Opinionista Denis Beckett 22 January 2015

Seriously Sound Politics: After Zelda, a solution

You wouldn’t think, if you read social media commentary or other comments online, that it was a good idea to leave politics in the hands of every(wo)man. You’d be wrong. Enter Seriously Sound Politics. Beating that drum again? Damn right.

Well, Zelda unleashed storms, starting with the invasion of the Sunday lampposts and what appeared to be a story about Mandela’s father. Posters declared:





I blinked at that. We hear about Mandela’s children but Mandela’s pa must have left this planet when Jan Smuts was a youngster. Yep, second sight shows that they mean Mandela’s P.A.

But they’re prisoners of the Style Book, the holy writ that used to require full stops in everything from A.W.O.L. to U.N.E.S.C.O. The rule was changed to let common sense take over where full stops boggled the eye, and now the new rule forbids full stops even when common sense screams for them. Funny ol’ world.

The wider Zelda storm, on Chatlines and Twitterstreams, can make one puke. Credit and thanks to those who say something real, something that adds, but oh dear, all that hate and fury and resentment and why my race is done down by your race and you are racist to call me racist.

I quit my last Internet column because I couldn’t read the comment line. It was like swimming in a river where every few strokes you brushed against a turd. Even on DM, far from a main culprit, I bypass everything under a tricksy pseudonym. A comment line sent a friend of mine to Australia, declaring that his child would one day fully belong there but would never fully belong here. How ironic, such an advance in human communication is such a source of venom and despair.

Is this to say that a racist dingdong can’t be real, can’t add? Is this to say that proper communications should consist of everybody being nice – tut, tut, children, no squabbling? No it is not. It is to say that the chatterati – which you and I both are, talking politics per media – mislead ourselves. We picture our country as a place of tension and hostility and intractability. Which is a pity, not only for our own psyches but more broadly. We have a higher than average interest in how society works. Like it or not, that translates into a higher than average influence on where society will go.

If, after a few bars of those choruses “whiteys-you-oppressed-us” and “darkeys-we-uplifted-you”, an antidote is called for, it’s easy. Head for anywhere that South Africans gather and politics is absent; the greengrocer, a mall, school sports, perhaps your workplace, a walk through town… or there’s the tile bazaar where I found myself yesterday.

People at the tile bazaar don’t realise they are supposed to be tense and hostile. They’re doing what comes naturally, which is being amiable and cooperative. Friendly people are dealing with friendly people, often – is this a paradox? – most deliberately warmly to the people who look least like themselves. Where once were barriers that now are gone, there’s an extra cordial oomph, maybe a subconscious exulting in the many tributaries that are flowing into a joint nationhood.

The ordinary interactions of ordinary South Africans are more than fine, they are inspiring. We are nonverbally saying that we have no pain sharing our country with this person buying the adhesive or that person stacking the trolley. We each take it for granted that the other wishes us no ill, indeed the opposite. I prefer you smiling to scowling and I would willingly, within reason, take steps to shore up your contentment. You, within reason, would reciprocate those steps. Neither of us need be Mr Nice Guy to step such a step; we’d do them in our own instinctive self-interest, each of us knowing that if the other is sufficiently discontented, their discontent can jeopardise our contentment.

We never, or hardly ever, actively focus on that factor, it runs quietly in the background of our cranium. The closest that we get is that from time to time, after an uplifting personal experience has contradicted a depressing public picture, we’ve felt a fleeting feeling that it’s a pity we ordinary people don’t run things, because those politicians have put us in a tangle.

Then we toss that thought out of mind with a derisive flick: tsk, don’t be silly, what do we have to do with deciding things! And on the news a crowd is behaving badly, a spokesman is speaking obnoxiously, the talk show is full of anger. We forget the flesh and blood person we met over the trolley and our politics is informed only by the Them that is causing Us problems.

You may here think you detect, dear reader, an upcoming case for Seriously Sound Politics, and how right you are. If this is unfamiliar to you, please give me a moment to fill you in.

This column is not actually a column, it is a mission. This columnist is not a columnist, and is a disgrace to the Opinionistas. I have no opinion, I don’t know or care who are the good guys and who are the bad guys or who did the dirt on whom. This column is here solely to present evidence inviting you to reassess the political system you live in. In the likely event that politics makes you frequently and badly upset, I’m suggesting to you that your frequent and bad upset is going to continue as long as you live in this political system. Changes of personalia or parties may offer you occasional bouts of brief euphoria, but no more than that.

We are not here talking a South African speciality. We are talking of around two thirds of the world’s countries, especially the ones with a big question mark over their prognosis.

Today’s democratic system is older than the Penny Farthing bicycle. This democracy has done quite well for some countries in its time, and was a massive improvement on what went before, but it is no longer doing very well for anybody, and it does not possess the capacity to do well for hard-case States. For us in SA, for instance, it cannot stop the basic driving force of politics from continuing to be animosity in a racial package.

Which does not mean we are up that creek. It does mean that we have incentive to look broadly, laterally, fundamentally, at what it might take to transfer that driving force; to place weight in the ordinary person’s instinct of amiable cooperation.

Here there is good news and bad news. The good news is that democracy’s next step up is ludicrously easy. There is no old-style fighting and revolution and storming the barricades to be done. No blood and no bullets come into the move to the next step, no segment of society fights for its survival or perceived survival.

The even better news, if you like, is that the good news is permanent. A society built upon the principle of you and me and the washerwoman and the dustbinman being extremely thoroughly fully free to seek the things that we want of it is a society that cannot help being stable, cannot help being reasonable. It doesn’t need complicated constitutions or weird promises that such-and-such a category of people will behave in such-and-such a way.

But then there’s the bad news. The good news about the bad news is that it is temporary. The bad news about the bad news is that it is fairly acute for the temporary period. Moving from where we are to where we could be requires quite a lot of somersaulting of established ideas. Established ideas don’t somersault in a flick.

If I sound confident about seriously sound politics, it’s because I got there over decades. My decades ought to radically foreshorten your adjustment, but they don’t shorten it to length of a column. Nearly everyone looking through their first half-hour undergoes genuine horrified shock – giving ignorant people all this power asks for chaos. You need some tiding over, which is what I’ll be doing here every few days as long as Daily Maverick’s patience holds out. Or you go to my book Demogarchy which Google will take you to gratis and Amazon will open to you for $5.70.

To Roy, Peter, John, and similar (civilised!) comment-liners calling for action steps: hold the horses just a little. Allow a little percolating of basics: that your political salvation lies in the power of other people’s votes; that the fount of stability is accountability to the people who aren’t interested in politics… We’ll get there, just not this afternoon, perhaps not even tomorrow morning. Hou moed. DM


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

In the words of Madiba: "A critical, independent and investigative free press is the lifeblood of any democracy."

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