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Bizarro world and the problem of the parallel universes

I worry about the proliferation of multiple universes in South Africa.

There, I said it. Now I must write very quickly before those nice men in their white coats come to take me away.

Parallel Universe #1 exists between city dwellers and rural folk. Move away from the large metropolitan areas and it is as if you have been beamed up to a different planet where concerns are different, attitudes are different, and cultures, conversations and conventions and even the very fabric of the towns are different.

A recent trip to the Northern Cape highlighted this. As far as every single person I spoke to at filling stations, roadsides, farms and bank queues between Jan Kempdorp and Prieska was concerned, what was happening in Polokwane meant absolutely zero. For all intents and purposes, it may as well have been happening in Helsinki or Vladivostok or Krung Thep Maha Nakhon.

It wasn’t that those people were stupid, unsophisticated and uninformed. They live in a parallel universe that only occasionally brushes against this one. Our rulers have made themselves irrelevant out there and there are more important things than a bunch of yahoos and yobs ululating and singing about machine guns in a place they still know as Pietersburg.

Parallel Universe #2 exists between logic and the anachronistic communist/socialist paradigms. I suppose a simpler way of saying this would be to refer to Sandile Memela‘s blog and the 35-odd responses it has attracted. The words are similar, but the deductions are of the kind Monty Python parodied in the famous “Professor of logic” sketch.

This means we are constantly talking at each other. Most postings by black people (although it is not exclusively blacks) are almost impossible for me to comprehend — and I sincerely mean this in great humility.

It worries the bejabbers out of me, because the very essence of the communications subjects I taught at varsity was “to be understood”. People can only truly disagree with what they comprehend. Everything else is mere supposition and pointless he-said-she-said contradiction. From there the offshoots of slang, jargon, argot, code and semiology derive. But I’m sorry — I just don’t get it. These are the people who control my destiny and hold my fate in their hands … and I don’t understand what they are saying.

And the third clearly discernible Parallel Universe is the ideological one. I suppose it is best characterised by the unbridgeable chasms that exist between so-called cultures. Every culture has a hierarchy of norms and social mores. This is to overcome conflicts when an ethical premise — say, loyalty — finds itself at right angles with another; say, sanctity of life. The society’s historical prerogative will determine which ethical premise holds sway over the other.

Thus to the Inca loyalty to the king was far more important than self-preservation or the sanctity of life. It was nought to sacrifice your first-born if the king so decreed. This principle underpins suicide bombings. It also determines much of what we see torturing our country — the ancient black tradition that sets greater store by loyalty to friends or benefactors above social injustice. Witness Thabo Mbeki’s unflinching loyalty to Jackie Selebi and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang (remember he appointed both) — irrespective of their crimes, whereas Zuma Simpson, our buffoon-playing court jester, was fired on the spot as deputy capo. There was, after all, no way a Xhosa could tolerate such shenanigans from a Zulu. Doh!

These parallel universes support the injunction by a very senior police officer who is acquainted first-hand with all the behind-the-scenes skulduggery (as good as any John Preston) at the weekend. “If you have children here in South Africa, get them out as quickly as possible!” the officer told me. “Just one more year!” I replied.

Dishonesty and duplicity are white European values that are frowned upon, but blithely tolerated in our demockracy.

The upside, of course, lies with the new generations of enlightened and forward-thinking people of all races. They’re entering high school now and, if they can survive the rigours and rubbish that pose as FET, they will leave school and enter university in 2013 and the workplace in 2016 and begin taking some real leadership in 2020 — there might just be a future for this country. Maybe that’s the democracy Cohen and I see coming “To the shores of need,
past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate”.

If not, will we see Skielik (which ironically means “suddenly”), Swartruggens and Umlazi and Hermanus and Ixopo and Khutsong and scores of other flashpoints be the Sarajevos that set our sub-continent ablaze? There are many, too many, highly placed and well-informed people who say that what the world expected to see in 1994 is today only school-fight-as-trigger away. And those who should be preventing a holocaust either lack the will or couldn’t give a shit. Or, the best, just deny its imminence.

