A future without illusion

For too long we have understood South Africa in terms of myth rather than history, fantasy rather than reality. Now we must take full measure of who and where we are.

The way that the Earth is parcelled into countries is consequent to accidents of history sustained by myths as much as habit, law and force. There is no country that was not forged in blood. Some are further from that killing than others. In South Africa we are very close to it. Perhaps that is why we have held so tightly to our myths.

Myth sometimes sails close to religion. We recite our history of struggle in the way that Catholics recite the Stations of the Cross. We have our pantheon of saints. Just as with all theologies, none of this is stable. One memory gives way to another. The fortunes of saints rise and fall. There are new inclusions and sudden questions about the wisdom of old certainties. The golden thread of our most precious myth is now worn and frayed, but for many people a few last fibres are still entwined. A good number of us still make sense of our country from the assumption that, although we are on an increasingly difficult and sometimes perilous path, we are still moving towards the future with which destiny blessed us. For some, a democratic peace is at the heart of this future, for others, it is the redemption of cumulative dispossession and suffering.

The chattering classes often speak as if we can hold to the course set in 1994 and all will be well if the right person is in the right office, the right people are in prison, or some sort of technocratic policy adjustment is made. Much is made of moments, however fleeting, that can be said to be animated by the redemptive spirit of Nelson Mandela. This is not, of course, an invocation of the political militant, recently returned from military training in Algeria, who declared his commitment to revolutionary democracy from the dock.

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But we will not be all right if the Constitution is defended, our rulers reckon with their failures, people sweep the streets together or the president finally appears as the good father and addresses us as we wish to be addressed.

Radical nationalism lost much of its credibility when it was appropriated by an authoritarian kleptocratic project and is now often the province of xenophobes and crude chauvinists of various other kinds. But good-faith versions of a coming national democratic revolution that moves off the path laid down in 1994, updated from time to time with ideas like the stillborn second transition, are not entirely extinguished.

But none of us living today will ever take a breath that is entirely apart from the spinning vortex of suffering, cruelty and violence that we call our country. We must now have the courage to decisively break what remains of the thread of our most precious myth and unravel the veil in order to live without illusions, to see ourselves clearly. As Saul of Tarsus, more widely known as Paul the Apostle, wrote in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, a city in Greece: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Facing reality 

James Baldwin, the great American writer, was great because he did not flinch from the courage required to see clearly. Many people know he wrote that “[not] everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it has been faced.” Not as many people know the sentences that followed: “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise we literally are criminals.”

When we present our fundamental failings as a deviation from the path determined in 1994 or a matter of incomplete but unfolding liberation, the implication is that we can take a set of steps that will bring us back to the movement into redemption. Wherever possible, we can and should seek to defend what should be defended and realise what has been promised and desired but not yet achieved. There are certainly many things that are in our power to do within the current parameters for social action to slow the vortex down and bring it closer to its centre.

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But we will have to reckon with our future as well as our past, and that future is being poisoned in the present. History has accumulated into the shape of our cities, the relentless violation of women’s autonomy and the sense, the all too common sense, that certain people are and should be treated as waste, as less than fully human.

History sits in our bones and we pass it to our children from there. Violence begets violence. The anger generated by social abandonment is turned inwards and manifests as depression, sometimes medicated with what is available to blunt the pain, and outwards as more violence. The state has no monopoly on violence and the violence that it does exercise is mediated by a consistent sadism, and a consistent will to humiliate, contain and exclude the most oppressed.

A slow boil

We have sought to accommodate ourselves to the structures of oppression rather than overcome them. We have squandered millions of lives and rendered millions of people as waste. We have met people asking to be recognised as human with contempt and organised violence, some of it murderous. We have often allowed politics, which we once understood to be the pursuit of justice, to become a criminal project, in some cases nothing more than a form of gangsterism entwined with the state. We have not mustered the collective will to refuse to accept the rapid erosion of a vision of the common good. We have not opposed the drift into the politics that turns neighbour against neighbour, that aims to take what others have rather than to build, grow and welcome. The authoritarians slouch towards the centre of our public life unhindered.

