Simon Howell
Simon Howell

The problems of the past and the promise of the future

The concept of the future, in the face of the political and economic worries of the present, has become ever more important to our imagining of a democratic South Africa. How and, importantly, what should we be imagining? How, in other words, do we conceptualise the future in the face of the present? One such means would be to look at the rhetoric and slogans employed by political parties; during elections especially, it seems the political parties feel most keenly the weight and importance of the future. Indeed, when one reviews the various slogans that political parties have used, one cannot help but be struck by a simple fact: many of them are orientated towards a future perfect state.

For instance, in the 2009 elections the DA proposed that there should be “one nation, one future”, Cope wanted “a new agenda for change and hope”, and the ANC decided that “working together we can do more”. Politically, this makes sense. After all, one of the fundamental purposes of a political party is to make promises; to imagine a future superior to the present and then to deliver on those promises. What is of concern, however, is the very act of imagining – the act of imagining a future which is “better”, “more perfect”, or “superior” to that of the present.

To understand this, we need to focus our attention on the logic of the claim which asserts the normative superiority of the future over that of the present or the past, as indeed the political slogans do. When one denotes that the future is superior to the present or the past, there are two implicit assumptions. Firstly, it is a prerequisite of the claim that the future perfect state can exist, that it is possible. Secondly, there is also an implicit assumption that in comparison to this imagined and perfect future the present and the past are in some way unsatisfactory.

The problem, however, with the logic of this imagining is that at each attempt to reach for the future, and therefore escape the problems of the present or the past, both the present and the past must necessarily also be imagined. They operate, in other words, as the silent supplement that makes meaningful the promise of the future. In understanding this logic, and in the context of the production of political meaning in South Africa, what is revealed in my mind is an insidious, albeit implicit, invocation of the problems of the past each time we are invited to imagine the future. And of course, therein lies the problem – if we need the past to imagine the future, can we ever escape it? Can we ever embody the democratic ideal if the only way we can imagine the state is if we have to compare it to the atrocities of the past?

Put another way, can we ever be a democratic society, both in the present and the future, if we cannot escape the logic of the past by which we articulate the present and the future in the first place? Of course, some might argue that we have to remember the atrocities of the past to understand where we have come from, and where we are going. But this misses the point – can we ever escape the past, in order to imagine a future perfect state, as would be required by the political ideal?

Take, for instance, the infamous DASO poster of a young interracial couple embracing (and at the same time, please keep in mind that this is an example, rather than an attempt to resurrect the various debates thereof). The slogan underneath the picture states that “In OUR future, you wouldn’t look twice.” The implicit assumption, I take it, is that in the present state of affairs we do look twice, and therefore the poster invites us to imagine a future perfect state which is that which the present is not.

However, in order to make the point, the poster implicitly re-invokes the racial differences of the past – without the very concept of “black” and “white”, concepts themselves which have their root in the legislative practices of colonialism and apartheid, the poster would not make any sense. Moreover, in imagining a future beyond the racial classifications of the past, the past is implicitly invoked – a future beyond racial classification can only be made reference to by comparing it to a past and present which relies on those self-same racial classifications. For some, this is completely legitimate. The problem, however, and in the precise instance of the promises the political parties tell us, is that these promises never escape the very thing they say they do or can escape. How, in other words, can one make the promise that in the future there will be no such thing as racial classification by making reference to racial classifications?

The problem with this logic extends far beyond mere political promises. We are told, every day, that we live in a free and democratic country, with a Constitution that treats all citizens the same. And yet our IDs, our passports, indeed nearly every form of identification we posses demarcates us within the same old system that apartheid used. And this, I would argue, is a function of our inability to imagine a future beyond race, not because of it. To imagine such a future means making reference to the ideals enshrined in the Constitution, and not by constantly constructing the present through the backward legitimacy of such concepts as “liberation” or “revolution”.

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