South Africa and the Sorites Paradox

by The Editor

FEATURE: The Sorites Paradox posits that, in removing individual grains of sand from a heap, one can never tell the exact point when it stops being a heap and becomes something else. It is also called the ‘little-by-little’ argument and speaks to one of humankind’s great weaknesses: our inability to spot gradual but fundamental change over time. What happens when you apply the paradox to the ANC? Is it the same party it was in 1994? Has it changed fundamentally? If so, when did it happen?

South Africa and the Sorites Paradox

By: Gareth van Onselen

30 March 2012


Eubulides is not one of the better known Greek philosophers, at least, not generally. He lived in the 4th century BC and studied under Euclid of Megara (who, in turn, studied under Socrates) and is perhaps best known for establishing the Megarian school of philosophy. And yet, while it was his teacher – Euclid – who built his reputation on the various logical paradoxes he formulated, it is a paradox first posed by Eubulides that forms the cornerstone of this article.

It is known as the Sorites Paradox and is, if anything, remarkably simple.

The argument goes like this: basic logic dictates that if you have a single grain of sand, you do not have a heap of sand (the Greek word for ‘heap’ is Soros, hence Sorites). By the same logic, if you have two grains of sand, you do not have a heap; nor do three grains constitute a heap; nor four. Yet, at some point, if you keep adding a single grain of sand at a time, you will have a heap; and the question then becomes, at what point does your initial premise – that a single grain of sand does not constitute a heap – become false?

The paradox also works in reverse: If you have a heap of sand, and you take away a single grain, you still have a heap. And you would still have a heap if you took away a second grain, and a third, and a fourth. But, at some point, if you continued to take sand away, the heap would cease to be a heap and you would be faced with something else. At the same time, your initial premise – if you take a grain of sand away from a heap, you still have a heap – would become false. And so the question becomes at what point does the premise stop being valid?

The paradox is also known as the ‘little-by-little argument’.

It may seem like an entirely esoteric conundrum, but it does have a very powerful practical application. Take the ANC and its effect on South Africa, for example.

In 1994, at the establishment of South Africa’s new democracy, there was a broad consensus that the ANC constituted the most powerful and, indeed, the defining democratic movement in the country. It occupied the moral high ground uncontested and its intentions and actions were almost always interpreted in the best possible light.

Yet, with time, that position has slowly been eroded away. Little-by-little the ANC has acted on and argued for positions which run contrary to the ideals that define South Africa’s constitutional democracy. And, as a result, little-by-little, as its intentions have become increasingly self-serving and its agenda less democratic, so it has lost the moral high ground it once dominated.

Today, as the government seamlessly shifts from one crisis to another, service delivery flounders and as the evidence mounts up, there is a significant question underlying much of our public debate: is the ANC the same party it was in 1994? Or has it changed into something else? And, if it has changed, when did it happen?

And for those who would hold that the ANC has not changed, that it remains the embodiment of best democratic practice, what of all the evidence to the contrary? At what point does that evidence mean one’s initial conception of the ANC no longer holds true – when are there enough grains of evidence to constitute the heap that will convince?


The remarkable thing about the Sorites Paradox is that anyone can easily identify either end of the spectrum it presents. Common sense allows us properly to recognise a grain of sand, just as it does a heap. The problem comes in identifying at what point the one, changes into the other.

The Paradox plays on one of humankind’s greatest weaknesses: our inability to identify gradual but fundamental change over time, in those things that define our day-to-day lives. It is the very reason, for example, why one generation fails to relate to another and yet cannot point to a moment in time when the two parted ways; or how a building slowly deteriorates before our eyes without us really noticing and yet, one day, we wake to find a markedly different structure to the one we thought we knew so well.

And therein lies the curious thing about South Africa today. There is a school of thought which argues that the ANC under Jacob Zuma is the same party it was under Nelson Mandela, that it is the same force for good, and that it is driven by the same democratic motivation.

There is some truth to some of this. The party certainly hasn’t changed ideologically; only its particular brand of black African nationalism has been allowed to flourish, first under Mbeki and more recently under Zuma – at least more than it ever was able to do under Nelson Mandela.

But, outside of that ideological extremism, there are other considerations. The ANC of today is a party in crisis, a far cry from the unified monolith that governed during the late 1990s. Not only is it is deeply divided and its members at war but its political programme is far more unilateral and undemocratic, its language more radical and hostile, and its actions more tainted by corruption and maladministration than ever before.

If one had a time machine, and was able to transport someone from, say, mid-1995 to mid-2012, skipping the interceding years, no doubt the contrast in the nature of the ANC between those two periods would be so marked as to invoke a sense of profound disbelief in our fictional traveller.

