Suntosh Pillay
Suntosh Pillay

Beyond Trevor Noah and Mandela’s rainbow: Towards a politics of empathy

I’ve been thinking about Trevor Noah’s op-ed in the New York Times, and its angry critiques, since the Day of Reconciliation in South Africa on December 16. Reconciliation is a thorny topic in our moody democracy, a reminder that the road to postcolonial hell is paved with good intentions.

If you missed it, Noah argued that America has reached a stage where liberals and conservatives allow their divisions to run so deep that they now mindlessly and ruthlessly eviscerate one another. He suggests that this very mania in one’s political beliefs is what makes the election of Donald Trump unsurprising – Americans primed themselves for being a society that responds to “us” versus “them” extremisms and allowed Trump to exploit those divisions. He concludes with a call for a moderate sensibility that foregrounds nuance and complexity:

“To the extremists and true believers of any cause, there is an idea that moderation and compromise are simply a prelude to selling out and giving up, when in fact the opposite is true – moderation brings radical ideas to the center to make them possible”

Beyond Mandela’s fading rainbow
His sensible argument falls apart when he uses Nelson Mandela as an exemplar of being both unwavering to the anti-apartheid cause while simultaneously being willing to compromise with the enemy – basically, a disciplined moderate. This is naïve in our current context of political disillusionment, where South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), has morphed from being Africa’s oldest liberation movement into a sycophantic, corrupt group of elites who are the midwives of a predatory and captured state that our young 22-year old so-called “miracle” democracy is declining into.

Noah said in an interview last month “I come from a place of reconciliation, of conversation”, forgetting that Mandela is no longer praised for his reconciliatory politics. Instead, he is now the go-to scapegoat, having his legacy and decisions questioned by angry and exasperated youth demanding free education, land restitution, and economic freedom as promised when apartheid ended. The failure of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma’s subsequent administrations to build on the promises of 1994 has a left a jarring gap. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, we are also witnessing a rise of extremisms in our civil society rhetoric in search of post-Mandela messiahs.

The Marikana massacre in 2013 was our tipping point, where we witnessed the shadow side of Mandela’s ANC, a government willing to gun down its own citizens. This allowed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to step in as the voice of the proletariat, winning eight percent of the national vote in 2014, kicking Parliamentary politeness on its head. If there was any doubt, the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement of 2015 officially booted out the rainbow nation enthusiasm of Mandela’s presidency and replaced it with a discourse of decolonization, raising urgent questions about what a genuinely Africanized society should look like. Nothing exposed the schisms in our public consciousness the way in which RMF forced the lines in the sand to be drawn. The Fees Must Fall university protests followed, rightfully critiquing the commodification of education, while becoming the most physically violent and uncompromising student protests in our post-1994 history, with infrastructure damage of R600 million and heavy police brutality against students. On the margins, the Black First Land First grouping is trying to re-introduce radical socialism to a new generation of activists, but is actively anti-Constitutional.

This new zeitgeist, a piqued rise in black identity politics and grassroots citizenship, follows global trends seen in the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East in 2010 and the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA since 2012. It has also occurred in parallel with a rise in global political extremism seen in white identity politics – personified by Trump and Brexit, both a politics of xenophobia and racism. Like all radical ideas, these brave new worlds bring with them the possibilities of both utopian and dystopian futures, depending on your ideology.

A politics of radical dissent
In 2017 these discursive divisions look set to harden globally and in South Africa specifically. The binaries have been laid bare.
You’re either with us or against us. You’re either for the cause or against the cause. You’re either a supporter or a traitor. You’re either a loyalist or careerist. You’re either black or white. You’re either a revolutionary or a revisionist. You’re either privileged or disadvantaged. You either get it or you don’t. Your mind’s either colonized or woke. The lines in the sand have been drawn and unsurprisingly so – over twenty years of patiently waiting for socio-economic change, the unholy trio of poverty, unemployment and inequality remain intact (cemented by an emerging predatory state, epitomized by the Guptas and SABC saga). As such, the move to impatient extremisms appears necessary. Mandela’s politics of hope is now firmly replaced with a politics of radical dissent and anger. Makes sense, right?

However, returning to Trevor Noah’s warning to America, that easy extremisms divides a nation and a divided nation is easier to rule, should South Africans also heed our expat’s warning and prevent ourselves from falling down the slippery slope of national evisceration, lest we wake up one morning and discover too late that even ‘just wars’ require negotiation and cooperation?

