Defend Truth


Building a society cemented by stories that rekindle life


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.

While stories of a utopian past abound, can we use this dystopian season of facing an unknowable and uncertain future, to write new stories to tell our children? Stories that cement our society, one house, one block of flats, one suburb, one village, one community at a time. Stories of healing on which our children can build.

Locked in we are, but not locked down; as a society, we might not be visible on the streets, in the coffee shops and in the meeting places, but we are not down and out.

A plague of this magnitude can be beaten through a dedicated two-pronged strategy, namely that of society-wide solidarity and local resilience. We heed and respect the president’s statesman-like and bold call of physical distancing and isolation. It is for our lives. It is for the life of our country and our people. The value of life far exceeds any financial losses. Thus, in solidarity, we lock ourselves in, but we do not despair, on the contrary. The antidote to fast-mounting financial and economic losses is local resilience; resilience that garners authentic stories of rejuvenation.

More about this later, but first, spare a thought for the extroverts, those who are energised by and through their interactions with others and the external world. Their dopamine-rich brains crave for people: to be both the energy of the group and to tap from that energy for their own sustenance. On the colour cards, the blues and greens are daily in semi locked-in mode. The reds will have very well-behaved dogs in three weeks’ time. The yellows… my sincere condolences to you and your household… and I, a blue/green introvert, mean it wholeheartedly.

In and amid the turmoil, the fear, the panic-buying, the pain and suffering, both physically and otherwise, those who are sick and/or recovering, and those who have to attend to the sick, this is also an opportunity for a season of “R”:

  • Rest and recover;
  • Reflection and repair;
  • Reset and recalibrate; and
  • Rekindle and regenerate towards resilience.

This is a much-needed season of “R” as it seems as if mankind has been in conflict with itself and everything around it for a long time, speeding towards a catastrophe. This is simply because the implied philosophy behind the 4IR is that the future belongs to those who can manipulate machines best, while functioning, thinking and performing in fast-forward mode – and all of these with metronomic efficiency.

Bad hair days are washed down with copious amounts of coffee and a favourite sugar-containing treat. This, with the build-up of lactic acids, is burnt off in various kinds of self-indulgences such as time spent in the gym.

Within the metronome’s mindset, which is rhythmically racing between performance and pleasure, there is no time for indecisiveness, uncertainty, surprises and variability. Machines, simultaneously the objective and the product of the 4IR, together with 4G and now 5G and AI, have contributed much towards increased connectivity.

However, in the process the world has become much more fragmented, resulting in many more plausible outcomes or future trajectories to choose from – thus more, not less, uncertainty, surprises and variability. The result: more indecisiveness. The time it takes to get a decision from top management, or a government official, or any other decision-maker who must take into consideration many more permutations, has increased, making the world slower, not faster. How ironic.

While things were dripping into the “in” tray daily, the “pending” tray overflowed and the “out” tray remained empty. We have become slaves of our own idols – with less straw provided and more bricks required.

Caught in the friendly fire of the metronomic maelstrom of modern 4IR life are relationships. Relationships disobey all the rules of living in the fast lane. They do not conform to the efficiency, precision, performance and clinically uniform standards of a stereotypical machine and are thus sidelined, blotted out, becoming superficial and made superfluous.

With increasing connectivity, we have lost our connectedness, with ourselves, our purposes, our spouses, children, peers and others. The shattering of relationships is illustrated by the increased prevalence of fraud, money laundering, state and business capture, and racketeering, among others. Ingenious machine-based ways are designed by one person to stab another in the back; societal integrity crushed. The proverbial Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the cyber-wall and is lying on the deck, broken into a thousand pieces.

What is integrity, after all? A building or a bridge’s integrity is intact if, after a storm or an earthquake, it can still, unabatedly, do what it was designed and manufactured for. Likewise, a person with integrity is one whose words and deeds conform to the same. Integrity is thus to be structurally and functionally one, a whole. Humpty Dumpty, society and its underpinning relationships must be fixed, but how? Can the king’s men do that? The king’s men could not fix the first Humpty Dumpty, and neither will they be able to fix this one. Society must heal itself; grow local resilience. The question is how.

Einstein is credited for saying that you cannot fix problems using the same mindset that created them. We cannot use a machine- and technocratic-based approach to fix the problems created by them. Equally, neither can we use a greedy, fraudulent and back-stabbing approach to fix the problems created. How then to proceed? While there might be various ways, one obvious, but often neglected cure is that of stories. Narratives. Not fake news or fabricated stories which are idiomatic of fraud and the perpetuation of a shattered society. Neither can it be stories that stimulate hate and fear that lead to further antagonism and polarisation. We need stories with integrity that connect one human being to another on a deep level.

We all suffer.

We all have pain.

We all have joy.

We all have dreams.

We all seek the best for our children.

In the end, we are the sum of all our stories, and not of a number in a bank account, or the badge on a car. The very essence of the economics of care is the realisation that our legacies are intertwined with our stories, instead of with our money. The bank balance might be unknown to others, but the legacy not. What are our legacy-building stories? Can we connect those? Can the “internet of stories” bring us back to one another? Restoration stories. Stories of camaraderie.

Stories require, as an essential ingredient, trust. To trust people and not machines, however, is the antithesis of our current metronomic-machine-based society. Based on Einstein’s dictum, that is precisely why it could succeed. To trust people requires a mindset other than blind trust in a machine. Trust people that they will not laugh at our stories, that we will not be ridiculed. Trust people that they will not falsify and twist, defraud, our stories to their advantage. Trust people to speak truthfully about our stories, but trust’s prerequisite is respect. Sadly, the respect for authority, age, parents, property, life, the environment, our children’s quality of life and so on is long lost.

In this season of “R”, Respect is arguably the biggest.

While stories of a utopian past abound, can we use this season of “R”, facing an unknowable and uncertain future, to write new stories to tell our children?

Stories that cement our society, one house, one block of flats, one suburb, one village, one community at a time. Stories of healing on which our children can build. Stories of character in which people stood up to fix Humpty Dumpty, and that in the face of a machine-dominated society and physical, environmental and economic adversity and despite rampant lawlessness, disrespect and the absence of trust. They fixed it by living, building and sharing stories of healing: healing of the environment, healing of relationships and healing of institutions; resilience from the bottom up. DM

The author is also the webmaster of


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