Rise of the tenderpreneurs, the fall of South Africa

The World Cup will create a feel-good factor in South Africa, but when it’s all over, the same urgen

This will be South Africa's second World Cup. The first was much smaller than the impending football jamboree. But the 1995 Rugby World Cup was an extraordinary affirmation of the country's recent transition to democracy, celebrated joyously with the host nation's victory. More important than the result was the masterful moment of reconciliation politics in which Nelson Mandela appeared in the shirt of the South African captain François Pienaar, acknowledging that the newly empowered majority had embraced the game of apartheid, that we were now "one nation, one team". This was the apex of "rainbow nation" symbolism, a new democracy brimming with hope and promise. The country that will host the 2010 Fifa World Cup has lost this illusory lustre.

For though a post-apartheid South Africa will always be an improvement on its racist, oppressive precursor, Mandela, the man-myth, has been replaced by Jacob Zuma, an all-too-human leader whose corruption and rape trials have inflicted permanent damage. Zuma's ineffective leadership of a divided African National Congress party and government has done little to suggest he might yet meaningfully address the huge challenges facing South Africa. The latest UNDP Human Development Index figures rank South Africa 129th out of the UN's 182 member states. The difference between this measure and the country's GDP, as well as its Gini coefficient score, make it the world's most unequal country, a worse position than before the dawn of democracy.

In 2006, it was calculated that just over 34 per cent of South Africans had lived on less than $2 a day during the preceding 14 years. A 2009 calculation shows that almost 43 per cent do now. Even worse, life expectancy has fallen by 13 years in a similar period.

This is not just a consequence of Thabo Mbeki's shameful Aids denialism, which, according to a Harvard University study, resulted in at least 355,000 avoidable deaths. It is also a consequence of the impact of the disease of grinding poverty, and of the continuing high rate of violent crime, which results in roughly 50 murders a day, as well as an ineffectual health and education system.

Far from the people

All this, in turn, is made possible by a largely unaccountable and sometimes corrupt ruling class that has abandoned many of the ANC's founding principles in order to enrich itself. The quality and depth of leadership, so impressive in 1994, is, with a few exceptions, woeful. No one reflects this more than the thuggish leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, an heir to Mandela in title alone. Malema's racist rants, idiotic pronouncements and intolerance of criticism are usually glossed over by the party leadership, which depends on his support. The most severe and only punishment has been a gentle rap over the knuckles for his vocal support of Robert Mugabe.

While I don't believe his singing of racist songs about killing white farmers contributed to the murder of the far-right leader Eugene Terre'Blanche in April (the latter's brutal treatment of his farmworkers was a far more likely cause), Malema's tirades further undercut the reconciliation gains made under Mandela. The xenophobia that reared its murderous head in 2008 against immigrants from elsewhere in Africa is an even uglier manifestation of how much the country has changed since the early days of democracy.

SGL, an engineering company with which Malema has been associated, has benefited from large state tenders. Malema has denied he is still a director of the firm. The practice of high-ranking members of the party, and those close to them, benefiting from decisions about tenders of the government has become so widespread that the title "tenderpreneur" has been coined to describe the beneficiaries. The tenderpreneur could not be more different from the idealistic, committed activists with whom I was privileged to be elected to parliament in 1994. A minor incident illustrates how far from "the people" some of these activists have strayed. A party cadre I knew in the early 1990s as humble, smart and unassuming spent, after becoming a provincial minister, almost £10,000 of taxpayers' money on a dinner for guests and friends at one of Johannesburg's leading restaurants. That is more than most South Africans earn in a year. When a journalist from one of the country's leading papers asked him what he had to say to members of the public who had complained about the bill, the minister in effect told them to go to hell.

He is now head of the ANC in one of the country's most powerful provinces.

How has the hopeful young democracy that cheered the Springboks' rugby triumph in 1995 become so much like most other countries in today's tawdry global polity? The ANC lost its moral compass towards the end of Mandela's reconciliatory term of office with two signature moments - the decision to spend huge amounts of money on weapons we didn't need and the party's inability to challenge Mbeki's Aids denialism, dating as far back as his tenure as deputy president.

The decision to spend between $6bn and $8bn on hi-tech weaponry was driven by an estimated $300m of bribes. Anti-corruption investigators in South Africa and Europe allege that these were paid to the then defence minister, Joe Modise, other officials and the party itself by European companies that were awarded contracts, most of them in highly controversial circumstances. As a senior member of the party's top executive body told me, "We used the money to fight the 1999 election."

Coalition of the disaffected

Even more destructive than this waste of money - at the time that Mbeki was claiming the government could not afford to provide antiretroviral medication to the five million South Africans then living with HIV and Aids - was the undermining of the country's hard-won democracy in order to stop truth emerging. Parliament was turned into a rubber stamp, and has remained one, with ANC MPs instructed to vote in favour of whatever the leadership proposed.

