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South Africans remain merchants of hope despite persistent awfulness

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Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

But what we really need to be thinking about – and acting upon – is something beyond party politics.

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete.” (Maria Popova, Bulgarian writer)

South Africans move on very quickly. It’s a defence mechanism of sorts. If we stayed too long in a place, we would have to contemplate its awfulness. 

And many things compete for our attention because of their awfulness. Mostly they have their roots in a lack of accountability and the thread of impunity which runs through our society. Whether it’s the deputy president’s VIP Protection Unit assaulting three motorists on the N1 highway near Fourways in Johannesburg or Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste enjoying a game of Craven Week rugby despite facing fraud charges – these individuals do so simply because they can.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the President’s own spokesperson was found in a compromising position as regards a PPE contract and was simply moved sideways to a bigger and better position at GCIS.

There are many other examples. 

This is also a country where the President seems wholly distant from the challenges we face and who displays only “shock” or “disappointment” while playing to the cheap seats in his party, paralysed by either bullying Gwede Mantashe or vacuous Fikile Mbalula and their ilk. Recently, as the diminished and pointless ANC Youth League voted for its leadership amid the usual ANC administrative chaos, Ramaphosa was on hand to offer a back slap and a grin. South Africa has a 62% youth unemployment rate, yet the ANCYL conference was all spectacle.

As those affected by tornadoes and floods in KwaZulu-Natal wait for assistance, as people continue to live in fear of cholera outbreaks in Hammanskraal and elsewhere, as every state-owned enterprise lies in tatters, our government believes it can roll out something as sophisticated as the National Health Insurance. Olive Shisana defended the flight of fancy fiercely recently. Such folly when citizens’ trust in the government is at an all-time low. Snouts will be waiting at the trough to destroy the last bit of what is working in the public health system.

Yet, despite all of this (and more), we remain merchants of that intangible thing called hope.

Counterintuitive

In these days of a dying governing party, of lies, deception and cruelty towards the most vulnerable and marginalised, hope would seem counterintuitive. With an election in 2024, which we know will be fraught and perhaps even dangerous, we need to keep our wits about us, or, as Michelle Obama puts it in more folksy terms, “stick to our knitting”.

South Africa is not unique in experiencing a distinctive political moment and threats to the rule of law even as its precarity is sui generis. In the US, we have seen the rolling back of long-held rights by a Supreme Court which has become more political mouthpiece than legal guardian. In that context we can only be grateful for our Constitutional Court which, despite its more recent ups and downs, has held the line in when politics and law have intersected awkwardly. It has been faithful to precedent on our basic human rights. The US too will have to navigate a 2024 election of invidious choices. In Europe, war, climate change, the politics and disturbance of AI and the rise of the right provide no solace.

As Toni Morrison reminded us:

“There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilisations heal. I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art. (“No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation, 23 March 2015).

Or, as Adrienne Rich writes:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.

(The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977)

Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the dark, written in 2003 after the start of the Iraq War, is, however, also instructive even now and worth reading in its entirety. She writes with more than a hint of pragmatism when she says: “It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. Change is rarely straightforward… Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds. It’s important to emphasise that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.’

South Africans, of course, understand hope and history and their rhyming better than most. But we have lost our way and our institutions are floundering. But, each day rights are regained through struggle and people do act. Whether it is foa Zimbabwean Exemption Permit extension or the fight for more meaningful whistle-blower protection or in fixing our streets and our communities despite the government. That list too is endless.

The cut and thrust of politics, from new parties to ‘moonshot’ pacts and coalition talk, are necessary… but not sufficient to rebuild our democracy.

It is also worth casting our minds to sociologist, thinker and Wits professor Karl von Holdt’s inaugural lecture in 2022 as he started expanding on his thesis of creating “alternative social orders” and how these are taking shape in our country.

