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We need to go beyond #ImStaying in this gigantic laboratory called South Africa


Glen Heneck is a Cape Town businessman and occasional social commentator. He holds law degrees from UCT and Cambridge and was an avid Charterist until the mid 1990s.

To simply declare ‘I’m staying’ is not in itself a meaningful moral commitment (even if it’s entirely sincere). What is needed is a more comprehensive pledge embodying a thought-through commitment to help build a better society.

To its loyalists, #ImStaying – the popular Facebook group – is the best thing to happen to the country in ages; a social movement that is, at once, involving, inclusive and inspiring. To its progressive detractors, on the other hand, it’s little more than mass therapy for the privileged; an exercise in self-affirmation that fails to engage with the harsh realities of majority life.

The censoriousness and cynicism that comes from the arch left, reflexively, is a singular barrier to our collective well-being; bad for investment, bad for morale, bad all round. It doesn’t follow, though, that their criticism in this case is without foundation. To the contrary, it highlights the fact that to simply declare “I’m staying” is not in itself a meaningful moral commitment (even if it’s entirely sincere). What is needed, especially from the decently resourced, is a more comprehensive pledge than that; embodying not just a present intention to resist the lures of London but a thought-through commitment to help build a better society.

I made up my own version in 1991 – I’m sorry, I’m staying and I’m willing to share – but that doesn’t quite do the trick. It felt okay at the time, post-apartheid and pre-Zuma, but today we probably need something more substantial. More general for one thing, and also more detailed, more lyrical and more uplifting. The ideal, at least to my way of thinking, would encompass the following:

  1. Some sense of the extraordinariness of our situation. Our “national” borders, like those through the rest of the continent, were drawn up by self-interested, far-removed, European supremacists without the faintest regard for on-the-ground demographics or intrinsic viability. Our country is the photo-negative of the archetypal nation-state; so conventional models and measurements should be applied with considerable reserve;
  2. An explicit commitment to uphold the values of our Constitution; to cherish the rights it affords and to honour the responsibilities it imposes. There are those on all sides who insist, and maybe believe, that their leaders sold them out in 1994; but that’s neither plausible nor true. Compromises were made, to be sure, but given the historic circumstances, there were no alternatives that were both better and achievable. The Constitution is a communal treasure;
  3. An outline of our incomparable collective vocation. Wittingly or otherwise, and like it or not, the 60 million of us who chanced to be born here (including about five million “gastarbeiters”) are all active participants in the greatest experiment in the history of mankind. Crudely put: We’re living in a gigantic laboratory – a microcosm of the world as a whole – and if we can make a go of it we’ll have laid down the formula for effective world government; and
  4. A recognition of the rule of rules: that showing due regard for all our neighbours is essential to both contentment and survival.

South Africa should never have been a unitary state and it will never be a united nation. It is, though, a land of surpassing potential (and beauty) and it might yet become an exemplary country. Whether that happens or not – whether we end up a bonfire or a beacon – will depend, more than anything, on the sum of our collective expectations and attitudes.

The #ImStaying movement has shown the way in terms of positive spiritedness. Now we need to hear from three other virtual communities.

Are the economically privileged ready to give up a meaningful portion of their wealth, and power, to facilitate further improvements in the material conditions of the marginalised?

Are the electorally privileged willing to live with incremental reform so as to enable ongoing growth and development?

And, perhaps most crucially, are the academically privileged able to get over their addiction to the idea that the only real problem in South Africa is the obduracy and nastiness of its white citizenry? DM


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