The population of South Africa has a strong majority of Christians, with significant Muslim and Jewish minorities too. Those who subscribe to the Abrahamic traditions regard their ancient holy books as a source of inspiration and guidance. Even our atheists and agnostics acknowledge the moral suasion of the writings of the religiously inclined.
A story of the wrath of God of modern relevance is contained in Chapter 19 of Genesis and in the Qur’an, in which Lot is Lut in Chapter 26 of Ash-Shu ara. It is the story of Lot’s wife, who disobeyed divine instructions not to look back at the fire and brimstone-fuelled destruction of the corrupted cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and the immolation of their evil citizens. As a consequence of her choice, she was turned into a pillar of salt.
This ancient story captured the imagination of Ukraine-born poet Anna Akhmatova, whose modern poem on the topic was published in English in 1973 some eight years after her death. In it she asks:
Who will grieve for this woman?
Does she not seem too insignificant for our concern?
Yet in my heart I never will deny her,
Who suffered death because she chose to turn.
In his famous anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut compares his own wartime experiences of the fire-bombing of Dresden by Allied bombers during World War II with the biblical fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The recent movie Aftermath, set in the ruins of Hamburg in late 1945, contains graphic images of the devastation wrought by modern “fire and brimstone”. It explores the trauma of loss of loved ones and the post-Nazism dilemmas of young Germans who tattooed “88” (for “Heil Hitler”) on their arms.
What, in the year 2020, should South Africans make of the story of Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt for her disobedience?
Ours is a forward-looking constitutional order: we have recorded in the Preamble to our supreme law, the Constitution, that we:
We also record in the same Preamble that the purpose of the Constitution is to:
These worthy sentiments and intentions are followed by a heartfelt:
May God protect our people.
Any objective observer of the debate that followed, and indeed the antics that preceded, the State of the Nation Address at the start of the 2020 session of South Africa’s Parliament would have to conclude that we have a long way to go to fulfil the promises and ideals of the founders of our Constitution, some of whom still grace the benches of the same Parliament that adopted the Constitution in 1996.
The Constitution is a transformative document: it expressly transforms the parliamentary sovereignty of the racist order of old to a social justice-oriented multi-party constitutional democracy under the rule of law with a new and justiciable Bill of Rights aimed at respect for human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms. Ours is a non-racial and non-sexist society, in theory and in law, but sadly, not in practice. Social democracy is not democratic socialism; the country “waits in vain for a coherent economic policy that gives priority to the vindication of these promises” as Justice Dennis Davis recently put it with his customary eloquence.
The majority of the public representatives now in Parliament regard the Constitution as a “bridgehead” (their term) to a new and radically different order in which what they call the “National Democratic Society” will emerge as a consequence of the pursuit of their “National Democratic Revolution”. The notion of “Radical Economic Transformation” is an element of their programme. Not for them the separation of powers, respect for property rights, the establishment of independent institutions like our judiciary, Chapter Nine institutions and National Prosecuting Authority with suitable checks and balances on the exercise of power. Their goal, stated expressly in their “Strategy and Tactics” documents, is to secure “hegemonic control of all the levers of power in society” in a manner that is entirely inconsistent with the values espoused in the Constitution.
They ignore the supremacy of the Constitution and mock its provision that “law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid”. Setting about fulfilling the obligations imposed by the Constitution, diligently and without delay, could not be further from their minds. Looting, State Capture and grand corruption with impunity are the order of the day. Replacing the last state president with his deputy has done little to change this sorry state of affairs. The revolution continues. The courts are kept busy impugning unconstitutional laws and conduct.
The chaotic start to the debate, the lack of constitutionally compliant direction by our leaders and marring the exchanges with the petty squabbling over alleged gender-based violence (all allegations and counter-allegations later withdrawn, which begs the question: why were they made in the first place?) serve to illustrate that ours is a society that has lost its way almost as seriously as Sodom and Gomorrah did.
Like Lot’s wife, too many of our leaders spend their time looking back, not forward to the future presaged in the Constitution. They do so to score cheap political points and to keep the wounds of the past festering instead of taking steps to heal them through a process of implementing the Constitution. Nelson Mandela was the first and last ANC leader to value and invest in the need for national reconciliation; now divisiveness is the order of the day.
This counterproductive and abusive practice tends to fuel a sense of entitlement and a victim-consciousness in those who seek to perpetuate the divisions of the past instead of healing them. Victimhood, real and perceived, even extends to the majority of those born after 1996. Their victimhood is not salved by the state of delivery of human rights, especially the right of access to basic education. Disgracefully so, this is the position a quarter of a century after the nation set out to establish social justice by holding the state to its obligation to “respect, protect, promote and fulfil” the rights in the Bill of Rights, one of which is access to basic education.
The dissonance between constitutional values and revolutionary values tends to promote paralysis in policymaking and therefore in delivery by the state of goods and services that are needed to fulfil the promises of the Constitution. The paralysis is addressed by fuelling the fires of victimhood, an electorally useful and much-abused diversion from the failure of the state to perform as it is supposed to in terms of the Constitution. The rise of populism, naked nationalism of the “Black African” variety and the perpetuation of the arbitrary and irrational race classifications of the past for purposes of education, economic activity and all manner of affirmative action tend to conspire to thwart unity and to build divisions of an unhealthy kind.
It bears pondering that Germany and Japan were devastated in the war of which Vonnegut writes so poignantly – a war which ended in 1945. A quarter-century later the two countries had risen from the ashes of their bombed and nuked cities. Peace and prosperity have marked their progression to becoming leading economies and sought-after societies of the 21st Century. There was no wallowing in defeat, no pursuit of “hegemonic control of the levers of power”, no seemingly endless clinging to a sense of victimhood, no recriminating about the Nazi and imperialist pasts of the two countries. There was just hard work and honest endeavour to rebuild from the ruins of devastated societies.
The Jews, six million of whom died in Hitler’s holocaust, do not wallow in victimhood in the way many South Africans now choose to do so.
Certainly, there was no unnecessary or counterproductive looking back in post-war Germany and Japan, a move that turned Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt.
This ability to look forward to a better future is an object lesson or parable that our politicians would do well to consider. South Africans ought to enjoy the future their Constitution promises them; instead the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah in the form of a failed state that further exacerbates poverty, joblessness and inequality (all on the increase) perturbs them. Our feckless politicians are bringing failure on instead of faithfully implementing the legal order and objectives agreed upon in 1996. Pursuing a revolutionary agenda by sleight of hand is no way to govern a country constitutionally committed to social justice for all, united in diversity. DM
Penguins push other penguins into the water to check if it is free of predators.