Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 7 March 2016

The Tortoise and the Laager: Rainbow Nation on the defensive

The rainbow nation shines brightest when each colour in the rainbow is illuminated by the colours on either side. In the current climate of uncertainty, instead of standing side by side we are retreating into defensive groups. But the truth is that the rainbow fades or shines as a whole — it is indivisible. And falling back on ancient defensive manoeuvres is a short-term strategy, and not sustainable.

The testudo (tortoise) was the strategy used by Roman legions when they were surrounded: soldiers would close ranks to form a tight square, maintaining an impregnable barrier with their shields both around and above themselves. It was an exhausting procedure, and even the fittest and best-trained army in the world could only maintain it successfully for a few hundred yards. It was a desperate action of last resort.

The laager was the formation the Trek Boers in South Africa used to protect themselves and their families at night from attack. This in turn was adapted from an old Gaulish/Teutonic tradition; by securing your perimeter you were “free” inside an impregnable circle.

A couple of weeks ago in Pretoria it seemed I saw both defensive traditions in the space of 18 hours. On a hot Friday morning as I tried to get out of the city centre, traffic was diverted and came to a near standstill as hordes of young people wearing “Hands Off Zuma” T-shirts poured towards a collection point.

The first thought that came to mind was testudo. Never has the ANC been so defensive. The wording alone said it all. ‘“Hands off” is just an aggressive way of saying “please leave us alone”.

Of course it is understandable, because they are surrounded on all sides. First, by former colleagues. Juju and the EFF would have all been marching in yellow T-shirts in 2010, but are now picking off stragglers at a speedy rate. Defections are rife. The once impregnable trade union movement is undergoing continuing erosion, and each splintering group forms its own legion which attacks former comrades. For more than 20 years the State of the Nation address became increasingly elaborate and designer-clad ANC stalwarts revelled in the red carpet circus. This year? No red carpet, no pomp, just razor wire and extra security.

We are most angry when we are most frightened, and you only had to see Lindiwe Sisulu in Parliament flailing at Mmusi Maimane with a desperate spew of incorrect facts and personal invective to know that her army is feeling the pressure. Meanwhile from the army’s high command there are conflicting rumours of mutiny, survival and betrayal. How many in the high command need General Zuma to survive if they are to retain their own power? And how many in that same group need the general to fall on his sword if the army is to survive intact?

Historically, once they lose a stronghold, the ANC have never been able to regain power. From Midvaal in 2001, to Cape Town in 2006, to the Western Cape in 2009 — once they have lost power they are lost. So we can expect some really fierce fighting in the months ahead. Which is why they are huddling together, seeking protection as they feel the pressure from all sides.

But testudo is exhausting. You have to huddle together, crouched and cramped, while shuffling backwards to safety. It is not sustainable as a policy or an action.

So from testudo to the laager. The night before the “hands off” march, I was in the State Theatre where the thriving and vibrant Afrikaans arts culture community was rewarding its top achievers. The Fiesta Awards (which I have had the pleasure of directing for the last four years) highlights the art and entertainment being created and platformed at festivals around this country. Playwrights, directors, designers, musicians, artists, actors, performers are creating inventive, articulate, indigenous work ranging across every genre. And winner after winner on the night said the same thing: “Vertel ons eie stories” [tell our own stories]. Which to me sounded like, “Please, hear our stories.”

My friend was one of only a handful of black people in the audience that night, but he was delighted and amazed to witness work that spoke powerfully to him, although in a language he doesn’t understand. South African creators are tackling the whole spectrum of human and social issues in fascinating ways.

Yet more than 40-million people are ignorant of this work because the Afrikaans nation has been forced to retreat into a laager — for its survival and its growth. And it has enlarged that laager culturally and racially. For the racial bean counters, we had an almost equal split of black, coloured, and white singers, actors, dancers and instrumentalists among the more than 30 performers on stage — not by design but because they were the best at what they do.

But all that diversity, creativity and national expression was locked off from the rest of the country. And let us remember the cultural laager lies inside a larger laager of 8-million people, 3-million white and more than 5-million coloured Afrikaans-speaking South Africans. Afrikaans has become the language that nobody (aside from Afrikaans speakers) discusses any more; a truly historical irony bearing in mind how long it dominated our country’s political agenda.

Only when more than 8-million people feel that they will be heard, respected, understood and valued will that laager become unnecessary. And if the ANC is not to exhaust itself it will have to come out of the testudo soon. But in order for those things to happen, there has to be trust. And that is a commodity, which seems to be in increasingly short supply. DM


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