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“Reflection on the Cuckoo as it Applies to Life under ANC Rule,” by Prof. Anthony Turton

Caroline Du Plessis



Reflection on the Cuckoo as it Applies to Life under ANC Rule

©️ Dr Anthony Turton 16 December 2022

December 16th is an important date for South Africans. It’s a time when we can reflect on our history, legacy, and current circumstances, for after all, it’s now called the Day of Reconciliation.

As my readers know, I am an observer of Nature. I have always been fascinated with the behaviour of all living things – both plant and animal – from as far back as I can remember. My life has been deeply enriched by these observations. One class of behaviour that I have always found fascinating is the survival strategy of living things. These have typically taken long timescales to evolve, often measured in terms of hundreds of millions of years, if not longer.

Today I reflect on the behaviour of the Cuckoo, for it teaches us a lot about contemporary life under ANC hegemony. You see, the Cuckoo is a cunning bird, with a highly refined survival strategy. At the core of that strategy is the fundamental problem of survival. In Nature, there are windows of opportunity, often very narrow, outside of which survival becomes difficult. Central to that is what can best be thought of as an energy budget. How much energy is spent in building a nest, and then in finding food after the egg hatches, and before it fledges and leaves the nest?

This is a serious problem, because the parents need to make rational decisions about the cost-benefit ratio. What is the cost of doing something, versus what is the benefit derived from doing that specific thing as a choice between many different alternatives? This question lies at the heart of engineering design today, so it is not a trivial matter.

The Cuckoo has solved this problem in a very clever way. It finds a nest already built by someone else. It is very fussy about the nest it chooses, for the survival of its own offspring is entirely dependent on that choice. It has preference for a nest large enough to accommodate what will soon become a rapidly growing chick, but also one in which other eggs have already been deposited by the genuine owners of the nest. This strategy is based on stealth and cunning, because if successful, the cost to the Cuckoo parents is very low, but the reward to the progeny is extremely high. In fact, I know of few cost-benefit ratios that are as skewed as this one.

When the Cuckoo egg is deposited in the nest, the surrogate parents are unaware that it will hatch to produce a chick that has only one desire – to physically remove all competition for its food. This it does by relentlessly rolling the other eggs out of the nest, if they have not yet hatched, or by forcing the legitimate occupants out, by tipping them over the edge. Once this primary objective has been reached, the Cuckoo chick settles down to be fed by its surrogate parents. Its appetite is voracious, for it can never be satisfied with the food given to it by the surrogates. It relentlessly demands more, and more, and even more. The poor surrogates are now forced to take over the burden of the externalized cost of feeding a chick.

In economics, we call this the externalization of costs model, which I first wrote about some decades ago when describing the mining industry and its management of tailings. Wherever possible, the mining industry tries to externalize costs to maximize profits. This is a permutation of the Cuckoo model.

But the best example of this model can be found in the way that rent-seeking behaviour drives politically connected elites in the South African economy. Think of our BEE environment and then apply the Cuckoo model. Hardwired into our national legislation is the right of the Cuckoo to lay its egg in the nest of the selected surrogate. That surrogate has no choice, for if they reject the Cuckoos egg, the punishment can be harsh.

We see this in the construction sector where major firms, listed on the JSE, are burdened by the cost of feeding the Cuckoo, the presence of which brings no immediate benefit to the surrogate. As I said earlier on, the cost-benefit ratio perfected by the Cuckoo, is one of the most efficient possible.

Eskom is topical right now, so let us find an example of this strategy in that environment. It comes as no surprise that Eskom is littered with Cuckoos. Two examples will suffice for illustration purposes.

The first example is the so-called new build at Kusile and Medupi, both mega projects of national strategic importance. A project of that size requires many workers, and they must be fed. That is a perfect place for the Cuckoo to lay its egg. With a bit of inspection, we are not surprised to discover a feeding scheme, worth a considerable sum of money, in which the principal beneficiary is a family member of a highly connected Cadre. Now applying this survival strategy, we can see why it benefits the Cuckoo to delay completion of the project. The longer the delay, the greater is the reward for the Cuckoo who is awarded the contract for the feeding scheme.

The second example is in the supply of coal. Eskom is a captive market for vast quantities of coal. If cheap coal can be peddled as good quality coal, then the profits are massive. But because the sale of coal is measured in weight, if that number can be increased by introducing worthless rocks or pieces of scrap metal, then the already profitable strategy is given an additional multiplier.

The Cuckoo is cunning. It has developed a sophisticated strategy for survival. By applying that strategy, it does way better than merely survive, for it thrives on the endless toil of the surrogate parents.

We, the hapless taxpayers, are the surrogate parents. The politically connected Cadres are the Cuckoo. The raison d’être for the strategy is provided by the perpetual narrative of the historic injustice needed to balance the books by redistributing privilege in South Africa. Legislation gives some legal justification to what a New York cop would describe as a mob shakedown.

The Cuckoo has a voracious appetite, quite easily capable of destroying the surrogate parents through sheer exhaustion.

Mzansi needs to learn the lesson from the Cuckoo, if it is to ever prosper again. Wherever a Cuckoo is found, it needs to be expelled from the nest, if there is to be any hope of foreign direct investment (FDI) back into the country. We need FDI if we are to restore the viability of our economy, for the only way to end poverty, is through the dignity of a viable job.

More importantly, we need to recognize that the Cuckoo is hard wired to eject all opposition from the nest, so the next CEO of Eskom will have a stark choice if he/she is to survive. Please reflect on what this means to your own daily struggle for survival. The more Cuckoos we have, the harder it becomes for each of you to feed your own families. The Cuckoo adopts what is known as a zero-sum strategy, for their gain is directly equated to the loss of the other party. There is no space in that model for sharing or accommodating one another, such as we might find in a plus-sum strategy, where each party wins something through the presence of the other.

I am convinced that the Cuckoo is anathema to our collective best interest. We need to recognize it for what it is, and then collectively do what needs to be done to liberate ourselves from the stranglehold of rent-seeking injustice.

©️ Dr Anthony Turton 16 December 202

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