The continent, of course, just bounces like a pinball from crisis to disaster to war to reconstruction and back again. This month it’s Lagos; next month Nairobi; March, say, Bamako; April, how about Addis? And so we go. It is totally naive to expect much help from there. Chindia? Yes … maybe. But as for our toyi-toyi soldiers — well, the mightiest defence force on the continent doesn’t even have a Rooivalk gunship or two to send to Darfur.

Hey, I hope these people are all wrong. I hope I am just a paranoid, frightened old white guy who has seen too much and been lied to too often and too well. I hope we can get our universes in unison. But I doubt it’s going to happen in my lifetime.


  1. Jody Herman Jody Herman 17 January 2008

    Hi Mr.Kriel

    I share your sentiments on ome of your view points and can honestly say that I am afraid of what is happening in South Africa, I read Mr. Friedman’s post yesterday ans I’m glad he still has some optermism, I however find myself between a rock and a K%K place. I am coloured and supported the ANC’s plight as a young boy, not understanding politics as I do now. I have had countless arguements with friends about the Leadership of the country. I use to have an idealistic and an all embrassive attitude, which has been worn thin by recent events, I am 25 years old and sick to my stomach, wondering what is going to happen next. I attended Grassy Park High School on the Cape Flats and in my final year at school in a lengthy debate with fellow students and my then geography educator, I predicted a civil war in this country and quite honestly at that time I thought progress would only come this way, I regret even thinking about a civil war, however the way things are going, it seems as if we are heading in the same direction as the rest of the continent.

  2. Steve van Niekerk Steve van Niekerk 17 January 2008

    The logic and motivation behind the introduction of Apartheid by the previous regime is becoming more and more apparent and understandable to me every day .
    Why can we not just accept our differences and plan our futures accordingly – a fact is a fact is a fact.

  3. MidaFo MidaFo 17 January 2008

    In the context, Jody, a truly touching post and a lesson to us all. Keep thinking, keep blogging and always remember its not the style, its the content.

  4. Laura Laura 17 January 2008

    What differences, Mr van Niekerk?

    I have also noticed Parallel Universe #2. Generally when I am speaking to my black South African friends about political topics. Sometimes we speak so far past each other, I think we actually interpret the same words and phrases differently. Literally.

    I’ve really tried to bridge the gap recently, by asking lots of questions (which sometimes gets a defensive repsonse, I suppose it feels like an attack to people) and by reading ANC Today and that sort of thing. Which has helped a lot. Its a bit like moving to a new place and learning a new language. But its important, I think. And i tmakes your world bigger too, understanding different people.

  5. Llewellyn Kriel Llewellyn Kriel Post author | 17 January 2008

    Exceptional comments so far – probing, humble, honest and perspicacious.

    The issues of words and mutual understanding are very serious. One instance in which a mis-understanding could have changed the course of history happened during the planning stages of Operation Overlord, the Allied landings at Normandy. When British strategists “put on the table” some crucial changes regarding when several battalions of US troops would land, they meant the changes had been opened for discussion. To the Americans, to “put on the table” meant to discard, shelve or, as we might say, put on the backburner. Though historians still debate the possible ramifications, the worst scenario would have been the failure of Operation Overloard and the best scenario the deaths of an estimated 32,000 Allied soldiers.

    Like marriage, communication is not to be “entered into lightly or wantonly”. KYSSYG

  6. Ali Ali 17 January 2008

    I agree with all you said. Especially #2. What on earth are these people talking about? And it’s not only because it is anachronistic communist/socialist twattle (because I find that interesting to figure out), but people are just plain obscure in what they’re trying to say, and lazy to read what they’ve written to see if it makes any sense. And it is not only in the comments – Sandile Memela himself is obscure and long-winded.

    Another aspect that you don’t touch on that I find quite concerning is the amount of veiled threats against whities and the blanket accusations of racism whenever one don’t agree with black people. Worrying, to say the least. If I was black I would’ve stayed away from it, just to avoid the suspicion that I’m just lazy mentally – just out of pride.

