Mandela in Randfontein, South Africa, November 1993. Photograph: Getty Images
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Mandela's power has come: The ANC's challenges in government

While the ANC has spent years bravely resisting apartheid, it has no experience of government. Sarah Baxter assesses the problems facing Nelson Mandela in power.

“The goal of our struggle is in sight, we are now ending one journey and starting another.”

Nelson Mandela, FNB stadium

For 82 years, the ANC has endured banning orders, expulsions, torture and jailings. It has operated in exile and underground. It has organised passive resistance and waged the armed struggle. It has barely had time to learn the skills of legal opposition, let alone government. But, as the votes are being counted in South Africa, it is preparing for power.

Many South Africans have been talking about their fears for the future. Bombs, destabilisation, economic chaos and violence. No sooner did the threat from Inkatha recede, than the terrorist white right has swung into operation. But none of this can detract from the sheer exuberance felt by South Africans who have been able to vote for the first time. For me, Shadrik Moloi, 45, who is illiterate and scratches a living pointing out parking spaces to motorists, put these pre-election nerves in perspective. He told a newspaper in Johannesburg: “My fear is that I won't know how to make my vote. I think I will not know how to make my cross on the paper.” I hope he succeeded.

For now, the vote is all that matters. There are no more whites—only parliaments; and no more tricameral chambers for Indians and coloureds. Everyone has the vote, including Shadrik Maloi. At the Johannesburg Stock Exchange last week, Mandela promised that the years of mass action were over. “It was the action of a community which had no basic rights in this country and no vote. We have now got the vote.” The long-awaited “day of liberation” has arrived, and the years of government are about to begin.

Mandela has not had to prove that he is a statesman. That much was obvious from the day he left prison. But he has conducted the election campaign faultlessly. Wherever he has spoken, in the remote parts of South Africa as well as its urban ghettoes, he has reached out not only to the rapt audiences before him, but to the wider world beyond. He has not been too dignified to poke fun at his opponents, but he has spoken at all times of the national interest.

Could his biggest fear be his own mortality? He has been oddly emphatic in his last campaign speeches that “as long as I live”, white farmers, business people, the money markets and ethnic minorities have nothing to fear. But he is 75. He has survived the brutality of apartheid and has seen it crumble in his lifetime. That is already a remarkable achievement. In due course, the business of government will pass to a future generation.

It is one of the distortions of apartheid that there is a missing generation of leaders, dating from the 1960s, when the ANC was banned. The leader of the ANC in exile, Oliver Tambo, is dead, and many of Mandela's old comrades are near or past retirement age, although they, too, remain active: Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Joe Modise and Ahmed Kathrada. Recognising people's fears about the succession, Kathrada emphasised at a rally in the Asian township of Lenasia last week that there was a “wealth of leadership” in the ANC. Generations to come would be guided by ANC policy, he said. But party discipline is not what it was during the years of jail and exile. Activists have had different experiences of opposition politics; and none of them (whites excepted) has had the vote, let alone power before.

The two frontrunners for the post of deputy president, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa (if they are not displaced by Chief Buthelezi in the interests of “national unity”), have very different backgrounds. Mbeki, 51, the party's national chairman, went into exile as a teenager in 1961 and spent years representing the ANC abroad. Ramaphosa, 41, the ANC's general secretary, who formed the National Union of Mineworkers and led it into the Council of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), belongs to the new generation of ANC leaders, who learned their politics in the 1970s and 1980s as students in the black consciousness movement and as trade unionists and community activists in the United Democratic Front (UDF). There has been a great debate over whose experience has been more valuable: Mbeki, with his knowledge of life abroad and different regimes; and Ramaphosa, with his negotiating skills and practical experience of modern South Africa.

Tokyo Sexwale, 40, who is likely to be regional premier of South Africa's hub, the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging region, straddles the gap between the old and new guard. He was a black consciousness activist who went into exile in 1975, spent time in the Soviet Union and was jailed for 13 years in Robben Island on his return. He was recently voted South Africa's sexiest politician—not just because of his name—and is capable of charming township militants in Soweto and liberal whites in Johannesburg. Although he was compromised by the discovery of men found beaten in the basement of the ANC's regional office, he has managed to avoid the blame settling on him.

Many other up-and-coming leaders, who are destined for high office, are even younger: Trevor Manuel, 37, the ANC's head of economic policy; Jay Moosa, 36, ex-general secretary of the UDF. Between them, they have led strikes, organised mass action, conducted negotiations and have been detained. But, like everyone else in the ANC, they have no experience of office.

The ANC, however, has a “plan” for government. It is so proud of its plan, otherwise known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and refers to it so frequently, that when I first arrived in South Africa it sounded disturbingly Stalinist. Hadn't the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had enough failed “five-year plans”? Mandela has been brandishing the ANC's “plan” as though it were the trump card of the entire elections. “We have a plan Mr de Klerk, where is your plan?” he never stops asking the National Party leader. Far from being a Stalinist document, however, the purpose of the plan is to provide hope and reassurance. To Mandela, it is proof that the ANC is fit to govern. It has a “plan”, if not a record in office. It gives him confidence that the ANC can meet its promises.

