Simon Hartley
Simon Hartley

Embracing irrelevance is a bitter thing

In this week’s edition, the Mail & Guardian published comments made by former Democratic Alliance parliamentarian Raenette Taljaard on her growing isolation and ultimate separation from the DA in her book Up in Arms: Pursuing Accountability for the Arms Deal in Parliament.

Reflecting on her last speech as a DA parliamentarian, delivered on November 9 2004, Taljaard wrote: “It was as if I did not belong anywhere else, but right in the middle of the floor of the House – between the DA and the ANC – where my own beliefs and feelings intermingled: the ideological, pragmatic middle ground, which neither party would ever concede as existing in our complex society.”

Taljaard’s comments resonated deeply with me, and presaged my own small, insignificant political wilderness.

Politics is the consolidation of, or the struggle for power. And if power is a game of absolutes, then nuance implies vacillation. Vacillation implies hesitation, and hesitation is the vacuum that the dogs at your heels wait for.

I identify strongly with the moral importance of the struggle against apartheid, of which the ANC was the fulcrum, and figurehead. But I am repelled by my alienness. I know nothing of the suffering of black, coloured, and Indian people under apartheid and previous colonial administrations beyond head knowledge and brief moments’ personal emotional horror. I know nothing of the continued, droll, practical suffering of South Africans under the democratic dispensation. I grew up in Durban’s suburbs. I humbled myself as a visitor to our domestic worker’s home for the first time in my life at age 21.

But I am equally repelled by the DA – a party largely comprised of people who have suburbs, middle-class ambition, accent, and climbing trees in large gardens in common with me. I am repelled by a growing lack of humility, and nose-thumbing to criticism. I am repelled by the desire to defend PR snafus to the death, and by the dozens upon dozens of acquaintances who have, after one beer, introduced themselves as DA supporters and, by the fifth, are sprouting sentences with that eighteen-year-old prefix, “I’m not racist, but …”

So I have no political home. I am a lover of policies, not parties. And yet, like Zama Ndlovu, I recognise great need in South Africa. And I wish to make a contribution to the betterment of South Africa.

But every time I stand to say something, my throat constricts, cracks, and fails. My penchant for choking on a public opinion – this terrible voicelessness – extends beyond my status as a political in-betweener.

Close to where I live, dozens of writer-types mill around in trendy politico-chic dive bars, punctuating ideological conversations on Frantz Fanon and Charles Dickens as a product of his time, with karaoke renditions of Total Eclipse Of The Heart. People like me, the in-betweeners, never make earnest contributions.

You see, White Youth is the other woman in the room – an unwitting and complicit partner in a profound wrongdoing. We are huddled awkwardly in the corner of the master suite with sheets wrapped around our nakedness, while the enraged woman rails at the cad. We want to empathise, to condemn the hurt, and share in the sense of wrongdoing. We didn’t know. Really, we didn’t. But how can we set a strong line between the wrong and ourselves, when we enjoyed the pleasure of it? What right of voice do we have?

We have none. We stand condemned by the timing of our birth. We are here, awkwardly bent, arms burdened, with a want in our hearts to be part of a broader national community, mouths gagged.

It strikes me that my guilt and rejection is a perverse self-indulgence. Should I indulge myself? My whole life has been one long, unabated self-indulgence. I fear I may already be set in my ways. The question is, what the hell am I getting out of it?

Perhaps I’m hoping that my relentless silent self-flagellation will grant me an all-access member’s clubcard to the Fanon Dickens Karaoke Society. Perhaps I’m hoping that once I’m part of a community – any community – someone not tainted by the pale stench of guilt would value my opinion, and recognise my desire for a sense of place.

But is my voicelessness and the crisis of relevance in white youth necessarily a bad thing? I don’t know.

When I look around me, for every politico-chic dive bar poser that I see, there is a multitude of authentic, intelligent people, proficient – eloquent, even – in multiple South African languages. Which is more than I can say for myself, and many other white English-speaking South Africans.

What’s more, these conversationalists are not white.

The way forward for this conversation is not in politics, where subtlety and sensitivity are swearwords. The way forward is in isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, isiNdebele, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Sepedi, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga. Hell, it’s in sign language. And perhaps English. But only if the rest of you are gracious over and above what is due to me. Come what may, it would do our souls (and again, I mostly mean my soul) a great deal of good, to just have a conversation with a citizen.

The will of the human heart is to be heard, and understood. I cannot help it. So I make my clumsy attempts at bridge-building, using the secret power of bad puns on Twitter, usually followed up quickly with large quantities of regret and apology for putting my foot in my mouth.

And I thank you all, for hearing me out.

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