It is easy to be an extremist. Taking a blind, one-sided, all-or-nothing viewpoint on an issue allows you to skip the nuance, texture, and blurry greyness of debates. South Africa’s “good story/bad story” debate has politicians locking horns as the extremities in political speeches now surface.
Poet Maya Angelou once mused that, “all great achievements require time” and Nelson Mandela cautioned that “it always seems impossible until it’s done”. In these emotional and heated times of electioneering, I feel like we need these sober truisms to remind us that freedom and democracy are processes, not events. They do not “happen”, they are “happening” all the time.
Power FM host Eusebius McKaiser noted “the boring ‘on balance’ truth of it is that there is much to be proud of, much to bemoan, much more to do”. So, what’s our story? Is it a good one or a bad one? Well, it depends where you’re standing, where you’ve been, where you’re heading, what you have, and what you’ve chosen to see, isn’t it?
The middle ground neither makes sensational headlines nor causes a panicked SABC to ban controversial adverts. A balanced analysis also tends not to go viral in cyberspace, and probably won’t amass a thousand retweets. Romanticising histories or vilifying future scenarios are intellectually lazy. But, those who tend to theorise issues without a solid opinion can be written off as undecided fence-sitters who can’t make up their minds, or armchair critics in ivory towers. In an information-saturated digital age of intensely conflicting data, research, news coverage and opinions, deciding on who’s right and what’s true is nearly impossible. Alas, or fortunately, the postmodern truth is that there isn’t one.
After all is said and done, we are alone with our own thoughts and feelings in the ballot box on election day. Pen in hand, we have to make a decision. There is no room for doubt or to add cautionary footnotes to our decision. Every vote is an unqualified yes. A “go ahead”, I agree with your policies and statements and leadership and ideology. There is no space for a qualitative caveat or explanation. There is no space for a “none of the above”, like in India. And there is no room to figure out why a voter did what they did, such as why 239 000 voters spoilt their ballots in the last election.
But when our fifth democratic parliament starts work again, the process of voting starts again. Standing in the booth is an evaluation of five years of vigilance, holding leaders accountable, and vigorous participation in the public sphere. Voting is the reflective pause in a cycle of active citizenry. It is both the start and the end of a process, one that loops infinitely and forever.
American computer scientist Alan Kay once quipped that “the best way to predict the future is to invent it”. Inventing the future we want means not getting sucked into rose-tinted narratives that the ANC would have us believe; or getting sucked into Afro-pessimistic narratives the DA and opposition parties would have us believe. This blind binary will get us nowhere. Our living room and around-the-braai conversations need to be more than a familiar moan and groan, more than a regurgitation of the dominant myopic media headlines, and more than a retreat into old-fashioned race-based explanations for everything. I believe our conversations need to become more solution-focused, filled with more stories of agency and resilience, and a bit braver — brave, in the sense that we are not afraid to speak truth to power, to protest incompetence and corruption, and to amplify our voice.
There is no good story and no bad story. There is only the multi-layered stories of how well we, the citizens, did our job of being the vanguard for social good, keeping alive the old cliché that the price of democracy and freedom is eternal vigilance.