“It is easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.” – Nelson Mandela, as quoted by Ambassador Pretty Mncube.
Like dark riders, the four horsemen of South Africa’s latest apocalypse sneaked into town last week as ex-president Jacob Zuma finally gave himself up for prison after years of denial and games play.
The term ‘apocalypse’ has come to describe the chaotic end of the world. However, its real underlying meaning is revelation or unveiling. It is about truth being made plain, as the layers of delusion are forcefully stripped away.
Corruption, crime, Covid and cold all conspired to make a perfect (and, it now appears, quite man-made) storm, leaving many dead and millions desperately and dangerously hungry.
The role of social media and their organising power is seen to be a major factor in the worst unrest since apartheid. But as we were taught by Marshall McLuhan at the dawn of the digital era, “every extension or amplification is also an amputation”, meaning that social media can be used for both good and bad.
It is emerging that the Zuma-faction forces used social media platforms to incite the new wave of looting and mayhem. But I want to look at one example of how these platforms can be a part of the solution.
On Wednesday, 14 July, I was privileged to take part online in an ad hoc conference organised by the Johannesburg-based Action Support Centre and Aid Network South Africa.
Billed as an “Urgent Intervention on the Nationwide Protests and Riots; A Call for Strategic Peacebuilding and Mediation”, about 100 people met, excellently moderated by Siphokazi Simandla and chaired by Methodist Bishop Paul Verryn.
About 15 South Africans, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, spoke eloquently from their vantage points on the ground. This was not government-speak, but straight shooting from the hip and heart of concerned citizens, and a passionate appeal for us to find our true humanity at this defining moment.
While there was significant unity, there was a diversity of feeling. At the one end, traditional leaders and chiefs decried the wanton destruction, and called for discipline and distance from the looting. Zulu royal Prince Phuma Dlamini reaffirmed the relevance of traditional leadership. At the other, the younger activists urged a proper analysis of underlying causes, citing structural inequality and poverty as root causes.
One of the alarming but perhaps expected effects of this crisis is the immediate racialising and criminalising of citizens, especially from the affluent classes with more to lose – a knee-jerk throwback to our apartheid-defined responses. Youth activist Tsakane Shiviti said “our people are not criminals. Criminal is bombing an ATM.”
That is what makes this so complex – the political, the criminal and the just plain hungry have all been collapsed into a mob. We need to urgently de-mob, picking apart the complexity of our crisis, to discover that there is still a beating human heart that is very much alive.
Impassioned social cohesion advocate Dr Raj Govender said “poverty, inequality, unemployment are serious issues, but we need to… effectively counter various forms of intolerance and disparaging expressions towards our brothers and sisters.”
As the intervention progressed it became apparent that even those “symbols of white monopoly capital”, the malls, which have been so thoroughly decimated, could also be viewed with some pride, housing as they do many a black-owned business, businesses proudly won against incredible odds.
Robinson Sathekge of the City of Johannesburg said “we should be proactive, not just reactive… policing is not forthcoming.” Indeed, the question of the effective non-presence of police forces is a part of the great unveiling. We can only hope that at a political level, the corruptions that have dogged our development as a nation can be radically rooted out.
In my late grandfather Alan Paton’s book, Cry the Beloved Country, written about 73 years ago, Reverend Msimangu says:
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.”
Perhaps we could reinterpret this: when they are turned to sharing and inclusion, we will be turned to destruction and division.
The key word, however, is “they”. The critical question is: how do we see ourselves? Are we to accept class, ethnic, religious or racial definitions? Or can we respond from the deepest part to the great truth of ubuntu: I am through who you are. Can we access and practise the central truth of every great spiritual tradition, the Golden Rule, namely “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” (Rabbi Hillel the Elder, 1st century BCE).
Do we want our earth scorched, out of spite, or desperation?
Do we want our very cells to eat one another, as in cancer?
Bishop Verryn, demurring to the voices of others, was asked to summarise. His points were hard-hitting and succinct:
- We are in a pandemic of dangerous disparity;
- There is no peace without justice; we urgently need an alternative economic model; and
- We belong to one another, and must join hands. We must be suspicious of any “siloing”, or creating of any “us and them”. We must dialogue, daily, and inclusively.
I came away chilled by the revelations of these on-the-ground voices. But ultimately, as one said, “we are those who we are waiting for”. What I hear in the pain and the passion is a well-formed moral vision, a deep passion for justice, and an eloquent articulation of a nation that is still on the verge of its greatness.
These are dangerous times. This feels like the wake of Sharpeville, Soweto 1976, or the murder of Chris Hani in 1993. It is, once again, a kairos moment – a moment of decision.
And yet, let us not forget, we have a constitution, we have a government, we still have infrastructure, threatened as it is by outmoded pseudo-revolutionary anarchy. And we have, on the ground at least, a great heart and envisioned leadership.
In closing, let me once again invoke my ancestor, in the closing passage of his great novel:
“For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” DM