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Democratic dialogue: South Africa works when the merry rogues, priests and scholars negotiate

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Matthew Blackman is a journalist and co-author of Rogues’ Gallery: An Irreverent History of Corruption in SA, and Spoilt Ballots: The Elections that Shaped SA. He has a PhD from the University of East Anglia.

Although the last thing anybody really wants to read is the thoughts of a Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin has something important to tell us about the nature of populism and wokeness. And Bakhtin, who was always up for a laugh and a carnival, really could offer South Africa a way forward.

A bad start for any opinion piece is to begin it with “The Russian philosopher…” Even worse, “The Russian critical theorist Mikhail Bakhtin…” Are you still with me? Wait! Don’t go! To be honest, I had not really heard of him either. But I was on a aeroplane flying to the UK to start a degree when the man sitting next to me said I should read Bakhtin. I, in my mind, contemptuously dismissed the idea. I had no interest in reading 800 densely written pages of largely unintelligible flannel.

Full disclosure: Bakhtin was the theorist who became the focus of my studies (I found he is really quite readable and humorous. Who knew?). And I believe that Bakhtin’s thoughts are not only important for the world at the moment but also for South Africa.

Let me try to put this simply. Bakhtin’s theory of truth and his theory of society is that it’s all about the need for other people and engaging in dialogue with them. Anybody who has ever tried to cut their own hair will understand. You soon realise that two geometrically positioned mirrors and a pair of the finest long-handled scissors will never replace giving directions to a hairstylist/barber who can stand at the back of your head.

And the philosophy of Bakhtin urges us to realise the need for other people in far more urgent ways than simply to moderate the length or presence of hair in places that we cannot see or reach. Like the philosophy of ubuntu, Bakhtin believed that a person is only a person through the presence of other people.

I can only know myself, Bakhtin maintained, through others (or what clever theorist people call “the other”). Although Bakhtin was exiled in the USSR during Stalin’s reign of terror and was excluded from Soviet society, he believed, maybe because of his exclusion, that dialogue was our way of gaining an understanding of truth. The greatest danger for any society, he suggested, was for there to be one authoritarian voice, one system of speaking or one ideology. The idea that we call “the echo chamber” was, for him, a form of suicide and paralysis.

Today we live in a world where two ideological language systems want to gain control of societies. One ideology we generally call “populist”, the other “wokeness”. And at the centre of both these is a demand for a respect for identity. They are not “culture wars” as they are so often called but ideological identity wars. The one ideology asks that the old system of doing things, and its language system, be retained. The other states that marginalised identities should be treated with respect and be allowed to participate in society in a manner that was previously denied to them. It argues for a new lexicon, seeing the old system of speaking as inadequate and problematic.

Both arise out of a sense that their particular identity does not have a place in the world, whether that be a current one or in a developing future socialist autocracy. However, both populism and wokeness are in many ways about power and control. Both make demands on the way the other talks and what language is right and proper. But this is an age-old game. All empires, religions, classes and colonial forces have played at this. And you can add to this list, universities.

I remember arriving at UCT in 1994 and being told in Jameson Hall [sic] by Vice-Chancellor Stuart Saunders: “You are at a university, which now means you are free to express whatever you believe.” And then a few minutes later, “racism will not be tolerated at this university”.  

Of course, us liberals were all too happy to go along with this, although somewhere, some of us did register this as inconsistent. But there was really no need to bring it up. We had won and it was now time to impose our will on the losers. And all for, I might add, a very good cause.

But as Bakhtin realised, societies are most often run by the wealthy and the privileged. And with this always comes a demand that the others in society speak and behave like them. But for Bakhtin this demand on the way we talk always becomes a source not of truth and goodness but simply that of ideological power (although he would concede that some ideologies are certainly better than others). And it is this power that in some manner must be opposed for the society to have life.

As he wrote: “Opposed to the language of priests and monks, kings and seigneurs, knights and wealthy urban types, scholars and jurists — to the languages of all who hold power and who are well set up in life — there is the language of the merry rogue.”

But in today’s context, who are the “monks”, the “scholars” and the “wealthy urban types” and who are the “merry rogues”? The simple truth is that for want of a better term, wokeness is a language developed within “the priest class” and among the scholars of our time. And “the merry rogue” is really of the Jacob Zuma and Donald Trump variety.

Bakhtin always applauds the rogue; he encourages the rogue’s influence in society. But he does so only because the rogue undermines the high-minded and unlaughing seriousness of the official morality and language of those in control. The merry rogue always was the voice of the marginalised and the powerless. But that does not pertain to our age. The merry rogue and the priest are now, in political terms, on some kind of an equal footing.

The two now in fact battle it out for supremacy and control. And what makes this situation worse is that the Zumas, the Trumps, the Malemas (even the Zilles) and the woke seem to have no interest in talking to each other.

This, the world over, is highly undemocratic in nature. These people of both right and left have no real intention of persuading or conceding a point or attempting to understand. They don’t accept that the other’s ideology has any considerable meaning. The game is to dismiss the other, to talk past them. This is of course in many ways a phony war played out in the Twittersphere.

But it has had devastating consequences, because while (at times, perfectly just) arguments rage on the internet superhighways over marginalisation and economic transformation, our education system churns out yet another generation who are woefully undereducated for a world that will employ only half of them. A greater equation for a thermonuclear disaster could not be written. And even if it could, the vast majority of our science students would probably not have been taught how to read it.

South Africa, when it has worked — and, let’s be frank, that is not often — was when we have negotiated, when we have talked to each other. Talking with others has been one of the great traits of all our true leaders and thinkers from Andries Stockenström, to John Fairbairn, to Olive Schreiner, to Sol Plaatje, to ZK Matthews, to Albert Luthuli, to Walter Sisulu, to Oliver Tambo, to Nelson Mandela, to Steve Biko and, yes, to Cyril Ramaphosa. They have all placed great faith in talking and communicating.

But Cyril is really in many ways the last man talking, and he is, in reality, probably talking to the wrong people. The real issue for South Africa is that he is one democrat, surrounded by a sea of rogues, each seeking not a piece of the pie for the people they represent but wanting their cake for themselves to eat. And this all happens while we on the left are shouting at our own sounding boards, and while the new white populist right heads towards a cliff on a quixotic campaign armed with Jerm Warfare.

The fact is, until we turn to democratic dialogue with each other, and begin to understand the truth of our situation, nothing is going to improve. As Bakhtin wrote: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person; it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction.” DM

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  • Well, that cubist George Braque once famously said “Truth exists; only lies are invented”, and Nietzsche said “There are no facts; only interpretations”. And somewhere in between these two comes Bakhtin – who I never heard of until now. So many interpretations of what truth is – someone must be right I guess.
    But Matthew, just one question – if Cyril is “… probably talking to the wrong people”, who are the “right” people, pray tell?

  • “in the process of their dialogic interaction.”
    There’s an awful lot of dogma to wade through before any meaningful dialogue can happen in this country. And then there’s the cacophony of millions that so easily drowns out the solitary voices of reason.

    “In the great maelstrom of political ambitions, the subtle burdens of doing the right thing tend to go unnoticed.” ~ Unknown

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