In many ways, his posited theory echoes some of what Solnit puts more lyrically when he writes: “That these ‘alternate social orders’ are rising are pushback, also the promise of being able to imagine a different future for the country. It’s the communities that plant communal food gardens to ensure food security; those joining forces to fix potholes or to conserve and share water; those who say no to violence in their names; those who reject political hierarchies and jockeying for political power; and those who are finding new intersectionalities for action and strengthening activism… While these emerge primarily in forms of resistance against untrustworthy and self-interested leaders in unions, communities, student movements and traditional rural representatives, they simultaneously point towards a different kind of future. The autonomous experiments from below are different types of new social orders and they are the signs of light, a kind of irrepressible desire to do things differently. They lay down new repertoires of action, new ideas, new possibilities.”

Where these might take us, should be our focus. The cut and thrust of politics, from new parties to ‘moonshot’ pacts and coalition talk, are necessary (and important as we head to the next election) but not sufficient to rebuild our democracy. What we really need to be thinking about – and acting upon – is something beyond party politics. It is rather more about what it means to live in a society with dignity at its core. In other words, the remaking of a society in ways which are neither cynical nor naive and where hope is an act of defiance. DM

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  • Merle Favis says:

    One of your best offerings, Judith.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Preach it, Sis. I have been desperate and needed this reminder. Tx.

  • Peter Stewart says:

    Yes this would also be a better ethic for our various public spheres than the loud divisive and blaming chauvism the currently predominates.

  • Bill Gild says:

    Sorry, Judith – my hope ran out a long time ago….

  • Robert Pegg says:

    I came to SA in 1975 with a wife and 3 kids. We have endured riots, floods, droughts, redundancy, and astronomical interest rates, and got through them all. I’m sad that most of my grandchildren are wanting to emigrate because they don’t see a future here. I hope they will come back once they realize the grass is not greener on the other side.

    • Patterson Alan John says:

      Robert, contrary to your opinion, the grass is much greener on the other side.
      The ANC cannot steal mountains or views, so South Africa will always have those.
      But, they are stealing people’s lives.
      We left SA in 1993 and have never looked back. Our lives have been enriched by the experiences we have had. We have safety, freedom of movement, functioning infrastructure, good incomes, great lifestyle, an internationally strong currency, have traveled extensively, have great educational institutions, a true democracy, service delivery is impeccable, opportunities for advancement at work, the lights do not go out, a vibrant economy, the municipalities serve their citizens and life is good.
      The ANC have a determination to retain control and will entice anyone willing, to side with them to maintain that wonderful African expectation of being in power for ever. The trough is too good to lose. Andre’ de Ruyter’s book says it all – pervasive corruption has seeped into every pore of the country. Money is the root of all the evil and the ANC always looks after one another.
      The lowest common denominator is where it will settle.
      ‘Hope’ will be chewed up and spat out when the ANC wins the elections again next year.

      • Andrew S says:

        And yet 30 years on you are reading and commenting on an article on South Africa. This country and continent is hard to fully “leave”, and those who have voluntarily stayed have chosen to live with the bad in order to have all the good.

      • Hermann Funk says:

        The grass is only greener on the other side because we are not watering the grass we are standing on.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    A VISION FOR SA:
    A South Africa where peace, justice, fairness and respect for one another are the pillars of our society. A country where people are free to build meaningful lives and realise their dreams and where true to our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom are the cornerstones of our Nation.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    Judith is my favourite DM writer – head and shoulders above the rest.
    “the remaking of a society in ways which are neither cynical nor naive and where hope is an act of defiance.”
    Such a society is based on ‘good’ values. We have seriously damaged the sources of ‘good values’ – functional families being replaced by poverty stricken, abandoned single mothers, failed education, sense of community being replaced by individual struggle for survival, institutional rules being disregarded, the glamour and glitz of material possessions, the stress of bringing up children in appalling urban environments and, most important of all, ever increasing extreme inequality. Judith is right – rebuilding has to start at the bottom. There are plenty of green shoots showing it is happening.

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