The obvious problem is that moderate ‘negotiation politics’ in South Africa has resulted in the privileged (white people) leaving the table secure in comfort and the oppressed (black people) with vague future promises of a better life. While waiting for Godot, this gap widened and widened, until the elected ANC vanguard became the new elite and the incentives to narrow the gap disappeared. It’s the familiar story of our liberators becoming our oppressors as we descended into a predictable Orwellian nightmare. In the land of the free, some are more equal than others.

Stuck in a catch-22 wherein neither extremism nor moderation works well, we have to materialize our policies with pragmatic plans (except for the disingenuous who want popularity and power but have no intention of creating workable plans for their ‘radical’ ideas). But the constant appeal for patience and dialogue from moderates makes anger fester – which is not altogether a bad thing, except that anger precedes violence and violence is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for revolutionary change, despite Fanonian misreadings to the contrary. We must always actively prevent another Germany, Rwanda, Syria, Burundi, or South Sudan – or our own propensity for Afrophobic violence. History shows us that any political solution that comes from the far right or far left will not be of maximum utility.

So I agree with Trevor Noah’s gamble that people will always opt for the middle ground, but his analysis falls short. I want to take it further by stipulating what that middle ground ought to look like. In bringing new ideas to the fore, or reconciling extreme points of views, my obvious, but perhaps unpopular, suggestion is that we strive to embody a politics of empathy.

Why empathy?
Before any knee-jerk criticisms that empathy is another cushy liberal cop-out to avoiding enacting real change, the opposite is true. Volumes of psychological research show that empathy in the context of genuine human relationships is a key curative factor in getting people to change for the better and even solving political deadlocks and preventing violence (for example, Naomi Head’s research on Palestine and Israel, and the books Zero degrees of empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen and Political emotions or Upheavals of thought by Martha C Nussbaum are relevant here).

In the South African context, the fundamental psychological tragedy of colonialism, apartheid and its patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist framework, is that it reduced black people to what Frantz Fanon called the zone of non-being. We were literally not seen as human equals by the colonizers. Like a disease this mindset spread amongst us as we devalued ourselves in the process. Empathy is radical in that it is the opposite of this ‘zombification’ of an entire population of black humans. Steve Biko recognized this and endorsed black consciousness. Empathy is – emotionally and materially – seeing a person on their own terms and conditions. It is a non-judgmental repositioning of one’s perspective to gain a deep awareness of where the other person is coming from, in order to fully appreciate how to communicate with that person. It is – symbolically – walking in another person’s shoes.

A politics of empathy is logically consistent with the interdependent, relation-centered philosophies in South Africa, popularized by Ubuntu motifs such as ‘a person is a person through other people’. African-centered ontologies are rooted in a collective consciousness that enables people to become abantu – humanized beings, the exact opposite of colonial intent.

We also need a politics of empathy to prevent ourselves from merely reifying stale essentialist notions of who we are, done frequently at election rallies to rally up a superficially homogenous voting bloc by appealing to empty identity sloganeering. When this bloc realizes they are actually far more heterogeneous than meets the eye, this results in splinter formations with increasingly stronger extremist rhetoric to differentiate themselves from the already extremist but now politically cushy father body. And the cycle continues until guerilla warfare or violent terrorism erupts.

In a politics of empathy we
• assume that ‘the other sides’ have narratives worth listening to, however misguided;
• fight for our cause but do not reduce ourselves to the very thing we abhor;
• acknowledge how structure and agency intermingle in countless ways that make grand narratives
and simple generalizations unhelpful and lazy;
• bridge institutional and interpersonal understandings of problems;
• do not further oppress the oppressed by putting the burden of forgiveness, conciliation,
mediation, or solution-finding on them;
• recognize anger as a legitimate emotional tool in the arsenal of struggle methodologies;
• are constantly mindful of our historical privilege in all its intersectional manifestations
during our engagements with those who do not enjoy those privileges, and are especially alert
to the insidious micro-aggressions that stem from our unearned privileges, especially being
white, male, economically stable, heterosexual, English-speaking, and/or able-bodied;
• know the difference between equality and equity;
• neither hide behind complexity as a scapegoat for solid decision making, nor downplay
complexity in the rush for simplistic misdiagnoses of multi-layered problems;
• sensitize ourselves to formulating issues using a broad framework that includes biological,
psychological, social, historical, spiritual and philosophical factors;
• open ourselves up to new learnings and new modes of being, behaving, seeing, feeling and
thinking, in the never-ending pursuit of a politics of iterative reflexivity that can only lead
to deeper levels of empathy.

These counter-images to political extremism can only nurture what Biko envisioned as a quest for a true humanity that capitalizes on the best versions of us as human beings, rather than exploiting the worst, giving (South) Africa and the world a more human face through a more relational-centered politics and forms of protest.

This article may be republished with credit.

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