Boiling frogs and lobsters

In one of the most exciting Swiss news stories to break in decades, the country’s Federal Council issued an order in January banning cooks from placing live lobsters into pots of boiling water.

British lobby group Crustacean Compassion celebrated this animal rights triumph, noting that Switzerland has joined a small number of progressive states that have extended animal welfare protection to decapod crustaceans.

Biological anthropologist Barbara King, author of Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, believes that crustaceans feel pain. Many scientists and philosophers disagree, but an official from the Swiss Federal Office of Food Safety and Veterinary Affairs says policy-makers should act on the basis of a precautionary principle.

The enlightened treatment of lobsters has obvious policy implications for the ANC. In his memoirs, the late Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, the parliamentarian, recalls Cyril Ramaphosa’s account of the ANC’s strategy for dealing with whites. “It would be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly.”

Oriani-Ambrosini believed that the ANC would gradually introduce laws transferring land and economic power from white to black hands, “but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight”.

The underlying premise is that an amphibian dropped into boiling water will leap out of the pot. If it is put in warm water that is gradually brought to a boil, the frog will be cooked alive. Perhaps understandably, this metaphor does not always go down very well with the frogs — or in this case whites.

Scientists point out that the fable is based on ignorance. Ectotherms rely on thermoregulation through location change. In other words, a frog that is gradually heated up will soon jump out of the pot. The opposite is true when a frog is dropped into boiling water. Biologist Douglas Melton has confirmed that, “if you put a frog in boiling water, it won’t jump out. It will die.” When you think about it, this is obvious.

Whites, it transpires, are more like real frogs than metaphorical ones. They have some sensitivity to their environment, which has helped them become the principal beneficiaries of the post-apartheid settlement. Their near monopoly of access to high-quality education has allowed them to dominate employment in the knowledge economy. The new geography of privatised urban spaces has allowed them to relocate to gated communities and business parks, while armed security guards shield them from the world outside.

Their quiescence is interrupted only by sporadic threats to disturb the infrastructure of private estates or to regulate the security, health, leisure and workplace systems that preserve their lifestyles.

ANC policy makers have remained acutely, if uncomfortably, aware that SA is heavily dependent on its white population. The privileges that whites have enjoyed across centuries have turned them into irreplaceable national assets. They have skills and capacities that result from generations of public educational investment. Their privileged upbringing gives them a deep-seated self-confidence that makes them excellent managers and innovators.

They cannot be brought slowly to the boil. The lobsters among them will die. The frogs will jump out of the pot, taking their skills and assets with them.

Ramaphosa has been a powerful proponent of black economic empowerment but he has been dogged by the fact that so many whites intuitively trust him. If white relief at his elevation to the presidency turns into complacency or even a return to arrogance, this will bring political costs both for him and for the country.

 Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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