The late liberal historian Tony Judt made the observation that we struggle to make sense of our most recent past, irrespective of which moment in history we reside in. Our proximity to the most recent past keeps us entangled with it, too close to it to adequately gain perspective on it.
In Ill Fares the Land, he makes the case that the mainstreaming of neoliberalism in the late 20th Century during the tenures of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was premised on a lapse in recent memory. The decades of post-war Keynesian economics — which emphasised the role of the state in building institutions and guaranteeing social welfare and underpinned the longest period of abundance and stability in history – was not appreciated for the benefits it brought.
Instead of fully reflecting on the post-war decades and appreciating the full social, economic and innovation-based benefits it yielded, it was simplistically cast as the “welfare state” and discarded in favour of free market economics.
Yet the moment in history that we currently occupy is unique in a number of ways. It has become increasingly difficult to meaningfully distinguish the signal(s) from the noise in the 21st Century. We are living through a period where rapid and profound value change is unfolding, where the erosion of long-held norms is occurring at an astounding rate.
From one moment to the next we do not know what foundational conventions about what it means to live in a democratic society will disappear next. In some senses, whereas we may have previously struggled to process recent history in terms of decades just passed, we are now struggling to process recent history on much shorter time scales. Events of just the previous five years can be difficult to gain perspective on. I suggest that it is a product of three key factors.
First, that in lurching from crisis to crisis with high velocity they all blend seamlessly into an endless litany of disappointments. We become increasingly stuck in the mire of it. We are neck-deep in it. We are routinely overwhelmed by the incessant all-encompassing noise of current events and lose the capacity to adequately process and discriminate each event fully.
We quickly move on to another, and another, ad nauseam, accompanied by the vast volumes of mis- and disinformation that accompany current-day events. There is no time or capacity to fully internalise the complexity and significance of events that impact us and our daily lives.
Second, the sustained velocity and volume of the revelations of corruption, maladministration and political violence engender a “normalised deviancy” that reproduces itself in such regularity that it becomes normative, drifting into the background of things.
To use an over-hashed term, a “new normal” (more accurately; a new abnormal) is established. The shifts occur more quickly and abruptly but we hardly notice them; they creep up on us.
Take, for example, the deluge of corruption and State Capture revelations that have unfolded over the past decade or so; it is difficult to keep up with and the detail is lost in the sheer velocity and volume of them.
Third, that both the abovementioned factors are themselves exacerbated by the fact that we are living through a period where the erosion of norms is occurring both globally and locally at the same time. In this confusing mess, the erosion of values and norms is occurring wherever we look, reinforcing the changing reality that we are living through with devastating effect.
There is no ‘beacon on the hill’ to look to as a model for how we can live together in societies that are free, tolerant and just.
These factors combine to make it feel as though this is the way things have always been. Indeed, we are told that “this is the way it’s always been” or we are distracted by claims that “others are doing it too”.
Alternatively, we are encouraged to demonise and vilify scapegoats that have little to do with the economic woes and service delivery failures we are living through. In a world where continual change and the erosion of long-held norms is no longer tacit and hidden but explicit and openly celebrated in many parts of the globe — particularly by “strongman” styled leaders — it is no wonder that trust in the institutions that produce liberal democratic societies has been severely eroded.
Yet if we were to make the effort to more critically and reflectively engage on our most recent past in South Africa, it would enable us to better understand what is unfolding today and why.
We have endured State Capture, a fractious ruling party and government, a global pandemic, the erosion of the state and its ability to ensure basic services, an economy in trouble characterised by high levels of unemployment (especially among the youth), the emergence of left and right-wing populism, increased social tensions, deepening divisions in society, and the emergence of a profound distrust of the ruling classes and their political will to deliver on the promise of a new future.
To add insult to injury, politicians seem to be oblivious to the harm they are doing to society and the political realm by engaging in divisive, alienating politics that push social fractures deeper, reinforcing suspicion, resentment and anger. Existing and emerging political formations are increasingly turning to the politics of scapegoating to garner support for their political ascendancy.
Instead of working towards being a “beacon on the hill” ourselves, the political establishment that occupies the middle ground has lapsed into the kind of realpolitik that exacerbates the “race-to-the-bottom” politics of the moment.
It is a politics of despair and hopelessness and they are none the wiser for the damage they are doing to our society.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and we have historical precedents for how we — as a nation — can pull together during dark and dangerous times.
In our transition to democracy, we lit a light of hope in the world. Hope that a negotiated transition to democratic values that chose (an initially fragile) peace over all-out contestation would prevail.
Where the leadership valued all those who lived within the country and led on everyone’s behalf, attempting to inclusively broker a new social compact (albeit not without disagreement and different perspectives on how it could be achieved).
Where intolerance and prejudice were negated through a push for inclusion and not amplified by rank political opportunism.
Where the idea of the modern nation-state as a melting pot of different groups (e.g. races, ethnicities, religions, creeds, classes, genders and sexualities) could be forged as a place of belonging for all in reality.
This lit not only a light of hope in the world, but within the nation-state of South Africa itself.
We limped out of the pandemic, shell-shocked and bamboozled, into a world that is overwhelming us with the ferocious velocity and volume of change that unfolds with every minute and hour of the present. It is a lot to keep up with, and we can be forgiven for getting lost in the noise of it all.
Yet we must step back and reflect. We need to take the time to slow down and think critically and reflectively on what is unfolding around us despite the pace of change, and draw on that to interpret what is transpiring in the present.
Moreover, we need to mobilise that understanding to transform what is occurring in the present and create a new affirmative future governed by hope.
In service of this, the political establishment could be more reasonable and representative. They could, for example, emphasise what brings us together instead of what divides us. They could also help broker an understanding of the burning need to lift historically disadvantaged people out of poverty and provide hope for their futures and that of their children. And the dangers of failing to do so.
They could emphasise the need for new, innovative approaches towards solving our developmental challenges and recruiting different sectors and demographics (particularly the youth) to jointly find new pathways for development.
Anything less is to relinquish our agency and collective power in the face of the new abnormal we are living in; to go along with a flow that is leading us to the worst of our potential. It is to normalise an existence of suffering and despair and its reproduction.
It is to abdicate our responsibility to ensure a better, more prosperous and inclusive future for the youth and the generations to come.
We need leaders who both inspire hope and know how to see transformative action through to create a better future for all. We have many examples of this kind of leadership in our history.
Indeed, it is this kind of leadership that saw us through some of the darkest historical periods and moments.
There is no reason, apart from our thoughtless acceptance of the status quo and our short memories, why we cannot produce the same kind of leadership again. After all, we live in a democracy.
Isn’t that why we wanted it in the first place? DM