The language of meritocracy

by The Editor

FEATURE: To what degree is South Africa a country that embraces and embodies excellence? That is, to what degree are those things fundamental to a meritocracy inherent to South African public discourse and its political culture? In the piece below the DA’s Federal Chair, Wilmot James, looks at this question and tries to understand both where we stand as country in this regard and what the Democratic Alliance has to do, in order to better embrace excellence and its benefits.

The language of meritocracy
By: Dr Wilmot James

5 March 2012

The vocabulary of meritocracy includes positive words such as effort, energy, motivation, achievement, success, standards, excellence, goal-directedness, growth, prosperity, modernity and progress. Meritocracy is not the vocabulary of South Africa’s public discourse nor that of the ANCs which is dominated by the language of mediocrity and underachievement. Just look closely at the budget we were recently presented. It is a budget for underachievers.

It is important to focus on the language of meritocracy for two reasons. Firstly, it is the language that defines the qualities that are consistent with the ethos of a liberal democracy. It foregrounds the elements needed to build a ‘culture of success’, a ‘leadership for success’ and ‘a plan for success’. It sets us apart from the ANC because theirs’ is a ‘culture of mediocrity’, ‘a leadership for mediocrity’ and a ‘plan for under-achievement.’

A strategy for success must put the right incentives in the right places to reward the right behaviour to have our country make progress. To do this well – to succeed, to build a culture of and leadership for success – means that we must erect an architecture of policy incentives that rewards the right behaviour in the four key areas central our party’s mission:

Reconciliation means building bridges across divisions and acknowledging the pain of apartheid.
Redress means putting forward practical measures that tackle apartheid’s legacy in a sustainable way.
Delivery means showing what we can do where we govern and what we would do if we had the opportunity to govern.
Diversity means reminding people that we are a party for all the people and showcasing it at every opportunity.

Secondly, the vocabulary of a meritocracy is key to the historical shift our country needs to make in the direction of modernity. Let me explain what I mean with the following story:

When the French Ambassador Jacques Lapouge bestowed the Legion of Honour on Dr. Mamphela Ramphele he read the following citation: ‘The National Order of the Legion of Honour, created by Napoleon Bonaparte, is the highest French distinction. It is a strong symbol of the spirit of the French Revolution which aimed at replacing the privilege of birth with the recognition of merit’.

It is a striking phrase to read, rendered with such analytical clarity, about the history of the replacement of the French medieval monarchy with a republic through the spilling of much blood in 1789, over 200 years ago. The French have been long at work with their historical project, to replace inherited status with achieved status. It is not a linear process and the job is not yet done.

We started our project a mere 17 years ago. Lest we forget, a lot of blood was spilt as about 20,000 South Africans lost their lives between 1990 and 1994, but our changes lacked the dramatic, explosive and monumental immediacy, not to mention, thankfully, the guillotine, of the French bourgeois revolution so well described in Harvard University’s Theda Skocpol’s book, States and Social Revolutions.

The promise that motivated many of us was to escape from the prison of racial categories, to be free from the pigmented privilege of birth, and to move swiftly to a society, best described by Martin Luther King Jr., that judges its members not by the colour of their skins but by the quality of their character. Though we have made considerable progress, on balance we have far to go.

While constitutionally speaking we are a republican democracy, in our historical compromise we made compromises with inherited status. We recognise traditional non-elected leadership in our Constitution. We pay salaries to chiefs. Although the cloak of traditional authority protects all manner of unacceptable practises in a democratic republic, some may consider it as the price of compromise. I personally think it is a problem for what it protects socially speaking – like witchcraft, body parts trade and all manner of bigotry.

The ANCs cadre-deployment policies, nepotism and tolerance of failure set a terrible example of how not to celebrate the success that comes with educational attainment and hard work. The ANC does not embrace young leaders who are eager, honest and committed, which is why it is a Julius Malema, the antithesis of what our constitutional democracy is all about, that rose up the ranks.

We are the only party that takes us in the direction of modernity and a true republican (in the French not American sense of the term) direction. Thus, we must create a leadership able to build a culture of success based on achievement not entitlement, effort not birthright, excellence not mediocrity, rationality not superstitition.

Dr. Wilmot James is DA Federal Chairperson.