A century from now, historians will look back on the current decade of South African discourse and describe the threads of despair, disdain and disregard, woven like secondhand plastic shopping bags into a doormat of racialised debate.
In any given week, one can expect to hear a conservative minority agitator raging against the shortcomings of the government, a majoritarian traditionalist berating another race group for their bigotry, and witness an oblivious liberal questioning why their bleeding heart must also make room for guilt, alongside privilege and self-loathing.
This is the South African nation, a contradiction in terms and a conflation of class, race, tribe and contrasting sub-cultures. The difficult task of a philosopher and social observer in the year 2118 will be to interpret these strands and seek to describe their meaning and texture, against the colourful backdrop of our history and society as it is today – to make sense of the competing claims that, together, create the unique and often ironic South African refrain.
When US President Donald J. Trump tweets about South Africa, he touches us on our respective studios, and we respond, each in their role like characters in a Gibson Kente or A.R. Krueger production. Predictably, the angry left wing and the angry right wing attack each other, while the indifferent middle watch aghast and wonder “why we can’t simply get on with being that Rainbow?”.
From where I stand the reason is threefold: A part of the problem is pain, another is legitimacy and the elephant in the proverbial room is competing notions of justice.
‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’
Those were the famous words of Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice where Shylock, the Jewish businessman, reminds the Venetians that all people, even those who are not part of the majority culture, are human. In a twist of dark prosaic genius, Shakespeare allows Shylock to stoop to the level of his tormentors by raising his voice in a monologue against the villains, only to finally commit himself to becoming a villain of equal virility. Why? Because pain, unacknowledged, bears heirs closely resembling its progenitor.
South Africa is in pain, and we are bearing our souls for the world to see. Only, the pain of South Africans does not take the form of a monolithic wound, such as the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing in WWII, where “black rain” fell for a half-hour after the American nuclear bomb exploded, spreading fiery radioactive particles of contaminated air, visible as far as 160km away. So immense was Hiroshima’s force that cemeteries were uprooted, and two-thirds of buildings, including churches, became rubble. No, South Africa’s pain was inflicted slowly and sadistically, by the incision of 100 million debasements of human dignity, a war of many on many, by wide-ranging torments large and small, one against another. Today, if we are pricked, we bleed.
But whose pain is legitimate?
When South Africans express their pain, historically rooted or current, there is a ravenous chorus that quickly emerges stage-left or stage-right to shut down the monograph of post-traumatic stress.
“Your pain is not legitimate … because our pain matters more,” the script goes.
Paul Bloom, Yale University researcher and psychology professor, argues in Against empathy: the case for rational compassion, that:
“We often think of our capacity to experience the suffering of others as the ultimate source of goodness.”
He reveals that empathy is one of the leading motivators of inequality and immorality in society. Why? Because “instead of helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty”.
Bloom’s point is not that human compassion is inherently bad, only that it tends to be a subjective measure of right – a “poor moral guide”. That is, “empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism”, a potentially dangerous instrument in public matters.
He goes further, warning that “our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity towards others”.
His argument is that people have a limited capacity for feeling the pain of others, and tend to identify with those who remind them of themselves. This Bloom calls “perverse moral mathematics”.
Following Bloom’s line of argument, some in South Africa seem to be suffering from a serious case of “my pain, and the pain of my group, is more legitimate than yours”, and are, sadly, packaging the legitimacy of people’s pain in neat and politically expedient racial terms. This is dangerous and disingenuous.
It would be interesting if the community of South African psychologists provided a prognosis of the nation’s socio-psychological well-being, were it possible to prognosticate about the psyche of a nation at all, let alone one as fractured as our shattered rainbow surely is. It would not surprise me if “social alienation”, a low degree of integration or common values and a high degree of distance or isolation between individuals, groups or of people in a community, and a stunted form of Loevinger’s “self-protective” ego-development, that craves a morally prescribed, rigidly enforced order, leading in later life to opportunism, deception, or naive instrumental hedonism, feature strongly.
My own sense, after monitoring the discourse in its various polarities for a number of years, is that we are trying to be a nation, after only recently rolling out of a burning and overloaded minibus taxi, when it overturned somewhere between Jan Van Riebeekstad and Ubuntuville. The seemingly easy way out of our pain is to raise our hands and point at one another, in blame. The more difficult task is to forgive with our eyes wide open.
“That is easy for you to say,” I am told. Yes, I know. That’s true. But it might also be the truth that our collective future will be better if we forgive one another than if our respective passions convince us to legitimise our pain, only in some zero-sum game of re-racialisation. What if all pain everywhere was legitimate? What if our humanity required of us not only to relate to those who resemble us, but to relay a feeling of solidarity – an internalisation of the pain of the “other”?
If we allow our pain to re-racialise our nation we will only build walls that divide us further, and reduce our own humanity in the process. Is it not true that a better future is one where we get past the pain, in order to go on to justice?
Therein lies the challenge. For some, justice is achieved through punishment. For others, justice is the absence of injustice, requiring reform, redress or restitution. For a rare few, injustice is turned to justice only through mercy. It is often the case that we must face and forge through pain while justice remains illusive. Under such circumstances the ones who benefit most from our bravery are ourselves. Our failing to acknowledge our pain is a pathway to enslavement; thereby, a dead end I am sure our nation would rather avoid. DM
Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics. He oversees the Future of Business in SA project which uses strategic foresight and scenario planning to explore the future of South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.
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Marius Oosthuizen is a member of faculty at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria, South Africa. He teaches leadership, strategy and ethics. He oversees the Future of Business in SA project that uses strategic foresight and scenario planning to explore the future of South Africa, Africa and Brics.
Adolf Hitler was the first European leader to ban human zoos.