  7. francois williams francois williams 17 January 2008

    Some more of Mr Kriel’s seemingly bottomless humbug…So the Yanks are still the ultimate rolmodels for us poor befuddled, non comprehending Africans ?
    This despite the fact that they are totally bankrupt in every conceivable way…sub-educated(just look at their nit-wit leader), over-fed(obese), in the red(no-one can rub a dollar in hard cash together), vicious, selfish, maniacally dishonest, murderous…yet these are the examples that Mr Kriel hold up to us…
    If you don’t understand our logic Sir, maybe it is because you are lacking common sense, so don’t try to shift the blame…the land of milk and honey is but one plane ticket away…your children can go to school in absolute peace in the USA no doubt, as long as the metal detectors keep working, the drugs keep flowing and the security guards keep patrolling…duh !

  8. jimshady jimshady 17 January 2008

    francois williams has the gall to accuse the americans of being sub-educated, when our matric pass rate (after standards have been downgraded and downgraded again) is about 65% (and you can bet that is a result of some creative fiddling). And his comments on George Bush: has he really fallen for the bullshit about our own beloved leader, Thabo Mbeki, being an intellectual? Puleez, the man cannot even conjure up a conception of the HIV pandemic. This is not even to mention our next president, who doesn’t even have a Standard Six!
    Francois, take the log out of your own eye before opening your mouth about a society that, despite its flaws, is the envy of the world: witness the hordes of illegal immigrants trying to sneak in there. As for school violence, hasn’t he read the newspapers in SA? How many of our pupils don’t go to school armed with knives to stab fellow pupils and even teachers…

  9. Kreef Kreef 18 January 2008

    I also find it extremely difficult to understand what Sandile and his comrades are trying to tell white South Africans .Do they want us to leave / do they want to kill us / are they joking / are they serious (heaven forbid) / are they ignorant / are they consumed by hate for us or what is it they are saying .As far as I can make out they seem to be caught up in a wail of self pity and a feeling of inferiority .They certainly don’t appear to be providing any viable well formulated options for serious consideration .Geewhiz they are not even providing a platform for debate .

  10. Laura Laura 18 January 2008

    Kreef, maybe try signing up for the ANC Today weekly newsletter? You can get it by email every Friday. Its sounds a bit weird maybe, but it really gives you insights into how parallel universe #2 people think. It even makes politicians cryptic comments understandable sometimes…

  11. Stephen Stephen 18 January 2008

    It’s quite tragic that I find myself in large part agreeing with your sentiments.

    Then again for maybe most whites a democratic South Africa means very different issues of substance, hence we just don’t understand.
    Political emancipation for the African majority brings a different set of needs and challanges.

    While Calland and Friedman attempt to make some unemotional logic of unfolding events, while providing some optimism of the young democracy growing pains type analysis. There is the ‘Traps’ school of reality/logic, ‘lets compromise quickly, just keep the show on the road, whatever the price’.

    Perhaps all us white Eurocentric folks should shut up and accept that the hard core reality is that your/our opinions are not wanted, your a guest worker, get a grip on that and you’ll sleep better. Rainbow nation stuff, Eurocentric concepts of democracy, justice, meritocracy, is just colourful vapor. Hopefully leadership in time will emerge that is more fully engaged and not so wrought out by our history and the continent.

