South Africa is in a parlous space. Our human species is in a parlous space. Our natural world is in a parlous space. I have heard some call this a “civilisational crisis”. Ironically it a crisis of our failure to be civilised and it’s that that may kill us. This crisis may be pending for you and me, but for many hundreds of millions of people it’s already here.
Can you, dear privileged reader of the Daily Maverick, imagine what it must be like to be living in a nightmare that doesn’t have a happy ending or that you go to sleep to get away from?
Think about it. Look it up. You will find it on a street corner near you.
What’s most frustrating is that this need not be. Humans are a clever species. We differ from other mammals in that we have the power of imagination. We are able to construct things from our imagination – and deconstruct them. The vast majority of us hate war and violence, we love loving, we don’t steal or break the law, are sympathetic to our friends and neighbours, particularly in times of trouble.
So why are we in this huge and dangerous mess? What is it that holds us back?
Us is what holds us back.
Fortunately, ideologies no longer have the power they did to separate us because they have so patently failed to describe the present or guide us to a dignified future: but high-horse-ism does. In my work for social justice as part of SECTION27 and TAC over the last few years, high-horse-ism is the attitude I most frequently encounter before, during and after an attempt to bring people together to try to improve our collective lot.
The mess we have made is so huge and complex that we can’t resolve it as individuals. Making change starts with an individual decision to do something (your decision), but after this realisation it requires that you work with other people, combine powers, skills, perspectives, resources. None of us are enough on our own. And here’s the rub that, as Hamlet said, “makes calamity of so long life”.
In South Africa, as we try to build people’s power to restore constitutionalism and hope, the most common “argument” (for want of a better word) I encounter is:
“I agree with what you are doing, but I don’t trust Sipho Pityana, he’s sold out, he’s an agent of big capital.”
“I agree with what you are doing but I don’t trust Zwelinzima Vavi, he’s a front for Numsa, he’s tarnished by his past mistakes.”
“I agree with what you are doing but I don’t trust Cheryl Carolus, she’s also an agent for big capital, a comrade who has gone over to the dark side.”
“I agree with what you are doing, but there are too many white people, too many EFF people, too many Numsa people; it’s too DA, it’s too ANC; it’s too middle class, it’s too working class; it’s a Mark Heywood project, it’s anti-SA.”
And with this off their chest most of the high-horse-ists go back to their featherbed silk-lined trenches, keyboards, Twitter and Facebook platforms. Or rather, back you go.
This is a fatal error, a recipe for paralysis. It’s the formula for instant Facebook and Twitter “Heroes”.
Such arguments (for want of a better word) overlook the fact that we live in a complex world.
Since the advent of South Africa’s democracy almost everybody has made mistakes, some serious, but not every mistake arose from an evil intention.
I would rather give a degree of trust to, and work with, people I may have some qualms or political disagreements with than float in my own bubble. I would rather identify the common ground, and deepen it, than flounder in the areas of our disagreement and never move forward.
Of course, there are some people I would never trust or never forgive. Where you draw the line is a difficult, often subjective issue of degree. I won’t work with a woman beater or woman hater. I won’t work with a racist. I won’t work with an arms dealer or somebody whose daily actions in the economy or politics are so reckless as to endanger us all. Personally, I won’t work with Thabo Mbeki, ever, because of the hundreds of thousands of deaths he caused through AIDS denialism and his stubborn refusal to say sorry. I don’t think we can forgive that – although some leaders want us to.
The uncomfortable truth is we middle classes have all turned our backs on the working class and the poor – including those who are the most vocal advocates of the interests of the working class. Check out the cars and the suits of even the most left-leaning trade unionists. It’s true, you don’t have to be dirt poor to represent the poor, but you do have to be modest. Not every person needs their own little garden of conspicuous consumption. That is the road to social distance.
The truth is that many of us who believe in social justice or socialism have failed to engage modern reality for some time. Here’s one example. A common refrain among some of my comrades is that “Pravin Gordhan is a neoliberal. He himself is captured by big capital.” I doubt that of a man who has made such sacrifices for our liberation and who has maintained a high level of personal integrity.
I hope never to be proven wrong.
But I have no doubt that running the Treasury is a complex operation, far more complex than anything the Facebook Heroes or Twitterati have ever had to contemplate, with far more consequence than the number of “likes” or “retweets” you may get for your clever commentary. To be a finance minister makes you the focus of an entire army of lobbyists and embedded “experts”, especially from the privileged. It’s in the genes of capitalism to interfere and to try to enhance its profits. That’s what makes it such a soulless economic system.
But actually, dear comrades of the left (among which I number myself), the problem is us. We weren’t organised enough or strategic enough to create a counter pressure to the ideas and needs of big business. We don’t monitor closely enough, engage robustly enough, research rigorously enough. Instead we serve up a minestrone of bits of ideology and bits of idealism from the sidelines with no serious engagement with the actual issues.
So, we are the problem, the authors of our own winter of discontent. In recent years our state was captured by criminals because we were looking inwards. We’ve all become experts on state fuckery but where were we to defend Robert McBride, Adrian Lackay, Yolisa Pikie, Ivan Pillay and a host of other whistle-blowers when all this started? Or how about those clever people who loudly damn the Constitution as an evil and debilitating compromise but will never accomplish for poor and working people one percent of what Thuli Madonsela has done through demanding observance of the Constitution?
Or how about those brave anti-capitalists who reject the rule of “bourgeois law”, but are left floundering in their own fecal rhetoric while institutions like the Competition Commission knock real chinks in neoliberalism by uncovering collusion and cartels.
The truth is that we are lost up our own ideologies and it’s time to get out.
There’s a scene in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where after an age of introspection and paralysis one of its two characters, Vladimir, erupts in a rare moment of purpose and tells his mate Estragon:
“Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears. But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say?”
Vladimir and Estragon are us. When the play ends they are still waiting for Godot, two clowns still inhabiting their post-apocalyptic landscape where there’s only one tree left.
If you have got to the end of this article I would appeal to you to stop waiting for Godot. He ain’t coming. Get organised, find your own volition. Be pragmatic. It’s not about putting aside differences or principles, it’s about meaningfully engaging each others’ differences while we work our common ground.
In our little patch of land, one good place to start is by taking actions that support the vision and demands of the Save South Africa campaign. This movement may not succeed, but it cannot afford to fail.
Rather give it a go than sit on your high horse. DM
The air quality from pollution on a cruise ship can at times be worse than the world's worst cities.