We push words out of our mouths and into digital circulation. But how much of what we say is just the trite repetition of empty dogma, without thought? How much of what we say is just an unconscious attempt to throw up screens between us and the world that relieve us of the weight of having to see clearly? How much of what we say amounts to the mobilisation of words as weapons to hold what we have and drive off others? How often does the vast circulation of words carry a sincere attempt to shed their old skin and give things their real names?

What does life hold for the child of a woman who, again and again, has been beaten out of her home and watched as its debris is burnt by the authority of the state? Where does that child turn for a sense of safety, of a secure place in the world? What will happen to children who are told again and again that they have no right to be at home where they have come into life and must “return” to countries in which they have never smelt the earth after the rain? How will the lives of the children of millions of young men whose panic rises as they inhabit the limbo of life without work year after year come to fruition?

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We are not on a path, twisted and steep, towards some sort of space where we can all have a place of our own, and in the eyes of others, a place where we can breathe freely and just be. Lives are being crushed in the present. Time is not on the side of justice.

Our most precious myth was never a thread leading us out of a labyrinth. From the beginning, it was spun into a veil of illusion because we were tired and we wanted the comfort of illusion. We held to it because, to be honest, we were so tired that it was easier to become cowards.

We allowed ourselves to assume that democracy of the kind authorised by imperial power meant peace when we knew that in Kenya or Jamaica or Mexico it meant violence. We believed that it would bring a new unity across difference, a unity more expansive than that built in struggle, when we knew what it meant in the hands of opportunistic politicians in Sri Lanka, India and Guyana. We thought that we were different and better and that our future would always be a world apart from the fate of Zimbabwe, Algeria and Pakistan.

A moment of truth 

There are many things that we must face. Millions of people have no real claim on any kind of meaningful stake in this democracy. There is no will or plan to change this. Our rulers are divided. Some would sustain the old order and its forms of accumulation and violence. Others would build a new order enabling new forms of accumulation and deploying new forms of violence. Both would sustain mass impoverishment. There is a stalemate with austerity on one side and kleptocracy on the other.

A councillor, always accompanied by his own men with guns and able to call on the state to provide others at any time, who is making good money selling houses, letting shacks and awarding tenders and translating his power into sexual access, will not give way to someone else or something else without a fight. If he has everything to lose, he will break things and people to hold what he has. If he has to turn people against each other to sustain his position, he will do so.

The tumult of last week carried many currents – hungry people appropriating food; the nihilism of those who, having been abandoned, were now themselves abandoning hope in society; criminals long hardened to the point of real danger; and the politicians who came to power in a system built in hope and are now willing to lie, burn and kill to hold what they have. The way that each of these currents forced their way into the centre of the national drama shows us that the old game is up.

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No court judgment, Cabinet reshuffle, electoral reform or employment of a better speech writer and acting coach for the president will magically change this. No turn away from a collective vision and a sense of the common good towards the chauvinism incited from within our wounds will change this. Every offer of a new authoritarianism is, in the end, a sly offer of greater subordination and greater pain. There is no party in Parliament that offers a way into a viable society.

We are just a country, an accident of history, just as Zimbabwe, Algeria or Sri Lanka are countries. We are not on a unique and ultimately redemptive path sanctified by the blessing Mandela offered to liberalism, or struggle and sacrifice. We will all live out our lives with the trauma of the past, its accumulation into the present and its rapid mutations. Most of us will die impoverished, our hope to come to rest in safety and the promise of a better future unfulfilled, our children suspended in danger.

We will not be able to change all that we must now face. But without the courage to face what we are, what we are becoming and just how desperate and ugly it is, we will continue our descent pretending that some kind of redemption, partial but enough to keep going, is at hand. Anything other than a deep pessimism about the present, and the courage to commit to thought and action from within that pessimism, thought and action to generate social hope without illusion, is criminal.

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