Our country is dislocating. We are in early stage dislocation requiring hospitalisation. Not yet intensive care, although that is coming. Not yet terminal, but that too may come after intensive care. Everything depends on how we respond to our current death spiral. The endgame has not yet started. But the time for making some big changes that capture the imagination and active support of the broad populace is running out.
Everywhere across the length and breadth of our land social alienation and dislocation are the order of the day. The alienation of the worker from the company management, the union member from the union leader, the rural poor from the chief in the house of traditional leaders, the politicians from the people, the legislature from the judiciary, the ruling party factions from each other, the social partners from the ruling party, the shack dweller from the councillor.
Everywhere, citizens are alienated and distrustful and disengaged from the institutions of governance. And this social dislocation drives the framing of the problem itself and the veracity of the political and economic debate. So we constantly hear how everything is framed as “either/or”. Deep hostility and adversarialism is the fuel that fires our discourse. And most often this adversarialism is underpinned by preconditions, ultimatums and threats.
The picture of our nation is nasty. Awful, in fact. It is soiled with the scars of Marikana, the five-month miners’ strike, the everyday service delivery protests, the worker strikes and student protests, the burning and looting of schools or foreigners’ stores, the endless corruption and constitutional precinct white-anting. Lawlessness is the new normal. Even from the highest office of the land. We are a country tearing ourselves apart in permanent instability. And this reality is reflected in the prognosis of ratings downgrades and the streams of negative media here and abroad. More critically and fundamentally there is growing demoralisation, of giving up hope. A sense among all citizens, and especially the most marginalised, that we are losing and things are getting worse. Sadly this is what we have become. This is what we must now bear witness to. These are the big things we read or see or hear about. The collective macro actions that make the headlines of history and impact on the many of us.
But beneath these things there is another more worrying and more unmeasurable social alienation happening. It’s much deeper and more fundamental. It is molecular and often invisible since it never makes the news headlines. One can only really experience it if you care to listen and look and really feel the pulse of the citizenry. It is the social alienation that can, if unchecked, implode nations into civil war.
This deeper alienation comes from an inner sense of knowing we are alone. Each one of us. Alone. And in our aloneness, we turn to our broken families, our tribe, our ethnic language, our race or class or gender for our identity. We take comfort in the warmth that comes with like attracting like. It solidifies us. Gives us an identity. A sense of meaning. And a sense of knowing we are not alone. Emboldens us to say: we are not them. We are not the other. They are the cause of our loss, of our anger. They have a white skin or a black, they speak a different language, they eat a different food, they are housed in a different home, they drive and we walk, they are wasteful and we use waste to survive. They are the other. We see them. We know them.
This deeper alienation should be the cause of our gravest worries. Because it cuts to the heart of the nation building project. Dare I say it: our rainbow nation is imploding. The so-called NDR of our erstwhile liberators has totally failed us all. We are more divided than ever. We are more race and ethnic and language identity driven than ever. We are more class and inequality driven than ever. As a nation we are lost at sea without a compass. We have no deeply held shared values. We scarcely can identify our shared interests, beyond a contract that itemises a commercial exchange of a loan or wage labour or provision of goods or services. That’s all that binds us. Our deepest empathy for one another has all but evaporated.
Our students made this visible in the fees and decolonisation protests. Vuwani talks the same language. Our cities and towns carry the same scars of race and class patterns of urban planning. We live in different worlds. The one percent and the rest. Citizenship is an existential identity at best. Our national ethos reflects this. We are a nation that always plays not to lose. We never play to win. That’s the DNA of our national psyche. Survival. From our sports teams to our social conflicts to our political antics. Everyone plays for their own corner. Playing to survive, playing not to lose out. Patching gaping wounds with BandAid strips. Covering up. Pretending we are one. Especially if foreigners are among us, or if we travel to a foreign land as social partners in team SA. We sing songs together, we keep the mythology up.
It’s worse. Our nation is worse. If we really want to win something for our tribe or race or ethnic group or social strata we must win it in a struggle against the other among us. Against ourselves, in fact. We never go out to win something for each other. We never voluntarily do something for the other beyond charity, or paying taxes or a car guard. This is sadly how we have come to think and act. Short-termist. Survivalist. Living the national identity and unity pretence. Yet each only for its own kind. A dog-eat-dog society where true empathy, that is the glue that underpins national identity, is illusive and evaporating.
We are shameful. Because our leaders know that this deeper national identity implosion and alienation is driven from all the unresolved social and economic issues of our young democracy. Even the kleptocracy knows this. In big-picture terms, we are told repeatedly that we are a country of poverty, inequality and unemployment. In these top three interrelated global human scourges we outperform all the other countries on this planet. These social scourges are our primary drivers. They shape the stage and the lighting of our everyday social dislocation drama which we bear witness to. We are a nation at war with itself in a struggle for control of the economic and social resources. Leaders dress this war up in neat little phrases that resonate with whomever they want to impress, with whatever they want us to believe. So the leaders say its RET or NPD or white capital versus black capital, or state tenderpreneurs versus debt interest laden BEEs, or whatever else.
