Defend Truth


Heal the land, heal the people, heal South Africa


James Blignaut is Professor extraordinaire attached to the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University and honorary research associate attached to the South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON). The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of any of the institutions he might be associated with.

In a society as fractured as South Africa’s, it sometimes seems as though beginning the process of healing is an insurmountable task. Perhaps a good start would be by healing the place where it all begins, the land.

Sinisterly similar are the microbiological processes in both the soil and our stomachs. Bacteria, by their billions in a teaspoon, turn inaccessible nutrients into accessible, life-preserving, ones. The processes are so strikingly parallel the phrase from dust we are and to dust we return gets new meaning: We can be no healthier than the food we eat, and the food we eat can be no healthier than the soil it comes from.

The connection between healthy and restored landscapes and soil on the one hand and food production and human health on the other hand, is as strong and self-evident as we’re simultaneously oblivious to it. Ignorance is bliss, but at what cost?

Degraded soils not only lead to a reduction in the productive capacity of the soil, but also in its ability to store carbon and water. Soil, plant and animal-based biodiversity is also inhibited as a result. System-wide resilience is therefore compromised — in addition, the land’s capability to produce healthy food is compromised, and that compromises our health. External inputs, such as chemicals, can support sustained yields, but at increased financial costs and have their own detrimental and long-lasting consequences.

Why do we humans degrade that which supports our own well-being and life, that of future generations and that of other species? Are we just ill-informed, or downright stupid? In seeking to answer this, the bad, the ugly and the downright evil cannot be summarised in only a few lines. What follows are four trends that seem to dominate and that could be perceived as some of the key drivers.

First, our perception and appreciation, or not, of time and money and the relationship between the two, are instrumental in the choices we make regarding both today and tomorrow. Can we eat wealth, can our children eat wealth, or could we use money to restore and heal?

Second, our attitude towards both people and nature, or, simply put, the respect we have towards them, or then the lack thereof. Respect is value- and paradigm-driven — it is cultured at home, at school, in society. Respect is foundational. Disrespect leads to lawlessness, and lawlessness to a society in complete disarray. When leaders consider themselves above the rest, when political and business leaders behave like psychopaths and loot, rape and enrich themselves, society will be filled with looters, rapists and self-enrichers; people arrogantly concerned only about themselves and today.

Third, and connected to the previous points, is the weight of fragmentation — driven by, among others, the vices of social media. A disenchanted, divided and disconnected society is a society that does not care; it cares neither for its women and children, nor for its environment and its future.

Fourth, when social injustices are layered on top of one another, then the value of life is eroded and the psyche of humanity becomes a wasteland. Why value soil and soil health and the link to healthy food and healthy lives, when mankind does not value his own kind? More since the battlefield for the soul of the nation consists of land and land-related matters. Does it come as a surprise that land and land-related matters are at the heart of so many conflicts — worldwide?

These conflicts are but a reflection of our inner struggles. They reflect our insecurities in and obsession with identity, consequently laying bare our ruthless short-sightedness — and the painful consequences thereof. The conflicts depict a people at odds with itself, with others, and with the land on and in which we live.

The longer this conflict prevails, the more ruthless and short-sighted we become. This leads to more knee-jerk reactions, more revolutionary responses which are followed by counter-revolutionary reactions. In the end, as the old African proverb goes: When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. It is the caring and loving, the vulnerable and marginalised citizen on the one hand, and the quality and ability of the land to support the fighting people on the other, that pay the price. The result is a deterioration in the quality of life for all parties.

While the list can surely be extended, these four, namely our perception of time and money, respect, societal fragmentation and social injustices clearly do shape, and heavily so, our destructive past. How do we plan to go forward while the baggage of the past is tagging along and there seems to be no immediate escape?

It goes without saying that if we do not like the past, either historic or recent trends leading up to today, or if today’s quest is on the higher moral ground than that of yesterday, we should not make the same mistakes as in the past, recent or otherwise. It is accredited to Albert Einstein that problems cannot be solved within the same mindset that created them. This profound wisdom has far-reaching consequences.

Healing cannot flow from a depressed national mindset, but only from a confidence-building, restorative one. Restoration does not deny the facts; it commences with the acknowledgement that something is wrong, seriously wrong, and that healing is required. Nobody is as blind to healing and deaf to caring as the alcoholic or drug addict in denial.

Restoration is thus, per definition, reconciliatory. It reconciles us with our past. It reconciles us with our future. It reconciles us with our neighbours and fellow countrymen. It reconciles us with our actions of healing and the desire to bring the same to others. That is why restoration is not an event, but a process, like the healing path of an addict. It commences with an acknowledgement, followed by the desire and will to change, and then taking the steps to make those required changes — small steps at first, but progressively moving forward towards recovery.

Healing, therefore, does not come with the wave of a magic wand, but in taking that first step towards it.

Can we, as a society, change our perception with respect to time and money to invest where it matters most, where the dividends will last for generations by restoring the very land, the soil, on which we stand and from which we come?

Can we commence on a path of mutual respect, starting with the leaders — the champions of industry and politics — to cherish the future of others?

Can we find a common objective, an integrating whole, that unites and that undoes social injustices? Why not start where it hurts — the land — erosion scars are but the physical manifestation of a society in trauma. The healing of both is required, one step at a time.

Let us heal the land and heal the people. DM


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