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Hope springs eternal — we all need to improvise to get through 2021


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

We are faced with a triple crisis as we enter 2021 — the crisis of the pandemic, the crisis of the economy and the crisis inside the ruling party. Failure to fix any of these will result in catastrophic consequences.

As we enter the new year, leaving behind the mayhem and chaos of 2020 knowing full well that much of the challenges, sadness, despair and death will continue for the foreseeable future at least, one must ask the question: what mental state can offer us some relief and possibly, solutions? It’s all about mining the world’s rich philosophical and spiritual traditions for guidance that can help us through these challenging times.

As you know by now, a scholar and intellectual I admire a lot is Dr Cornel West. He states, “a bunch of secular philosophical traditions — from Marxism to existentialism to pragmatism exist”. So, what can these traditions teach us about how to handle our current crises, if at all, and what is the difference between optimism and hope? Can these indeed provide the spiritual scaffolding so desperately needed by us all?

If asked to diagnose our current crisis, I would have to say it is threefold — the crisis of the pandemic, the crisis of the economy and indeed the crisis inside the ANC. Failure to fix any of these will result in catastrophic consequences.

According to West, the problematique in the US (which I do think we can draw some lessons from) is “you’ve got an empire that is experiencing spiritual decay and moral decline driven by greed, especially in high places, and hate being used as a divisive way of pitting citizens against one another. And then you’ve got corruption — not just in the White House, but corruption really throughout our institutions.”

He goes further to say, “so then when the pandemic hit, we began to see just the raw reality of the empire and the indifference towards the vulnerable. You began to see the healthcare system and all of its frailty, which my dear brother Bernie Sanders was pointing out with such courage just a few months ago during the campaign. You began to see the wealth inequality, the white supremacy, the male supremacy that the ‘Me Too’ movement pointed out. You just began to see the ugliness.”

Similarly here back home we saw not only the corruption continuing with the PPE, but also how whites felt entitled to their individual freedoms amid serious coronavirus infections. We indeed saw racial tensions boil over in Senekal and Brackenfell, to mention a few. Corruption not only at the highest levels in our government but also in the private sector, continuously engaging in collusionary practices. Predatory capitalism at its worst, with banks not coming to the party in terms of guaranteed loans for small, medium and micro enterprises — shameful, really.  

Now, one of the philosophies that our people could turn to for comfort is religion. There are of course different faith traditions and philosophies we can draw on for wisdom in a moment like this.

West suggests that “it can certainly be one dimension in the leaven in the loaf. In the Democratic loaf.” I had to look it up, but leaven, as a noun, is that which causes transformation. It comes from the old French from the Latin verb levare, which means, “to raise” — leaven changes everything… It makes dough go from flat to loaf, and it’s also the term to describe the risen dough before it’s baked.

In keeping with this transformative approach, it brings us back to which philosophical approach would be best. West is steeped in the American tradition of pragmatism in philosophy which really tries to focus on the social, cultural and economic concerns, not just more abstract epistemology and metaphysics. But he is also steeped in so many other philosophical schools, like existentialism and Marxism. One must be but curious as to which philosophy he thinks has the most value to offer us right now.

When asked about this, he replied, “I think we have to be jazz men and jazz women. We have to be improvisational. We have to recognise that the abstract has its role to play, the academy has its role to play, but there’s a whole host of other dimensions that have their role to play.”

So, is it pragmatism that we should hold up as the philosophy that has the most to offer us right now? West contends, “no, because pragmatism has its blind spots. When you’re jazz-like, none of these schools ever provide enough. They all fall short. You need existentialism because you’ve got to deal with death, dread, despair and disappointment. You don’t get that from pragmatists. 

“John Dewey on death? Don’t hold your breath! Marxism is indispensable as an analysis of capital, but Marxism on ‘where do you go when your mama dies?’, Karl don’t have too much to say about that! Every school of thought has its own limitations. And the question becomes accenting the best in each one.”

West is asked: “Then the concluding question must be about the importance of hope versus optimism. You define optimism as rational and evidence-based, whereas for you, hope is an act of courage and imagination that looks beyond what the existing circumstances tell us we can expect. 

“So, for you, what roles do hope and optimism play in this situation, where the pandemic requires an emphasis on evidence, but so much feels unknowable and demands this very high level of hope from us?”

To which Dr West responded, “Well, we must accent the crucial role that science must play. Scientific temperament, not just scientific method, because the method can become dogmatic, too. But the temperament is forever Socratic, forever questioning. 

“So, science must play a fundamental role. But there are certain issues that science itself is relatively helpless about.

“And that has to do with the meaning of life. Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not commit suicide tomorrow? Why do you love in this way? Why are you so attached to your mama when you know she’s wrong on so many issues, but you’d take a bullet for her in a heartbeat? You don’t measure your mama based on scientific evidence. It’s visceral, it’s not just cerebral. So we have to be able to acknowledge the roles that each one of these play.

“Optimism for me has never been an option. Because there’s too much suffering in the world. Think of all the African bones and bodies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with the slave trade. And Jewish brothers and sisters in the concentration camps. And Dalits in India. None of that can generate an optimism for me, ever.

“But hope is something else, you see, because hope is not spectatorial. It’s participatory. You’re already in the mess. You’re in the funk. What are you going to do? Hope is a verb as much as a virtue. Hope is as much a consequence of your action as it is a source of your action, as Roberto Unger always said. 

“So that hope is something that you find in your immersion. And you decide you’re going to fight till the end. No matter what.”

When West says hope is also a “consequence of your action”, does he mean that by choosing to act now in this incredibly stressful time with integrity, with accountability, with responsibility, our actions themselves can nurture and fuel hope in us? 

In fact, West says “hope is about everybody trying to contribute to the push, the motion, the momentum, the movement for something bigger than them that’s better. The good, the beautiful. If you’re not in motion, you’re a spectator”.

We need to lift each other up, according to Cornel West. 

Instead of seeking out one philosophical approach, we must be jazz men and jazz women. Let’s all improvise to find lasting solutions for our key challenges.

Let’s remain hopeful. DM


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  • Gerhard Coetzee says:

    When you live in the past, you cannot see a future which passes you bye. If you cannot overcome the past, you will not see what the future could bring. The problem in our country is that we continue to hang onto the past and therefore can see what is possible to create a bright future. Pres. Mandela understood that and during his time created a rainbow nation which was all undone by his successors.

    • District Six says:

      Spot on! Too many of us are still fighting the Anglo-Boer War (South African War). Too many of us still living in a colonial mindset, some even go on as if tone-deaf, tweeting its merits. Too many are still trapped in an apartheid mindset. Too many are fearful of and utilitarian about anything north of the Limpopo. For too many, the rainbow is a bridge too far when it comes to sharing the economy. For too many, privilege and wealth are inherent. Too many think “I’ve only got 5 years to eat.” Perhaps the remedy is to increase our empathy towards everybody else.

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