As we end the first week of the year and enter the brave new world of the third decade of the century (not true for the pedants, as the last decade strictly ends on December 31 2020), note one big thing.

According to the 2011 SA census, more than 40% of our 57 million population was only born in 2000 or later; so, the tumult here and everywhere of the late 20th century is ancient history for them, if they are aware of it at all.

The towering figures who defined our recent past and forged its present – Mandela, De Klerk, Slovo and Mbeki here, or Gorbachev, Clinton, Blair and Bush in the wider world – are relics. Meanwhile, Tambo and Reagan are the names of airports.

This is both good and bad; better to commence with a fresh approach uncluttered by past errors or failed dogma, but worse if the erasure of history and memory allows the credulous to fall into the trap of “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Or given our failing education system, they are likely to not learn much history to begin with.

As the new year and decade commence, the resolutions for 2020 are, by definition, forward-looking.

But given the volatility of events and the swirl of change everywhere, it is hazardous to make a prediction for a whole year, let alone a decade, as our best guess is better confined to the next quarter.

There is one obvious reason for this: all our decisions are about the future, but all our information comes from the past.

When I led the opposition in parliament  (in the first decade of this century, which makes me sound fossilised already) I had, of necessity and by definition, a critical and even negative outlook. That was because my day job required it, and an opposition here or anywhere which does not keep critical watch is simply not doing its constitutional job.

And whatever the disposition of politicians, there is little news in good news. As master novelist John le Carre said of the art of writing a good thriller: “The cat sat on the mat is not a story, but the cat sat on the dog’s mat is.” Conflict and tension make us read the pages, the pixels and the electrons. Social media (not in existence just a decade back) amplifies a partial view; one certainty of the new decade is that the volume is going to crank up and the cause of balance and objectivity – like the figures of our recent past – will recede into the shadows of history.

But according to a study, which dates back to 2001,  gloom and doom are not simply a matter of outlook, outlook or prejudice. There is a neurological explanation as well.

In the explanation of it offered recently (in the Wall Street Journal on December 27 2019) by co-author Dr Roy F Baumeister of the University of Queensland, it is simply that “bad is stronger than good”.

You can run this through your own lived experiences – criticism registers more strongly than praise; a defeat is always more deeply felt than a victory; a negative image stimulates more electrical activity in the brain than a positive image. The authors suggest you compare which evokes a stronger reaction: an image of a dead animal or a bowl of ice cream.

“Negativity has stronger effects than positive ones” precisely because “it was a survival mechanism … threats like predatory lions were paid more attention by our ancestral hunter-gatherers than the good things in life”.

A thoughtful critic of the negative declinist attitude in SA, as a template for the next decade, is Discovery CEO Adrian Gore. While several of the millions of members of his vast medical insurance empire evoke great negativity when trying to process a claim, the whip-smart Gore believes we should change our hardwired gloominess about the fate and future of the nation.

Last year he published an article explaining that an overly pessimistic outlook here was at variance with the actual data on a range of facts of life from housing to economic size and improved outcomes for the most at need in society. He referenced the negatives, bar the Stage 6 load-shedding that happened four months after his September 2019 article appeared.

Hans Rosling, author of Factfulness – Ten Reasons Why We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, summed up this line of reasoning as: “Things are bad, but getting better.”

Gore, appropriately for an actuary, is a data guy. So he notes that pervasive negativity does not correlate with the actual statistics – from SA’s size in the continent compared to other states, to its economic sophistication and previous examples of changing policies and saving lives. The Aids denialism of Thabo Mbeki and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang in the 2000s, for example, gave way within a few years to public-policy sanity in the 2010s under, we must admit, Jacob Zuma and Barbara Hogan.

You can, according to this view, either perpetuate declinism or, as Gore suggests, “acknowledge our country’s progress and [create] hope; seeing our problems as solvable … this is how change happens”.

Well, that’s a nice positive thought to start the year and the decade. Change your attitude and check your bias.

But at the risk of raining on the sunshine parade, hope will not keep the lights on. That requires tough choices and fresh thinking. We have run out of soft options, and the old dogma doesn’t work any more.

But let’s be optimistic – and as the cliché has it: hope springs eternal.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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