One decision can change everything – lessons for South Africa’s political parties from the history of international politics

  • 0

With South African political parties embroiled in intense discussions about the future of our country, specifically on whether and how coalitions should be formed following the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) loss of its three-decade electoral majority during the May 2024 elections, I immediately wondered what advice could be gleaned from the history of international politics that could prove helpful and instructive in guiding our political parties toward a decision or decisions promising a better future for us all. Accordingly, here is my humble attempt to impart some lessons from international politics to the political leaders of our country.

One of the remarkable facts evident from the history of international politics is that the fate of nations – ie, whether they prosper or fail, rise or fall – is not inevitably cast in stone. Through various initiatives, reforms, prudent policies and the like, nations once depicted as poor and backwards can rise (or, perhaps more aptly, perform) at the highest levels of human excellence, often surpassing those nations once deemed to be at the forefront of human achievements. Conversely, through various foolhardy and erroneous initiatives, reforms, and ill-advised policies, nations on their way to achieving prosperity can thrust themselves back into the ranks of the poor and backward.

From the beginning of the 18th century, Scotland, derided for centuries for its poverty and backwardness vis-à-vis European civilisation at large, in a short space of time turned its fortunes around, producing towering figures in a range of human endeavours and fields of study. As economist Thomas Sowell notes, the Protestant churches’ push to improve literacy (with an emphasis on ensuring that everyone could read the Bible), coupled with the more secular push to learn English (which increased the range of knowledge, ie, the intellectual library available to the Scots), had a disproportionate effect in propelling that nation forward. One or a few decisions – specifically, prudent decisions – can make the world of difference, propelling nations forward or thrusting them backwards.

Japan presents yet another case in point. For reasons related mostly to Japan’s own doing (specifically, its self-imposed isolation from 1638 to 1868), the Japanese fell drastically behind the European nations during this period, thus rendering itself a materially, technologically and educationally poor and backward nation. As Milton Friedman observed, “Three or more centuries of enforced isolation had left Japan ignorant of the outside world, far behind the West in science and technology, and with almost no one who could speak or read any foreign language other than Chinese.” Japanese attempts to break down its barriers to the external world, and thus set itself on a course to economic progress, quickly followed in the wake of American Commodore Matthew Perry’s warships sailing with impunity into Japanese waters in 1853. In sailing virtually unimpeded into Japanese waters, Commodore Perry not only exposed the backwardness of that country during this time, but presented the Japanese with a gift hitherto unheard of and unseen by them, which likewise was highly indicative of their backwardness. The gift? A train. This set in motion a series of decisions that set Japan on a path to greater progress: It become receptive to Western culture and advancements (ie, cultural receptivity); it dismantled its feudal structure; and Japanese citizens were granted greater economic and social opportunity. The net result was, as Milton Friedman noted, that “[t]he lot of the ordinary man improved rapidly”. One decision – ie, Japan’s self-imposed isolation – had thrust it into backwardness and irrelevance; conversely, prudent decision-making quickly lifted that country out of backwardness and poverty. Accordingly, in a short span of time, Japan shook off its poverty and backwardness, and pushed itself to the forefront of achievements in several fields. In the case of Japan, as with Scotland, one or a few strategic decisions propelled it forward as a nation.

Considering the case of China is also instructive. As the reader might be aware, China was at the forefront of technological advancement during the Middle Ages in Europe. One decision – I repeat, one decision – changed the fortunes of China vis-à-vis other nations for centuries. In 1433 the government of China embarked on a course of action that amounted to nothing less than self-isolation: Contacts with the outside world were severely restricted (because, the Chinese argued, what was there really to learn from other nations or cultures?), and voyages, and the building of ships for this purpose, were prohibited. As in the case of Japan’s self-imposed isolation, the result was ruinous, thrusting China into backwardness and causing it to lag far behind other nations, which had the effect of leaving that country vulnerable to the colonial practices of the stronger and more advanced powers of the time. Before this decision, China was the leading technological power of the day (eg in printing, navigation and rocketry), and roughly on a par with the Europeans in scientific knowledge. Freemon Dyson (quoted in Thomas Sowell’s Wealth, poverty and politics) notes that this fateful decision by the Chinese government was undoubtedly the “worst political blunder in the history of civilization”. It is, however, worth noting that the factors that led to this fateful decision were ones that we as South Africans are all too familiar with: “The decision,” notes Dyson, “was the result of powerful people pursuing partisan squabbles and neglecting the long-range interests of the empire. This is a disease to which governments of all kinds, including democracies, are fatally susceptible.” Tellingly, it took China almost 600 years to raise its head again, and to approach again the ranks of a great power. Importantly, this rise was also mainly due to one or a few strategic decisions. Thomas J DiLorenzo’s The problem of socialism explains the decisions that catapulted China’s progress: “China abruptly liberalized a large part of its economy beginning in the late 1970s by allowing private enterprises and even private banks, to some extent, to exist. The creation of a free enterprise segment of the Chinese economy, combined with the typical Chinese/Confucian work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit […] began to produce prosperity. A little bit of desocialization can go a very long way in terms of creating prosperity and eliminating poverty …”

The lesson to be drawn from the history of international politics, especially as it relates to discussions now engulfing our nation about its future trajectory, is rather straightforward: One decision can up-end years of progress, thrusting a nation back to unimaginable levels of poverty and backwardness. Conversely, one or a series of prudent decisions can catapult a nation forward. If the history of international politics reveals the heavy burden or sweet release that one decision can bring to a nation’s future, the history of world affairs also reveals which decisions are most prudent.

I leave the reader – and, hopefully, our politicians – with two insights regarding prudent decisions for our future.

The first insight is drawn from Thomas J DiLorenzo’s book mentioned above: “Every imaginable type of socialism was tried in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, producing nothing but economic stagnation – or much worse.”

The second insight comes from the back cover of a little book written by RJ Rummel, The blue book of freedom: “In the twentieth century alone, some 272 000 000 of the world’s people were murdered by the very governments that had robbed them of their freedom. Free people have fewer famines; Where people are free, political violence is minimal; Freedom is the best path to economic and human security; The more freedom people enjoy, the less likely their governments will murder them; To do away with the scourges of mankind, promote freedom.”

The decision that charts our collective future in South Africa is now in the hands of politicians. This frightens me. I hope they prioritise the long-term interests of our country and advance the freedom of all my fellow South Africans. 

  • 0


Jou e-posadres sal nie gepubliseer word nie. Kommentaar is onderhewig aan moderering.