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How to be a Survivor

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

From our lulled world of guaranteed freedoms, of open societies, of multiculturalism and interconnected worlds, suddenly nothing is certain any longer.

Just over 25 years ago Francis Fukuyama, the most celebrated political scientist of his day, famously tempted fate and infamy. In 1989 Mikhael Gorbachev had eased open the wine bottle of reform, presiding over an unstitching of the body politic that would forever change the world. In short order the 15 republics of the Soviet Union would gain independence, the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down, the Cold War would be won and lost and the ANC would be unbanned in South Africa. The West, and all the progressive virtues it stood for, had triumphed.

In an exultant mood, Fukuyama had proclaimed it as “the end of history” and spoke of “the Last Man”. What he meant by this was that western liberal democracy and its associated concepts of liberty and the rule of law had triumphed as the apogee of political systems, from which no further progression was needed. Its reach would be inevitable; the economic munificence it bestowed – that of the warm touch of globalisation – boundless. Even Man himself need not evolve any more – he had reached a summit of evolution.

Growing up in the years after Fukuyama’s proclamation, so many of my generation had no need to learn about what the cultural commentator Simon Kuper described as, “how to be a survivor”. There was no need. By survivors, Kuper meant people with instincts that could actually envisage a world destroyed. Not a world inconvenienced or suffering a temporary setback, mind you, but a world inflicted with a deep trauma or apocalypse.

My generation had no need to develop this instinct because in a post-Fukuyama world, such experiences became extinct. Survival was left to previous generations over whom we’d progressed.

Survivors were our Jewish grandparents who witnessed the Holocaust. Or Boer guerrillas who witnessed their entire families being eviscerated in British concentration camps, their fields sowed with salt. Or modern American multimillionaires, who never forgot their childhood deprivations in the Great Depression and who, despite their subsequent wealth, went to their grave still clipping out supermarket coupons and reusing postage stamps. For such people, the memory of utter destruction would forever colour whatever future life they could somehow clutch on to. But we weren’t them.

Survivors,” Kuper said, “think differently from the rest of us… I realised there is an unbridgeable gap between survivors such as [those who survived WWII] and innocents such as me. I expected a linear existence of study, work, insurance, pension and death in bed. Survivors do not. Once your home town has been destroyed, it is easy to imagine the world destroyed.”

The events of 2016 have brought into sharp focus how premature Francis Fukuyama was. It’s also brought into focus how, despite what we’d thought, many of my generation may need to face up to the fact that in due course we’ll have to become survivors to deal with its blowouts.

In a short space of time we’ve witnessed the concept of liberal democracy going from one of dominance to one of retreat. Today there is arguably more of the world – from Russia to Venezuela, from vast Turkey through to Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and still vaster China – where, in the words of historian Peter Frankopan, “the thing they have in common is that they are governed by systems closer to the traditions of royal courts than to liberal democracies. At the heart is a powerful ruler, surrounded by a tight group of advisers and magnates whose interests are aligned. Those not deemed sufficiently loyal or overstep the mark are summarily removed”.

Equally striking is how the people of many Western countries have come to reject the effects of liberal democracy’s great offspring, globalisation. Turns out that Americans, British and potentially French citizens were not enamoured with it after all.

And so, post-Erdogen, post-Crimea, post-Brexit and post-Trump (and possibly pre-Marine le Pen, who dares to predict any longer?), in a world in which America’s future National Security Adviser is a man who has tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL… there are groups of Americans trying to create an Islamic state in the US”, my generation find ourselves adrift in an ocean of uncertainty, our worlds riven by fault lines we scarcely knew existed. From our lulled world of guaranteed freedoms, of open societies, of multiculturalism and interconnected worlds, suddenly nothing is certain any longer. We will probably carry the effects of these pieces of collective trauma with us forever. We will probably have to become hardened survivors to cope.

Survivors learn to take nothing for granted. Survivors are wary. Survivors learn never to assume their neighbours think the same as they do, even if they’ve found agreement in the past. Survivors understand that human progress is not linear but subject to bouts, often violent and wanton, of extreme regression.

We are living through an age which has more in common with those ages we’d supposedly left behind than we’d care to think. But a survivor knows that. DM

This article originally appeared in The Mercury.


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