The National Party has been busily trying to demolish the RDP, drawing on the tactics of the British Conservative Party. Advised by Mrs Thatcher's PR man, Sir Tim Bell, it has “costed” the programme and concluded that it will lead to higher taxes. But Mandela has gone out of his way to soothe the business community. “The economy of our country must be based on sound market principles,” he assured the Johannesburg Stock Exchange last week. “If you look at our programme, there is not a single sentence about nationalisation. There is not a single sentence that is communist, as our detractors claim.” The all-white traders said he left them feeling “mildly bullish”.

While many elements in the ANC remain militant, there is a key generation of young activists, who were radicalised in the 1970s and 1980s, but would now describe themselves as moderate, who are moving into positions of power and influence behind the scenes. Some will be civil servants and advisers to the new regime, whose task will be to ensure that the transition to a multi-racial society goes smoothly; others have already taken up business and management jobs in the multi-national corporations that used to shut out non-whites. They have now been catapulted into senior positions—the new South Africa will be a young society—but they are also pragmatists. Frank Meintjies, 35, a former journalist on I community newspaper in Natal and ex-information officer for Cosatu, has just been appointed to the eight-member council of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, charged with awarding new franchises for television and radio. “People on the left are talking about more managers,” he says, “and that denotes a key mental shift. We used to talk a lot about leadership, which was a fuzzier term that had more to do with platform oratory.” He is worried, however, that in the student movement, the UDF and other collective organisations in which people like him cut their teeth, “there was never any clarity about power and responsibility. One or two People would emerge as leaders because they were more combative. In the past, it was easy to make excuses for mistakes.”

Yacoub Abba Omar, 33, who joined Umkhonto WeSizwe in the 1980s and spent several years in exile before the ANC was unbanned, is now head of communications for Armscor, the acquisition agency for South Africa's defence forces. “Previously, the head of communications would have concentrated on making sure things did not get in the press and promoting the South African arms industry overseas. It is my job to ensure that the industry works in as transparent a way as possible and that it is accountable to elected and appointed officials.” He says firmly that there is little money to be saved from defence cuts, contrary to the claims of many leading ANC figures. In the short term, spending may even rise, as former ANC and PAC cadres are merged with the existing South African defence forces.

Ismail Momoniat, 36, is a member of the ANC's department of economic planning. He, too, is one of the party's new realists. “The collapse of the Eastern bloc has left a huge vacuum for lots of people, but it has meant there is no debate about whether you have the market system or not. You have to send the right signals to the financial markets.” The ANC, he says, will have little choice but to adopt the National Party's existing budget for the year 1994-95. There will be different spending priorities, but the over-all economic framework will remain the same. “We can't launch into big public investments in year one,” he says. Already, the department of economic planning is keeping a wary eye on the spending commitments made by voluble politicians, just like the Treasury or any western finance ministry.

So “responsible” is the ANC determined to be in office that May Hermanus, 33, a former National Union of Mineworkers official and safety engineer, who was headhunted by Samancor, the South African Manganese Corporation, suspects that large employers will end up closer to the trade unions than the government. “I think the Labour movement is going to hit its head against an ANC government,” she predicts. She regards the moratorium on

Strikes called for by the ANC in the run-up to the elections, when civil servants and hospital workers in the homelands began to take industrial action, as a sign of trouble to come. “I don't think the workers are going to stick it for long.”

Hermanus, who was classified as “coloured” by the apartheid regime, says, “My whole life has changed in the past ten years. I can walk the streets, go into cinemas and restaurants and work for a company like Semancor and feel I have something to offer. It's my country, my place and I have a role to play.” But, she adds, “It's scary. I don't feel powerful. I feel insecure and worried. This is the crunch. After all these years of arguing about things, we're actually going to have to make the changes work.”

Nelson Mandela has shown few signs of pre-election jitters, but he, too, must sometimes feel powerless and small. It was horribly clear as guns rang out around the FNB stadium in Johannesburg that he is respected, but not always obeyed. He was furious, warning that the ANC's security guards would be answerable to him for allowing weapons past the gates, and reminding “criminal elements” in the ANC that gun control was a main plank of party policy. None of the “comrades” will have paid any attention.

But, when, as seems certain, he is inaugurated as President of South Africa on 10 May, he will not be alone. There are many others in the ANC who share his ideals of peaceful and steady transition towards a multi-racial society. According to the constitution, he will have to lead a government of national unity, that includes members of the opposition par-ties, until the next election in five years' time. And, for the first time in his life, he will have the power of the state behind instead of against him. The time has come.

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
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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?

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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.

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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?

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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