transformation that averts the Icarus Scenario would only be possible if different political parties, businesses and other stakeholders pull together to achieve the aims of prosperity and equitable distribution of the country’s wealth.        

4. Experiment your way forward 

The inspiration for the “Flight of the Flamingos Scenario” was the belief there could be a positive outcome for the country. (Beery, et al., n.d.) South Africa faces a number of pressing challenges on a wide range of issues. There is no silver bullet that will address all of them. This acknowledgment is both liberating and concerning. 

It is liberating as it calls on everyone to be more realistic by taking off our blinkers, being open minded, and being willing to robustly engage and change our views to find a way forward with others. 

It is concerning because our people, who are living through the effects of the twin legacies of apartheid and the somewhat unfulfilled promises of democracy in the last 30 years, expect more from our leaders. How much time we have before people’s patience runs out is unknown. 

The path to a prosperous, peaceful and just world for people and the planet is uncertain and fraught with obstacles. Amid this uncertain future, and without a single miraculous fix, we need courageous leaders willing to embark on new, audacious experiments with creativity and in collaboration with allies — and even enemies. 

In conclusion, we will not arrive at the future we want by throwing stones at each other — in that event, everyone loses. We have to, and it is possible, move forward together. The time to act is now. It is within our power as leaders and citizens to create the future we want. 

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian.

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