The myriad problems that beset South Africa, from government failures to corruption, violence and the destruction of infrastructure, and their overall impact on society are not a cause for celebration, gloating and schadenfreude. They are cause for sadness, deep reflection, disappointment and, yes, anger. They also require sincere and selfless participatory democracy.
The omnishambles that unfolded in Poland last week, during what should have been a positive and progressive move (that is, ideally, what peace missions are supposed to be), has seen very many people in South Africa, most notably the historical bloc referred to in this space recently, sit back, as it were, gloating gleefully and satisfying themselves with schadenfreude.
This schadenfreude has been building for years. It seems to have reached the point where all the prejudices and biases about African or black governance have been proven.
Let’s try an analogy. Imagine a man who believes that women are bad drivers. He goes about his daily routines, ignoring moving violations big and small, and accepts them as “that’s just the way it is”. After several hours, days or weeks, he sees a female driver make a left turn without using her car’s indicators.
“Aha!” the good man proclaims. “There, there… there is proof that women are bad drivers.”
He goes home, opens a beer, turns on the TV and sits back in schadenfreude, satisfied that his prophecies have been fulfilled; preterist-man of secular coming…
Twitter is not the world, but the world can be reached through Twitter. Some of the most influential people – journalists, researchers, policymakers and public figures (alpha users and influencers) – around the world use this form of media. The moment they tweet they enter a public domain where they have almost an obligation to be “an oppositional figure” and, at the best of times, “embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant”.
Bestial schadenfreude of the intelligentsia
Dancing on the grave of a state and society, with malign delight, is rarely necessary, at least not in a democratic society. What was apparent on social media during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s peace mission, was an almost bestial schadenfreude. Nietzsche believed that humans derived great pleasure from seeing others suffer, and that schadenfreude was “an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human, principle to which even the apes might subscribe”.
This brief essay is not a call for sunshine journalism. Nor is it blind or unqualified praise for the President. My position(s) on the war in Ukraine, what I believe Vladimir Putin’s objectives are, and how I regard Ramaphosa are clear. On the issue of non-alignment, in this case, I stand with one of the great historians of the last century, Eric Hobsbawm, who, reflecting on the role of intellectuals during the Spanish Civil War, drew a “most immediate lesson” that “non-intervention helped one side”.
In his work, George Orwell picked a side in the 1930s.
“The Spanish war and other events in 1936-37 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it…”
What I am writing here is, then, not to say that South African intellectuals, whether sitting in Washington, London, Australia, Cape Town or Gauteng, do not have the right to side with the West, as is their wont.
They, like very many South Africans (myself included), have been steeped in Western culture (music, literature, film, dress, dance) since birth. We are much more familiar with universalised characters (from Mickey Mouse to Elmo, Abby or the Cookie Monster) than we are with Asian shadow plays.
It takes great effort and courage to admit that and to settle for an intellectually honest and independent position on global affairs, free from the prejudices, preferences and biases that come with cultural assimilation into dominant Western thought.
The bliss of self-righteousness and single-story narratives
What is cause for concern is the smug, smarmy face of I-told-you-so (that perennial belief that black people cannot govern, are prone to screw up, and that Afro-pessimism is real), and a single-story narrative, with fixed positions about right and wrong heavily influenced by the West’s expectations and demands.
In South Africa, the historical bloc of intellectuals is terribly self-assured in their righteousness. They would have everyone believe their version of events is true, when the truth is much more complicated and uneasy… They tend to speak more than they think, rarely leave room for their own intellectual weaknesses, and invariably proceed from an inflated state of superiority.
It was Thomas Hobbes who said that people are perfectly happy to acknowledge that others can be smart and clever, but their own intellect and knowledge are simply superior, while forgetting, conveniently, that proximity to their own knowledge shapes their confidence and self-belief. They cannot imagine being wrong and simply offensive.
I am often reminded of the toxicity that is so part of the superiority of a single-story narrative and the lack of deeper understanding (and empathy). I use the following example to demonstrate this absence and callousness.
In the 2007/8 North American academic year, a lecturer (I will withhold his name), stood before a “political science” class at the University of South Carolina, where I taught for about five years. The good professor spoke about the superiority of the West, praising the outcomes of Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia. At the back of the classroom sat two Serbian students, young women, who (themselves and their families) had been seriously affected by Nato’s bombing of Novi Sad. The destruction of infrastructure caused breakdowns in the supply of water and electricity that left families destitute and struggling for months on end.
The single-story narrative of Nato’s bombing of Novi Sad was that it was necessary, and (not by accident) it demonstrated the European world’s aerial superiority. The Serbian students left the lecture hall in tears. The collapse of Yugoslavia is a sore point, and the issue is most complicated.
I use the example to demonstrate the casual callousness and self-righteousness that inspire intellectuals to relay single-story narratives. I don’t share the false belief in objectivity, and neutrality during times of war is a middle-class privilege.
That there has been much gloating and schadenfreude around the omnishambles in Poland has been disturbing. Rebecca Davis wrote, quite correctly about the selective outrage. I would take a much more radical position and refer to the apparent joy that is so embedded in the range of responses from liberal centrists to right-wingers, who are like the man who drives around in search of a woman who drives badly, just so he can feel good about himself.
Last month the pope embarked on a peace mission to Ukraine and urged Catholics to be peacemakers. Also last month, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged loyalty to the international rules-based order and solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Addressing the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, Kishida pledged to “firmly uphold the free and open international order based on the rule of law and to show our resolve to fully defend peace and prosperity”. There was nary a criticism of either because Washington wants an outright victory.
When South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor, talked about “a return to peace, multilateralism” and spoke out against the violation of the laws of war (in general I believe this is a fallacy, but that’s for another time), social media lit up like a Christmas tree.
The pope’s peace mission was accepted, Ramaphosa’s was condemned. The key to understanding this is in two claims that I lay out here.
The first is that African governments, especially in South Africa, can’t do right for doing wrong in the racist imaginary. The second is that the pope and the Japanese prime minister appear to side with Ukraine, but want a peaceful settlement. Ramaphosa and Pandor appear to side with Russia, and (also) prefer a peaceful settlement.
It is difficult to ignore or dismiss the racist undertones and Afro-pessimism at the base of intellectual responses to South Africa’s peace mission to Russia and Ukraine. It’s easier to mock and jeer, gloat and feel good about ourselves in bestial schadenfreude.
This was summed up succinctly in Wits University’s 2017 Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture by Issa G Shivji, the Tanzanian scholar. He said intellectuals “produce ideas to define and serve themselves. And they are very good when it comes to producing self-serving ideas. They exaggerate and inflate their importance and role, their indispensability and alacrity, their sanctimony and sacrifice. Intellectuals are one species who are egoistic to the bone. But being masters of mystification, they package their egoism in altruism.”
As stated above, and emphasised again, in an elision of Hobsbawm and Orwell, I would stress that non-intervention typically helps one side in a conflict – this is especially true of Russia’s war on the Ukrainian people. Also, as with Orwell, every endeavour of our work ought to necessarily be directed against totalitarianism. What the omnishambles in Poland revealed is just how perfectly primed the historical bloc of intellectuals are to dance on the grave of South Africa – simply because it makes them feel good about themselves. DM