And yet, for the rest of South Africa, which has been forced to sit through every detail of the ANC’s unravelling over the past 18 years, one would be forgiven for thinking you sometimes need to pinch yourself, just to make sure you aren’t dreaming. Is this really happening? How did we get here?

The answer is: little-by-little.

There is no definitive answer to the Sorites Paradox. One might decide that a precise number of grains of sand constitutes a heap – say 10 000 – and thus make it possible to identify exactly when the one becomes the other. But this is entirely artificial; after all, is there really a difference between 9 999 grains of sand and 10 000, or 10 001 for that matter? Others would argue there is no precise point of change, that the move from grain to heap is a continuum.

The problem is that the term ‘heap’ is ill-defined, it has no scientific definition and is a vague and fuzzy concept. Perhaps in the same way our more practical illustration – the ANC – suffers the same problem. Its general deterioration is ill-defined, indeed it is difficult precisely to measure when a tipping point was reached.

The ANC has never offered-up an exact point in time, where its degeneration began; rather, its change has been incremental: corruption has gradually tightened its grip around the ruling party’s throat, for years maladministration was overlooked or wished away, and now it is common place, and slowly but steadily Jacob Zuma and those aligned to him have increased their influence in the same way Thabo Mbeki did.

An example

But perhaps the greatest damage has been done by the ANC’s policies themselves. Examples abound, but consider the ANC’s attitude to the courts by way of illustration:

Writing for Politicsweb and using Tony Leon’s autobiography, James Myburgh has set out how it is that we have arrived at a situation where no judge of appropriate standing is willing to stand for the Constitutional Court. Myburgh puts it like this:

“…in 1998 the ANC successfully politicised the work of the Judicial Service Commission, the body tasked with the appointment of judges. Its primary goal was shifted away from protecting the integrity of the judiciary towards ensuring the attainment of the ANC’s political objectives. In making appointments – or recommendations, in the case of the Constitutional Court – the overriding concerns became ‘African leadership’, ‘demographic representivity’, and ensuring a politically sympathetic bench.”

This trend has played itself out over the last decade, with numerous well-qualified judges being overlooked in favour of those better suited to the ANC’s racial and political agenda. The consequence, Myburgh argues, “is that the court has lost much of the prestige it enjoyed (within the legal profession) during the Mandela-era.”

With time that process has intensified and, with it, our courts and the judicial system (the prosecution service too has been affected, the appointment of Menzi Simelane being the quintessential example) have been compromised. Today it appears no one is willing even to make themselves available for nomination to the constitutional court. And, as the latest grain gets added, we find the ANC proposing a review of the constitutional court and its powers.

Individually, each of these – a tiny selection – constitutes a grain of evidence; and each holds within it 100 grains more. Individually they are damning but, collectively, they should act to fundamentally change our perception.

Little-by-little, bit-by-bit, the ANC acted to bring the courts in line with its own agenda (which it routinely confuses with South Africa’s best interests). Not only has this damaged its credibility, but it helped generate an environment in which Jacob Zuma and those aligned to him feel free to openly attack the judiciary, even to threaten it, if their particular interests are not served.

Slowly and steady, but absolutely systematically, the ANC is acting to alter the courts and their purpose. The same could be said of a great many other public and private institutions. And the result is self evident: South Africa’s democracy today (and the institutions that define it) is not the same as it was in 1994. And it all happened little-by-little.

Unlike the ANC more generally, perhaps a tipping point has not yet been reached with regards to the courts, perhaps it has. But only by looking at the bigger picture is one able to see fully the ANC’s sustained agenda over time and its possible effect.


So what is the lesson inherent in all of this? If anything, it is that our new democracy is fragile and if we are to safeguard it against those forces intent on shaping it to their own will, one needs to stand steadfast against every attempt – not matter how small – to subvert principle to political pressure and democratic ideals to partisan designs.

A lot of these changes – the individual grains – are written off either as incidental or, in an environment defined by an intense orthodoxy of political correctness, dismissed as insufficient evidence of some problematic agenda. Optimism demands, such people argue, that we view each encroachment not as a problem, but merely as a misunderstanding or the result of poor communication.

There is also a lesson in perception: that it is worth on occasion taking a step back from those events that define our daily lives and looking at the bigger picture, comparing it to the past and trying properly to assess its nature.

Precedent and history hold many lessons, one of the most important being a record of best practice. Being able to recognise that, to apply it to the present and to learn from it is an essential ingredient for any functioning democracy. A failure to do that means, little-by-little, our moral compass is corrupted until, one day, we can not longer tell North from South.

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