A student once asked me why I asked them to read works by Karl Marx when, he said, “none of this has happened, and none of this will happen”. I was teaching in South Carolina, in the Deep South of the US.
He was right, I said. Marx’s teleology and what he said would happen when capitalism collapsed have not quite worked out… I asked the student why evangelical Christians (or Muslims, for that matter) would insist that we read their holy scriptures when “there is no evidence that Jesus has returned to Earth or that he would do so anytime soon”.
But, I continued, “we are expected to continue to believe and never give up”. The student hummed and hawed. I think it ended there.
I have been clearing books (and bundles of essays) from my shelves. In this winnowing down, some of the books will be donated to a school in Bonteheuwel, others to individuals.
One book caused a chuckle. It was a book about South Africa standing on the brink of a fiscal cliff. Unless I have not been paying attention, the drop has not happened, but I am sure that whatever happens next, we are expected to continue believing that it will happen, and never give up. Blind faith is an important part of sycophancy. Hoping has a way of making us feel happy.
In a similar way, belief in our own beliefs makes us feel cocksure and confident about our beliefs. Iris Murdoch may have said, somewhere, that God may not exist but we continue to believe in that which made us believe that God does exist… It’s all circular, and self-sustaining, innit?
What scholars and thinkers in the US say or write remains the reference point among a cadre of South Africa analysts. It is as if no knowledge exists beyond that which is produced in the West.
I have written about this before. If, dear reader, you think this is repetitive, (Julius Malema’s loyalists would insist that I am obsessed) it is because I try to focus consistently on issues and continue to explore and share thoughts and ideas… Unless, of course, we are allowed to be critical of only the ANC and the EFF over and again, and the white community and its thinkers have the exclusive right to assert themselves historically on South Africa’s future. That thinking is what led to the Nazis ambition to assert themselves onto German society.
This apparent necessity of keeping the faith – continuing to believe in our beliefs – is part of the dancing on the grave of South African democracy. The metronome that keeps the rhythm in time is kept going by the cadre who seem to take great pride and joy out of South Africa “losing the West” or celebrate the conservative America backlash against Pretoria.
This cadre are naturally anti-Chinese, anti-Iran, anti-Russia (even before the war in Ukraine), and probably inspired by Ronald Reagan and George W Bush’s references to “evil empires” and “evil ones” and are invariably anti-BRICS.
They would defend to the death the US ambassador to South Africa and are disappointed that Pretoria’s foreign-policy decisions are not based on upholding the principles of the European Enlightenment, and not naturally at home with “Western civilisation”.
What scholars and thinkers in the US say or write remains the reference point among a cadre of South African analysts. It is as if no knowledge exists beyond that which is produced in the West.
A clever fellow, from among the Europeans and their historical outgrowths, actually, (I use Giambattista Vico because people have a habit of taking only their own kind seriously) gave a good lesson in the early 18th century: “It is true that men themselves made this world of nations… but this world without doubt has issued from a mind often diverse, at times quite contrary, and always superior to the particular ends that men had proposed to themselves.”
The white enlightenment runs deep in the South African imaginary
In this era when there are violent responses to what may and may not be said, I stand the risk of being called names, or told that I have forgotten about “reconciliation” – a demand placed only on black people.
Our cadre, much like the wealthy of pre-revolutionary France, or fascists of pre-war Italy, have held onto their privileges and place from the apartheid era into the democratic era. I worked beside them during the apartheid era and know them well. We should not fool ourselves, until 1994, South Africa was seen as a natural continuation of the European or Western world…
It was not only Eugene Terre’Blanche who believed that white people in South Africa were Europeans. I vividly remember PW Botha’s statements about how necessary (and correct) the white/European presence was:
“I am not against the provision of the necessary medical assistance to coloured and natives, because unless they receive that medical aid, they become a source of danger to the European community.”
“The white people who came here lived at a very much higher standard than the indigenous peoples and with a very rich tradition, which they brought with them from Europe.”
It is this loss of “high [European] standard” that our cadre longs for… and they feel threatened by “danger” posed by the “indigenous peoples” and by the “coloured and natives” – none of whom, in the present day, dare to make policies that brush history against the grain. We have to believe then, that things will go wrong, not because of any misdirected policies, unethical behaviour, incompetence… but because the imaginary of that history decrees that, and that the white community have a civilisational duty to assert themselves over South Africa.
As Botha once said, white/European history “is responsible for the differences in the South African way of life”, so much of which remains intact and is held intact by the functionaries who carried their privileges and place (over) from the apartheid era into the democratic era.
In the early post-war period, Italian Fascists found a home in Christian Democracy. At least South African liberals are consistent; they were liberals during apartheid, and they are liberals today.
Somewhere amid the piles of documents I had a report, published in response to a 1973 Natal Mercury essay (thanks to the internet I found a soft copy). The article, by a John Wright under the banner “Fallacies of the ‘White Enlightenment’”, rests on the assumption that “white South African society belongs to the mainstream of Western civilisation” and that everything that whites owned in South Africa was achieved by their own sweat. The arrival of whites struck “an evolutionary spark in a dormant wilderness”.
Not a single word is said about the achievements of the millions of black men and women who, over a period, beginning 300 years ago, have laboured in the fields, sweated in the mines, tended the children, and carried the tea trays to sustain what the Mercury calls the “inherited civilisation” of the whites.
This civilisational talk, belief in civilisational primacy, is evident in the choices and reference points of a lot of reportage, commentary and analyses on South African political economy and foreign policy.
Another of the books I have dusted off, but will not part with, is Imraan Coovadia’s Transformations: Essays. Coovadia eloquently draws continuities (this is my understanding) between the liberalism of the early pre-democracy era (embodied by Alan Paton), and the work of JM Coetzee, to which I would add any of the intellectuals who “transitioned” into the democratic era.
“Everything changes in South Africa, every day, but our ways of misunderstanding each other are as constant as the morning star,” Coovadia says in Transformations.
I think Coovadia is being terribly kind and polite. In the early post-war period, Italian Fascists found a home in Christian Democracy. At least South African liberals are consistent; they were liberals during apartheid, and they are liberals today and are “as constant as the morning star”.
There is some irony in the idea that the cadre I refer to believe, in part, that they are oppressed (you have to only believe you are oppressed to make it real), but the salve of their civilisational beliefs help them cope – until the next time something goes wrong, and they dance again.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Pick-and-don’t-pay patriotism and selective solidarities show your slip
If you read the covers and endorsements of the books they publish, it reads like a “call a friend” for a pat on the back – and they dismiss black excellence as nothing but nepotism and cronyism…
South Africa may be on a fiscal cliff. The country may be a failed state, or approaching failure, but there are too many factors at play that civilisational beliefs cannot explain. That it cannot be explained does not mean that our cadre will not provide some explanation, they will simply conceal it by that great fallacy of “objectivity”, and arrange facts (conveniently) to tell the stories that they want to tell.
If you believe the European Enlightenment promises of peace and prosperity, stability and cohesion, that means we have to ignore everything that has happened in Europe since 1905. Somewhere in Gordon Craig’s book, Germany, he explained that before World War 2, the Nazis presented themselves as indispensable (for Europe), and that Germany was presented as the only choice between a heavy loss of prestige and place in the world, and mass slaughter.
Social and historical differences are important, but attitudes, beliefs and values fail to diminish over time. You can believe in your own civilisational superiority and indispensability, and nothing in the world can change that belief. All you have to do is continue believing.
The world has not collapsed because the European world is losing its grip, and continuing to believe that cannot be allowed to determine the future of South Africa and dancing on the grave of a country that is alive, yet not too well. DM