This was in marked contrast to the way in which ANC MPs had challenged the executive, as the constitution envisaged, in the first four years of our democracy. Investigative bodies were undermined by Mbeki instructing them exactly who and what they could and could not investigate. The prosecuting authority was similarly undermined and politicised. The more effective anti-corruption agencies were dissolved. My colleagues in parliament, with very few exceptions, reacted with anger and outrage when I defied the leadership and continued to investigate the arms deal. My removal from the investigating committee and ousting from parliament acted as a salutary warning to anyone who challenged the leadership.

The realisation that they could get away with it, despite the best efforts of investigative journalists and a handful of brave MPs, emboldened the ANC leadership to engage in a series of other suspect deals in the oil, telecoms and power sectors. These always benefited not just individuals, but also the financial position of the party, which at its triennial conference in 2007 boasted a surplus of about £150m.

The abject failure of MPs and other influential ANC leaders to hold the party to account was mirrored when Mbeki's Aids denialism wreaked havoc on the country. Critical debate was supplanted by obsequious support; party loyalty was the only political currency. The key to this change among individuals who had so bravely fought apartheid was either the belief, fostered among ANC exiles, that it was disloyal to speak against the party, or simply the benefits of patronage, which included the fear of losing one's seat in parliament and its attendant material rewards.

It was only the ANC's allies in the trade union movement who spoke out against both the arms deal and Aids denialism. So desperate were they to rid the ANC of Mbeki's autocratic and paranoid leadership that they were prepared to support his nemesis, Zuma, despite Zuma's rape trial and his embarrassing statements about Aids protection and gender relations, as well as the myriad corruption allegations against him.

But the trade unions did not speak out when the 783 counts of corruption against Zuma were dropped in controversial circumstances - or when, using legislation intended only for inmates in the final stages of a terminal illness, Zuma's financial adviser Schabir Shaik was released from prison after serving barely over two years of a 15-year sentence for corruption. South Africa's prosecutorial and judicial system has been further damaged by this cleaning of Zuma's legal slate.

To his credit, Zuma has been open about the mistakes the ANC made on Aids and in other areas. But his government has not yet addressed the desperate needs of the country's poorest citizens. Partly this is because of the limited capacity of the bloated public service, its unaccountability and widespread corruption. Yet it is also a consequence of Zuma's attempt to keep happy the coalition of the disaffected that brought him to power. Ideological differences, along with the president's seeming inability to impose direction on the coalition, have thwarted coherent governance. Zuma's allies on the left are the least happy, charging their man with maintaining economic policies that hinder social change.

This dissatisfaction with the country's inequalities has fuelled ambivalence towards the World Cup, which begins on 11 June. The prominent columnist Jabulani Sikhakhane gave voice to this when comparing the deaths of 17 infants in public hospitals in a fortnight, because of a lack of basic medical equipment, to the more than £90m invested in the health facilities demanded by Fifa for the month of the tournament. "It's a shame," Sikhakhane concluded, "that a country that invests more than R1bn in order to meet the [health] requirements set by the gods of world soccer is incapable of preventing the deaths of its babies."

Trouble at home

Fifa has hardly endeared itself to those living on South Africa's margins by creating exclusion zones around the stadiums and parks where the games will be held, thus preventing informal traders from plying their wares anywhere near the showpiece event. Initially excluding local artists from the cultural events that will open and close the tournament was hardly a recipe for local support, either. While a few prominent South Africans have now been included in the line-ups, the event anthem, composed and performed by the Colombian singer Shakira, still irks many South Africans, judging by the numbers of irate callers to phone-ins.

With the World Cup mascots manufactured in China and McDonald's the official restaurant of the tournament, many are questioning whether South Africa will reap adequate economic return on its estimated £3bn investment. Reports that less than half of the anticipated foreign tourists will turn up for the event - with only about 11,500 expected from the rest of Africa - because of cost issues and security concerns, have further depressed the economic picture. The temporary, low-skilled and poorly paid jobs that preparations for the tournament have generated will not constitute a solution to South Africa's unemployment rate, which is calculated at between 27 and 37 per cent. There are already mutterings of contracts going to politically connected tenderpreneurs.

In this sports-mad and once-isolated country, the World Cup will no doubt engender a feel-good factor - even if, as seems likely, the home team struggles, unlike the rugby team of 15 years ago. Just having the eyes of the world on South Africa again will be a reaffirmation of our remarkable transition to democracy. But it will also confirm that our democracy has been tarnished. For when the Fifa grandees (no strangers to allegations of corruption themselves) and the welcome visitors depart, South Africa will be feeling better about itself, but will still face the same challenges, for which there will be slightly fewer resources.

Andrew Feinstein is a former ANC MP

An updated edition of his book "After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa's Uncertain Future" is out now (Verso, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge