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India’s history offers us a lens to examine what is happening in South Africa now

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Ghaleb Cachalia is an MP in the National Assembly and the DA spokesperson on Public Enterprises. He serves on the Ethics Committee in Parliament.

The strength of the views expressed by Helen Zille in her recent much-criticised commentary on Jacob Zuma is that it is non-judgmental. It lays out the inconsistencies and the importance of change, of evolutionary adaptation.

Helen Zille recently penned a poignant piece on Jacob Zuma. In it, she describes the former president as “a traditionalist, totally unfamiliar with the concepts of constitutionalism, thrust into the role of president — whose primary duty is to serve and defend the Constitution. A total misalignment”. 

She describes Zuma’s charm, his personal, if patriarchal kindness, towards her when she was isolated from the DA — the party she helped grow in no small measure and goes on to ask what and where it all went wrong. 

Zille says she spent much time during the past 10 years observing and writing about politics, and especially seeking to bring Zuma to justice and trying to answer this question. She concludes that “at the heart of it, this tragedy is rooted in the enormous complexity of our collective decision to impose a modern constitutional democracy on what is largely a traditional, African feudal society”.

Richard Poplak, a senior contributor to Daily Maverick, took to Twitter to pour scorn on Zille’s piece, which he suggested “be read wearing a pith helmet, drinking a pink G&T, in the shade of a vast sculpture of Jan Smuts”. How facile.

I have been exercised by the issues Zille confronts in the context of her personal and political experience for some time — including in a recent article I penned for Business Day. My concern is rooted and informed by my obsession with history, philosophy and politics — formed and fostered by my father, Yusuf Cachalia, who despite having achieved only standard six in formal education, was a self-taught and self-made man with a huge thirst for ideas. It was he who introduced me to the thoughts of a wide range of writers, poets and philosophers.

Among his many interests, he was exercised by the notion that India, a nation of great antiquity, was not an invention of either the Enlightenment or Romanticism and he explored, at length, its role in history, in particular with regard to the Enlightenment.

Apart from the writings of orientalists, he examined the views of  Voltaire, Herder, Schlegel, Hegel and Schopenhauer on how some of the defining characteristics of modern historical thought were integrally related to Europe’s encounter with the Orient. He was fascinated by India’s transition to modernity and the tensions generated by colonialism, post-colonial polities and tradition.

I relate this to highlight the value of viewing through a lens the complex and embedded apparent incommensurability of the tension between feudal aspects of life and those of the Enlightenment. In many ways these are a reflection of what we are witness to as the saga surrounding former president Zuma, his followers and sympathisers plays out in South Africa today. Many of these tensions were apparent in India in different ways, with Gandhi representing a complexity that for all its focus on the simplicity of village life, “was not a blind collection of precedents but a form of inquiry, a scientific adventure and an unplanned but rigorous communal science constantly tested and revised”, according to VR Devika, writing in The Hindu.

The term “incommensurable” means “to have no common measure” and has its origins in ancient Greek mathematics, where it meant no common measure between magnitudes.

In this context and with specific regard to considerations about the tension between feudalism and modernity as exemplified by the juxtaposition of  Zuma’s essentially feudal worldview and a common world culture — which our constitution and institutions seek to protect — it is worthwhile to examine the historical and philosophical rationale that underpins this chafing of cultures.

For Kant, “unsociable sociability” described the paradox grounded in human nature. Its purpose was to free humanity from animality through a process of civilisation involving aspects of man’s less enviable qualities such as his desire for wealth, power and honour.

For Schiller, in order to achieve a similarly free society, a transformation of character, through aesthetic experience, was needed to restore our full humanity, even if undertaken within competition and the one-sidedness that characterises the modern division of labour.

Hegel built on this and proposed a state that provided norms as a countermeasure to the uncertainty and social instability of modern society, but was as insistent on the acceptance of competition, initiative and inequalities inherent in society.

The words of Diderot, “Truth wrapped in a veil, radiant with a light that parts the clouds and disperses them. On the right of Truth, Reason and Philosophy are engaged — the one in lifting the veil from truth, the other in pulling it away” and the trio of German philosophers who inspired one another helps frame the tension in our body politic as it plays out in the divisions within the ANC and broader society.

Marxist writers like Thiven Reddy posed questions on what was wrong with the conceptual model of modernisation predicting that all countries once formally independent and free from colonialism would inevitably end up looking like the advanced capitalist democracies. What features of settler-colonialist histories make that prediction false? How and why do leaderships embrace ideologies that seem forced and incommensurable with citizen values?

He argues that “these questions are not considered to explain the ‘failure’ of establishing liberal democracy in South Africa against an imagined western and liberal democratic standard, but to understand how imposing this model produced a contradictory, hybrid system infested with contradictions: an idea of the rule of law, yet with widespread violations by leaders and citizenry; the existence of democratic institutions that work against democratic values, both internally and externally; competitive multiparty systems that produce dominant party outcomes allowing for the rule of a benign despot; and a ‘security’ sensitivity towards rights, ideas and alternatives from the state, which is controlled by a party that responds to legacies of which itself was a product”.

Reddy’s highlighting of historical “violent domination, cultural contempt for native culture and the development of subject identities that are deeply antagonistic, relational and incomplete without the Other” has merit, but his attempt to conflate this with his view that liberal democracy has either failed or is destined to do so because of its contradictions and inherent incompatibilities, unwittingly fortifies the arguments and raison d’etre of the feudalists as well as laying the ground for an all-encompassing tabula rasa that will usher in, in place of liberal democracy, a socialist state defined by some sort of Fanonist catharsis.

This analysis is mirrored by Giorgio Shani who argues that while “at the heart of the ‘liberal project’ is the creation of a global civil society based upon universal values: human rights and the rule of law…  a ‘liberal’ global civil society requires, as a precondition for its existence, the erasure of difference: the creation of ‘unencumbered’ individuals out of communal identities and the universalisation of liberal democracy and capitalism”.

Shani identifies “three different but interrelated sets of explanations (that) help account for its failure to transform the world in the image of the West: the incommensurability of cultural value systems, the dynamism of modernity and the distorting effects of pre-modern practices which make multiple non-western modernities possible.”

This does indeed identify the challenges faced in the quest to transform our society and shoe-horn it into the modern world that would allow it to avail itself of the amazing achievements of modernity — counter-narratives that fly in the face of empirical fact notwithstanding — underscored by unprecedented peace, health and prosperity as detailed by Steven Pinker in his scholarly tour de force, Enlightenment Now.

But back to incommensurability — the fact remains that you cannot have two such fundamentally different views of the world at the same time — the world is either flat or round; it can’t be both. Views of the world we inhabit change; those of Copernicus and Galileo superseded the flat-earthers’ contentions.

The feudal paradigm of extractive warlords mired in the past and in a culture of deference and patronage is incompatible with liberal democracy and is destined, as we progress, to inhabit the historical receptacle so popularised by the doyen of the left, Leon Trotsky in the phrase he coined: “the dustbin of history”. So must it be with Zuma and all he represents. Sadly this representation is not confined to the Zuma faction — it is simply the standard-bearer for a fairly pervasive exemplar — and vigilance, as always, when it comes to liberty, is of the essence.

Vigilance and an openness to the development of new paradigms are what is required — an understanding of the notion of pessimistic meta-induction an argument that seeks to rebut scientific realism and particularly the scientific realists’ notion of epistemic optimism as it relates, in this instance, to progress.

The strength of Zille’s view is that it is non-judgmental. It lays out the inconsistencies and the importance of change, of evolutionary adaptation. That is why it is so powerful and that is what Poplak misses.

Still, progress is better for survival and success in the real world. Better for navigating the oceans. Better for building bridges and better for organising society into a more peaceful, prosperous and enjoyable place. DM

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  • Thank you for your article in connection with the extraordinary interesting conclusion from Zille which I was not aware of. And indeed DM’s journalists are quick to condemn Zille whatever she says or write, and also in criticising the DA in almost everything. For the record, I am actually not a Zille or DA fan either. But by reading this article, suddenly more issues for me fell in place like Afghanistan where nothing seems to work because of a feudal society as well.

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