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Thuli and other 21st century ‘freedom fighters’ among Time 100

Although she occupies only a sliver of a column on p. 80 in the “leaders” section of Time magazine’s special edition on “The 100 Most Influential people” (May 5 2014), this should not mislead anyone as to the comparative importance of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s inclusion in this annual pantheon of (itself) one of the world’s most influential mainstream magazines. For whatever one might think of Time as a fairly conservative American source of information on a wide array of topics, in addition to being a source of dissemination of dominant (mainly) American discourses (or ideology, if you like), the fact that it takes responsibility for this selection of “titans”, “pioneers”, “artists”, “leaders” and “icons” in our globalised world, is very significant.

Its significance lies, first, in the fact that Time is a forum for what is regarded as newsworthy in a global context, which implies that, in so far as South Africa is a member of a world community of nations (for better or for worse), Advocate Madonsela’s inclusion is symptomatic of the world community’s sustained attention to what occurs in South Africa. Secondly, it marks a note of censure, from the world community’s perspective, of the (especially recent) actions of the current ANC leadership, more specifically its cynical abuse of power as epitomised in the Nkandla debacle.

In the third place it represents, together with the inclusion of other figures for similar reasons, the fact that there is still a receptivity of sorts to individuals whose actions exemplify the spirit of freedom and the (related) quest for justice. In Madonsela’s case this is manifested in her courageous stance on the Nkandla issue. The writer of the Time 100 column (Lamido Sanusi, ex-governor of Nigeria’s Central Bank) puts it as follows:

“As South Africa’s public protector, with her ability to speak truth to power and to address corruption in high places, Madonsela has been outstanding. To speak about corruption in high places is often subversive and always embarrassing. The machinery of state can be called upon to intimidate or even destroy and eliminate whistle-blowers. It therefore requires extraordinary courage and patriotism to do what Thuli Madonsela has done.”

Madonsela is not the only one among the Time 100 who represents this spirit of justice and freedom (from corruption, oppression, ecological degradation, and more). Hannah Beech’s piece in the “artists” section on rom-com actress Yao Chen of China does not set out to eulogise her artistic prowess alone. The subtitle to the piece already intimates as much: “Chinese superstar with an activist streak.” Beech elaborates (p. 61):

“Yao Chen … could have just kept quiet about the disturbing by-products of her homeland’s epic economic rise. But the 34-year-old took her thoughts online … she has opined on everything from the effect on her young child of China’s poisoned environment — choking smog, foul water and a toxic food chain — to the brave stand of a Chinese newspaper battling state censors.”

It seems that, in an overpopulated, politically precarious and ecologically threatened world, in order to promote freedom and justice, one increasingly has to turn to activism of some variety or other. This is also the potentially powerful message that emanates from Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s piece, in the “pioneers” section, on Edward Snowden, subtitled “The Renegade in Exile”.

Given its uncompromising evaluation of Snowden as a champion of freedom, I find it quite astonishing that Time has printed this brief essay; after all, the conservative elements in the US, like the people at the NSA, are probably bristling in the face of the explicit criticism of their cynical, fascist activities. Sample this bit from Domscheit-Berg, for instance, and you will get a feeling for what being a true activist or conscientious actor entails (p. 42):

“Edward Snowden … is said to be a computer genius, but he has chosen to do what is right rather than what will enrich him, and he has chosen to do what is right rather than what is lawful. Showing a sense of great responsibility, he has exposed a global system of surveillance whose sheer dimensions are unfathomable.

“This system threatens the very foundation of individual freedom throughout the world. And it threatens the basis upon which our democracies are built. Cynically, it does so by undermining and exploiting the very tools of communication and sharing that are meant to enable, engage and enrich us.”

To choose what is right above what is likely to generate financial wealth is already something super-exceptional in our money-obsessed world, and to choose what is right above what existing laws dictate is a mark of a truly ethical, morally responsible person, who can distinguish between the merely conventional force of positive laws and the universally binding force of what Kant called “the moral law”. Apartheid laws instantiated what was “legal” in that fascist stage of South Africa’s history; everyone who opposed them and the system that spawned them knows that, although “legal”, they were illegitimate in a more profound ethical and moral sense.

In the same manner Snowden represents the kind of morally motivated, conscience-bound actor/activist around whom a global community of similarly motivated individuals, one that surpasses national boundaries, can grow, and probably is already growing in their opposition to what masquerades as “lawful”, but behind the mask is really illegitimate and unethical.

Within the space I have left I can only dwell upon one more “activist” (although there are others in Time 100 2014), namely the writer-activist Arundhati Roy, described in the subtitle of Pankaj Mishra’s piece, in the “icons” section, as “The Conscience of India”. Anyone who has read Roy’s captivating novel The God of Small Things, will know her rare ability to juxtapose (and sometimes merge) the beautiful and the terrifying, or horrifying, in her literary exploration of life and love under India’s persistent caste system. But she has done more, as Mishra tells us (p. 93):

” … Roy’s subsequent non-fictional engagement with the conflicts and traumas of a heedlessly globalised world has manifested the virtues of an unflinching emotional as well as political intelligence. Her lucid and probing essays offer sharp insights on a range of matters, from crony capitalism and environmental depredation to the perils of nationalism and, in her most recent work, the insidiousness of the Hindu caste system.”

This is just a small slice of those rare gems (not restricted to Time 100, of course) who, in the vast sea of humanity, and unlike those comprising this mass of convention-obeying, sport and celebrity worshiping, largely unthinking representatives of a supposedly “rational” species, demonstrate, in their actions, that there is perhaps a small, very small, chance of others sitting up and taking notice of their compelling example. Such an event is long overdue, of course; the future of living beings on the planet hangs on the thread of possibility that more and more individuals will turn to activism regarding the threats facing democracy and all living species. For true democracy and healthy ecology are intimately connected.