It doesn’t really matter. It really doesn’t matter what our leaders call these things. Because at the heart of everything is a very simple, yet profound question facing our nation: who are we and what do we want to become? The Rainbow Nation honeymoon is over. Everyone agrees on that. The economic growth and social redistribution crisis is visible and structural and deep. Everyone agrees on that. We are all legitimate citizens who have each other and need each other, for better or for worse. Everyone agrees on that. The Constitution and the rule of law prevails, for now. We all agree. And that’s about it.
Ground floor. But enough to start.
Start what? A conversation. A conversation which must ultimately diffuse into every household, every school, every place of faith, every factory or mine or shop throughout every city and town and rural village. A conversation that is led by leaders who have the vision and will to lead.
At the national centre the leaders of government, labour, business and civil society need to start this conversation. They need to start it with some ground rules: there are no holy cows, there is no right or wrong except what we agree is best for our nation by consensus. We need to say that there is only ourselves and the quest to end hunger, homelessness, joblessness in order to truly cement our national identity.
Everything must be on the table for discussion: asset ownership, land, pay, taxes, tariffs, labour markets, regulations, administered prices, consumer prices, to name a few. Every interest or right currently held by any party is placed on the table for discussion. There are no preconditions, except the one that says that we can and we must build a truly inclusive nation of winners. We need to believe in ourselves. We need to believe that we can and will change everything and anything in a managed way to realise our strategic objectives. And in order to do that we need to start with ourselves, in our own social interest strata or tribe or class or race, and say we agree that we are prepared to give up anything which we hold dear to ourselves, to our people, to our interests, to our organisation. The measure of success for our ideas will not be just about what they deliver to those whom we represent, but at least as important, what our ideas and commitments give to the other, to our adversaries, to the entire nation.
Someone must lead this conversation. That should be the president, if we had one. Or the deputy president, if he had the will. But someone with authority and a constituency needs to stand up. They need to call us all together and lead by example. Government needs to put on the table everything they own and control, from land assets, to regulation, to social service delivery, to state-owned enterprises. Everything. Including their willingness to facilitate and drive this conversation and be open and humble. Labour needs to put its weapons of war and their inalienable rights on the table. Business needs to put on the table their readiness to unlock capital and invest, to give up ownership, to share profits, to end cartels, to share opportunities for more business with other businesses, to build the home market. And so on. Everyone needs to know from their hearts that you can’t grow your interest without also being prepared to give up something important that you already own and control. Give up cake to grow the cake for all.
It really is time to call things by their right names. We need to say bluntly that it’s an illusion to believe that a minimum wage deal or a new social grant contract or a court victory against the predatory elite, or the right to vote with one’s conscience, resolves any structural social or economic problem. It simply doesn’t. Important as these steps are, they are at best proxies for the real battle ahead. More BandAid strips, stop gaps that don’t end or even arrest our downward spiral. And in that sense they are truly not sustainable.
Let’s just get real. And get urgent. Let’s stop the naming and shaming of a left-wing professor or a ratings agency or errant minister or simply choosing good guys from bad guys. Let’s get loud and tell all leaders what we need. Get into the real nation building stuff. And that means that every economic lever known to humanity must be put on the conversation table. We must say who we want to become. We must think like leaders who want to win, not leaders who don’t want to loose. Start a real and substantive conversation about the whole cake, about sharing everything. This is urgent irrespective of who wins in 2019 or even 2024. Because without it we are doomed. Seriously doomed.
And let’s not wait for leaders who may never come. Let’s not pin all our hopes on starting the macro conversation in a national debate in an economic Codesa or Nedlac or some such magic forum with a new name. We can start anyway. Start today. Start with each of us. We can own our own future in our spheres of influence. As parents in our homes with our kids. As teachers in our schools with our students or managers in our factories with our workers or faith ministers with our congregations, or as councillors with our wards, or shop stewards with our members, or traditional leaders with our village people. Each one of us in leadership has a duty to start this conversation and to start with the same basic national identity questions: who are we and what are we? What are the values that bind us as a nation? How do we make them the glue that binds us in our everyday life ?
Leaders in business can ask HR for the gini coefficient of their company. Get the gap. Set a target and time frame and give up the excess at the top and distribute more to the bottom to meet the target. Leaders of families can choose to promote gender equality and be role models of a caring culture which accepts diversity as a strength. Leaders in government can say we want to be just like the people we serve, a nation of equals celebrating service, where no one benefits at the expense of another and where excellence in service to the people is profiled as examples of our national identity. Where leaders of parties and unions serve for the same benefit conditions as their members and followers. And so on.
These things can be done. They require will. Deep will. They require us all to take a long, hard look at ourselves in the mirror. They require us all to repent and say sorry. Truly sorry. To be humble. To forgive each other. Truly forgive. And to start an entirely new social and economic South African conversation on a blank page. The one we have never had. The one that is about voluntarily sharing much, much more in order to care a whole lot more for one another. The one that truly embraces our diversity to fuel a nation of winners. Not just as a colour in the rainbow or a demographic number tick box exercise. But as a people from the south. As South Africans. The one that means what it says on Ubuntu: that we are who we are through each other. DM
Stephen Hawking held a party for time travellers. He sent the invitation out the day after. Nobody attended.