Conrad Steenkamp
Conrad Steenkamp

The ancestors strike back

The angry whispering of my ancestors, black, tan and white, refer. They speak about the words of some Deployed Writers in this middle-class space about race and hatred and the Great Juggernaut; the Great One, that Great Socialist of the humble bank account, that is bringing hope to the African poor and anxiety to the pale rich.

“Disingenuous!” they say. “These Deployed Writers are writing about somebody who is living off the fat of the land — at the expense of the poor — a tenderpreneur who is yet to do an honest day’s work.”

I try to calm them, but they persist.

“What the Great Ones do is theft! Worse than that — it’s stealing from the poor! Something which these Deployed Writers now try to mystify through anti-intellectual claptrap. If one has to be ignorant to be in touch with African culture, as these Deployed Writers seem to claim, then we don’t want to be Africans.”

The radical statement surprises me and I say so: “But, perhaps the writer was trying to say something else; something about the cultural dimensions of the tensions and struggles that we are witnessing, perspectives of which we middle-class folk, black and white, tend to be ignorant. There is much about the depths of the Limpopo province and other rural spaces that lies beyond our most liberal understanding; perspectives that are not reflected on pages like these.”

My ancestors frown: “When you address your ancestors, you do not start your sentences beginning with ‘but’ and don’t try to tell old people how to suck eggs. Populist politicians, those most Cynical Seekers of Power, dictators, and their hangers-on, always oppose ‘intellectualism’, regardless of cultural context. It is Der Fuhrer himself who said ‘Mit Wissen verderbe ich mir die Jugend’. (Knowledge weakens the Youth).”

“But why?” I ask, persisting in bad habits.

“Because critical thought exposes the words of the Great Ones as self-serving and empty; labour of the lips that will achieve only short-lived benefit for the well-connected few — at the expense of the poor. Those of the Expanding Girth can eat only for as long as the poor remain ignorant.”

“What you say sounds pretty intellectual, even to me, dear ancestors,” I say. “Most will tell you that it is difficult today to argue against uplifting the youth, and closing the gap between rich and poor.”

“True,” say they. “But that is not what the Great Ones intend. They aim at distribution of finite resources by the connected few to the connected few, and some crumbs for whoever cares to support them. To do this they mobilise the jealousy and hunger of those that have grown thin watching others feed.”

“Sounds dramatic,” say I and another ancestor, a particularly intellectual one, raises his voice.

“Some intellectuals might call it ‘primitive accumulation,’ ” he says. “Others might say they are playing the worst of village politics on the national stage, and perhaps this is what that writer of yours finds so comforting.”

“Possibly,” I admit, but continue to think that I had something there.

The original speaker, the melodramatic one, continues: “And as their confidence grows the Big Bellied Ones, the Thick Necks, those of the Great Thighs, will propose ever more radical ways to extract just that little bit more, that little bit more quickly — just in case somebody else gets there first. For there are Others that are just as hungry.

“The Thick Necks will become fat and glistening, and wax rapacious and callous as time goes on. The police and soldiers become arrogant and dangerous, and swagger about in the streets, and the Great Ones will eat and steal and eat. They will plunder the temples and scrape the gold leaf from its pillars. They will range forth until there is truly nothing left, like a host of termites that leaves the earth bare and dry.

“Their policies, if that is what one could call institutionalised greed, will not stand the test of time; for the Big Bellied Ones are of infinite hunger. They are willing to sacrifice all to feed that glutinous empty self. Sooner or later the fat will be gone, and the system will groan and crash under their weight.

“Eventually the Great Ones will stand naked in the light, arrogant and fat, eyes drawn to little slits in their bloated faces; secure in the knowledge that their wealth has been stashed away well out of the reach of the poor. For fortunes can be made while countries, rules and regulations, crumble into dust and the children die on the street corners. They are the Scum of the Earth … ”

“Hang on, those are harsh words,” I say, almost tripping in my haste and feeling uncomfortable. “And talk like that doesn’t get one far these days. One gets accused of all sorts of things and soon it could even be, uhm … dangerous. And is it really necessary? I mean, these ‘Great Ones’ of yours seem to flourish on critique. The more one criticises them, the more powerful they seem to become. Won’t they just go away if one ignored them?”

My ancestors say: “Falling silent means that one has already lost. They are not clowns, but most terribly serious. All these populists will do as they say and more if they can. If you do not believe us, just go and read the National Socialist manifesto before their ascent to power, and then pretend to be surprised about the outcomes.”

And as my ancestors speak, it dawns on me that we cannot afford a Failure of Politics, or these vultures that feast on the hopes of the poor; those of the Deceiving Tongues and their constant craving for more, stoking hatred and destroying the heritage of Truly Great Leaders. They are destroying our middle ground and one’s words against racism in one’s own community begin to sound hollow and bereft of credibility: “Are you blind or is it simply that you cannot see? They’re talking of war.”

Racial populisms easily become a fiery vortex and already people are burning in the streets. They are robbed, and beaten and stabbed; hacked and raped, tortured and executed. And we don’t notice, because we’ve gotten used to the chaos or because the dead are of the Others.

And some day in the future, when the costs are counted, somebody will happen upon the words that some of us had written in over-caloried middle-class spaces like this. They will inspect them and analyse them to try and understand what had happened.

And many such writers — communing with the spirits or not — will be judged complicit, if not in deed then at least in thought, just like the desktop-perpetrators of old Germany.