  12. sandile memela sandile memela 18 January 2008

    Some of the people in the township, residents and visitors from the rural areas likfe KwaZulu-Natal, for instance, were disappointed that Jay Zee did not deepen the problem of Paralle Universe #2.
    The expectation was that he would conduct himself like Sarkozy who speaks his mother-tongue when he made his inaugural speech at Atteridgeville last Saturday.
    Of course, Sarkozy, for instance, addresses his French majority in the indegenous language when makes an important policy speech.
    That is the practical philosophy that people who elect our leadership expect now expect from elected black African leaders.
    Mostly, so-called black African leaders speak English because they are speaking to whites and have a tendency to forget WHO puts them into power.
    If we are to be serious about effective communication, the leadership must speak the languages the people understand. This is practical politics. You only have to listen to the Afrikaners to now.
    Its a hard expectations but that is part of the reality of connecting with the people on the ground.
    If one is not wrong, it is what happens when the president of china is here, the president of Germany is here. They have translators. They speak their own languages.
    So, you are complaining about articulate, fluent and English speaking black Africans? You are making fun of them because you claim not to understand what they say?
    I will tell you what the honest expectation is about Parallel Universe #2: for you to truly understand black Africans, you may have to learn their languages. Otherwise, you will never understand what they are saying.
    If they fail to make you understand while speaking a universal language, then it is time to go native. We must admit it is tough to think in Zulu and express yourself in English.
    I can imagine you watching Jay Zee – who you consider illiterate – speaking Zulu and Xhosa and Sotho to the black African majority. All you will do is NOT understand. It will be words passing in front of your eyes. Your brain will not follow the argument. You will not see any arguments.
    Dont get me wrong. But all languages are equal in this country.
    And Jay Zee has a right to speak in his mother tongue just like the president of Germany, China and France, for instance.
    So, who will be laughing at the end.
    It is time to make a serious effort to understand without standing under.
    Lets spread a spirit of reconciliation and stopping making fun of people who are trying to communicate. You do not have to agree with them.
    You do not have to read what you are not interested. This is a free country, for Africa’s sake.

  13. Kreef Kreef 19 January 2008

    And..uh…mm..b…your point is ?

  14. Llewellyn Kriel Llewellyn Kriel Post author | 19 January 2008

    I am impressed, Sandile. At least I can comprehend fragments of ANC logic in what you have written this time. I am also humbled by so many other commentators who have managed to find some threads of reason in ANC Today. Try as I may, 95% of what I have forced myself to plough through (like wading through molasses in flippers) on, of and about the ANC goes right over my head as if it were R2D2 beeping. It’s not that I can’t understand the language. It is just that I cannot follow the reasoning, the route we followed in Logic in both Philosophy and Theology. Premise A: Reductive premise B = conclusion. A: All fish live in water. B: Herring are fish. C: Herring live in water.

    The way the ANC puts it seems to me – A: All fish live in water. B: Herring are fish. C: It is because of white racism.

    Sorry, it just doesn’t make sense. Then again I don’t know of many Professors of Logic or even Philosophy who are also members of the ANC, so …

    As for Zuma … I certainly don’t consider him illiterate. I consider him a dangerous amoral criminal buffoon who should be behind bars.

    And the Sarkozy point falls on its own sword because … that’s right Sandile, you said it … translation. If Zuma and the rest of the Simpsons – DOH! – cannot communicate in English (and I don’t hold that against them or anyone else for that matter because neither could the Son of God who spoke only Aramaic and possibly snatches of Hellenistic Greek and other languages used in Palestine under Roman rule as far as we know) then get the same quality of translators as do the other members of the UN. As you point out, there are 11 official languages in SA and politicians (arguably more than any other group of people) cannot blithely abdicate their responsibilities to ensure they are understood. Zuma and most of the cabinet speak pathetic English = problem. Solution? Speak the language they claim to be proficient in and get a good translator. Simple – we call it reasoning.

  15. Joey Joey 19 January 2008

    Mr Kriel,
    Thank you for a great article. But a holocaust? What sort do you envisage? Class, race or tribal or just a mixture of them all seeing as we are ever so willing to kill each other? When looked at closely neither of the above warrant such a frightening conclusion as you have made. You are underestimating the reasoning of an entire nation and it is sad. To put it simply, I don’t know about you but I’m not planning to kill anyone because they had different views from my own. My ignorance wouldn’t go that far and neither would that of South Africa. I hope my belief in my people is proved right.
    The world has expected to see many things from SA, lets not hinge too much on what they expect.

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