In South Africa, we have too much and too little faith in people. Too much in those with power, and too little in those with none.
It may sound odd to say we have too much faith in those in power, given the daily chorus of discontent ringing out across all forms of media. But I say it because that discontent is so often articulated as a call for those with power to change, or at least to allow change to happen. We want Jacob Zuma to resign, the ANC to self-correct, the NPA to do its job and racists to keep their prejudices to themselves. Despite all the wrong that they have done, we, apparently, have a belief that they can do better. Of course, they can do better, in the sense that it is a physical possibility, but they won’t. Our belief in their humanity is misplaced.
We fail to recognise people’s ability to deny their better nature when such denial benefits them greatly. Except for psychopaths, people do care about how their actions affect others, and often feel compelled to act out of concern for others. Presumably, it is to this altruistic aspect of their human nature that our appeals to those in power are typically directed. We hope that if they understand the harm they are doing, the good that is within them will prompt them to change their ways. We must just make them see. But getting them to see requires their co-operation, which is rarely forthcoming. We can present the facts, but they can shape their own understanding of those facts. Different understandings effectively turn on or off access to their better nature. The more personally beneficial it is to turn off their better nature, the more they will cling to the interpretation of the facts which allows them to do so.
Consider the example of racists. Racism is very useful to the racist. It is not simply a misguided understanding of the world which arose from poor socialisation. Racism is a mental construct which allows the racist to place some people outside of their moral circle. By conceptualising other races as less human, you can turn off your human response to their rights and suffering. Think about how useful this is for a white South African. A racist white South African need not be bothered by the suffering of black South Africans, let alone feel any sense of responsibility to alleviate that suffering. They need not be concerned about the privileges they benefited from, comfortable in their belief that their advantages came about from the hard work of their parents, and hard work alone. The situation for a non- or anti- racist white South African is much more complicated and uncomfortable. Those who are enjoying the benefits of racism are not about to give it up because you call on them to be better people.
President Zuma and his supporters are no different. They have probably shaped an understanding of the world which allows them to benefit from corruption and still sleep soundly at night. Few have the courage to let go of that understanding when presented with facts which contradict it. Letting go would awaken their altruistic and moral side, which in turn would prevent them from continuing to loot, or at least give them some restless nights.
Speaking truth to power is all well and good, and I do not wish to detract from the bravery of those who have stood up. I only wish to suggest that the chances that this alone will lead to change are limited. We need rather to speak with those without power and to have more faith in their humanity.
Positive change, if it is to come in South Africa, will come from changing the balance of power. This will come about only through the increased political, economic and social participation of the marginalised majority. Those who wish to see change must invest in assisting the majority to free themselves from the oppression which hinders their more active engagement in society, and trusting them to change the country for the better. This is not the same as attempting to manipulate the marginalised with populist rhetoric. It is the recognition that material deprivation and dehumanising treatment take their toll, and that this toll often leads to apathy. Apathy that occasionally flares (typically when in groups) into anger. The future of the country depends on reversing the consequences of oppression and the apathy it creates. Support the oppressed to reverse the consequences of oppression and the oppressed themselves will take care of the oppressor.
How we reverse this toll, I don’t know, but I would argue that finding out is where we should be investing our energy. The Black Consciousness Movement has, for many years, been attempting to do just this. Perhaps we can learn from them. What I do know is that the recognition of the humanity of the oppressed is the necessary first step towards the change so many are calling for. I would rather put my trust in the humanity of the majority than in the humanity of those in power who have learned to deny their better selves. DM
Chris Desmond is the Director of the Centre for Liberation Studies, a Lead Investigator and Senior Economist at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence on Human Development at Wits University and a Research Fellow of the FXB Centre for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University. He holds a PhD from the LSE and a Masters from UKZN. He writes in his personal capacity.