When I read the news headlines I hear the sound of alarm bells ringing. Business elites are worried about the weakening of the currency, the prospect of further downgrades and extra-judicial land expropriation. Civil society, when it uses it’s voice, laments the degradation of our social fabric, the undoing of the social contract and the deficits in health, education and social mobility that plague most of our communities. The politicians, like the wrestle mania celebrities of WWE, strut their respective personas as they compete for predominance in the boxing ring of public popularity, each claiming that their “victory is certain!”
A very particular sound emanates from South Africa – a noisy democracy as someone called it.
Every now and then I am reminded of the sound I remember hearing growing up among the banana plantations of Hazyview, Mpumalanga. Mostly sheltered from the political, social and economic dissonance of the day. Those were the 1980s, when boycotts, township “riots” and “necklacings” were reported by Riaan Cruywagen on the 8pm SABC news (read propaganda).
As a privileged white boy, a child of a minister, I did not witness the marches or the protests. The only window into the broader South African reality, outside of our white bubble, was the occasional dinner table remark or a naïve visit to the khaya where farm workers lived, to play barefoot with my friends.
I remember hearing of one incident when a domestic worker was apparently forced to drink Staysoft fabric softener, to intimidate her for failing to comply with the boycott. I remember wondering about the repugnant taste and what the effect would have been on her tummy. It seemed inconceivable that a person would have to endure such treatment. On another occasion we were told we were unable to use the road through Bushbuck Ridge to go to school, because “they were throwing stones” in the township between Hayzyview and White River. I wondered, ignorantly, why people were throwing stones.
The broader social injustice of the system was quite simply lost on an eight-year-old, who aside from these flashes of reality, spent sunny days meandering curiously through the farmer’s shed looking for trinkets with which to play. Privilege was blinding.
The South Africa of today is a vastly better place than the South Africa of 1985. This is partly because of the sacrifice of those who fought for liberation and partly because liberation has brought with it the removal of the political “system of apartheid” which forced upon the black majority a life of oppression and exclusion, creating room for a more inclusive economic and social system. So the country is fundamentally better off. Or is it?
When one steps back from the noisy crescendo of fear and factional interest that marks the discourse, one might conclude that South Africa IS better off. But for the necklacing of a Daveyton teenager this week, the protests these days are about service delivery by a democratically elected government to a democratic and free society. We are now free to debate race, class, gender and call for free education, recall our presidents and vassalage socio-psychologically from Ramaphoria to Ramaphobia as we wish.
It was Martin Luther King Jr. who during a bus boycott popularised the phrase “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. He was quoting Theodore Parker, a 1860 American reforming minister of the Unitarian church, who said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”
In my short meander on this beautiful land, within and between the various social bubbles that mark our society, I share Luther and Parker’s view that the arc bends towards justice. But, like them, I see the slowness of the bend and it convinces me that some might not agree with the basic assumption that their life is “better”.
As a futurist and educator I use the tools of analysis and informed conjecture to anticipate the future of our country, and the signs are there that we can reach higher and higher planes of justice – if we educate and employ the young and make a basic commitment to fairness. We can use our positive attributes in business, education, our institutions and our innate resilience to uplift each other.
What concerns me is the path we choose to get there. We seem to be double-minded about a constructive inclusive approach and a destructive exclusionary one. Where I disagree with Luther and Parker, is that the arc does not bend of its own accord, nor by some fatalistic divine decree. No, we bend the arc when we choose justice over injustice.
I cannot begin to imagine the anguish of the Daveyton mother whose son was attacked this week, nor the anguish of the mother who claims to have been wronged by the alleged criminal in the first place. To attempt to describe their anguish would be presumptuous and naïve. We have no window into their pain and only a vague sense that there is a cry for justice – both ways. Justice, that accounts for dignity.
As a community, South Africa is better off than we were, but we are “not okay”. If we are honest about our country’s past, we should celebrate the gains of democracy, but if we value our country’s future, we should accelerate the curve towards justice. DM