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On asking the right questions

Recently the BBC published an article by Hugh Schofield entitled “Why does France insist school pupils master philosophy?” His answer, seen through paternal eyes, is that it has opened a “world of knowledge” to his daughter. Reading the article in/from South Africa one could ask, as is the liberal trend, whose knowledge is being reproduced, its validity, its authority, etcetera etcetera ad nauseum. I want to shy away from these questions for the moment, mostly because they produce the type of answer that has been so flogged, the horse has turned to biltong. I could also say that I think philosophy, especially African philosophy, should be introduced into the secondary education curriculum for precisely the same reasons as Shofield notes. I am biased however — I have spent many years studying “French” and “continental” philosophy for an end I am not entirely sure of myself. Schofield’s article does however lend itself to questions haunting South African society in a way that I don’t think is asked very often — chiefly, are we asking the right questions in the first place?

Take the ubiquitous question of race in South Africa. The DA wants us to “get over it” while the ANC relies on the memory of apartheid to stay in power. Do any of these policies help solve, at the level at which we live our lives, the problem of “race”? No. Did the TRC act as soothing balm to heal the wounds of the past? Of course not. The question of race is one that is beyond simple political rhetoric. How can we reconcile the country when every town is still, for the most part, racially divided? How can we bury the question of race when every form asks us who we “are” in terms of race? Being employed is as much a function of one’s race as it is one’s ability. Race mediates the tapestry of our lives, so to simplify the concept into a biological or political phenomenon does disservice to its contemporary meaning. It is the question of what it is to be black, white, coloured or purple that haunts us every day, and the way in which that meaning is lived and felt. To distil the question of race, with its complexity, history, and beauty into a simple answer about Zuma’s latest speech or Zille’s latest twitter post is to not only find the wrong answers, it is to miss the question completely.

Another example that comes to mind is the problem of drug use in the country, one which has recently been receiving some media attention. In the recent “satanic” burning of a young woman in Johannesburg, the use of drugs featured as a prominent reason for this immoral/deviant/unjustified/abhorrent act. Marijuana and Satanism were clearly here to blame. After all grinding poverty, bored teachers, youth disenfranchisement, political impotency, and sheer recklessness couldn’t be to blame, could they? The fact that the future of the youth has been blighted to a point where the youth can no longer see a future for themselves and hence engage in life-threatening forms of play could never be a reason, could it? It was obviously Satanism and drugs. Looking for answers here is to miss the question completely again.

I have often been criticised for presenting problems without offering answers. And I agree that one should be looking for answers, especially in the context of a country that is increasingly being put under political, economic and social strain. But if we are looking for the wrong answers, for the answers we want rather than need, what is the point of asking the questions in the first place? The difficult questions, the questions we don’t want to answer or, in more likelihood, cannot be answered are not often told. In my mind however finding an easy solution, a quick fix, to long-term problems is not only unsatisfactory but unjust. Having the political will to deal with problems in all their complexity is difficulty, but is preferable to the political masquerading of the present political elite that only reaches crescendo during voting years.

How can we allow our “leaders” to speak of inequality in a township from the back of a vehicle costing a million rand? How can we speak of “reconciliation” in the face of what is clearly disparaging inequality? And just what are our leaders exactly doing about this beyond their rhetoric? These are brute realities that we seem to mythologise as necessary when we all know they are not. They are unjust.

If the answers the political elite give you are satisfactory, then be happy. I, however, want something a little more. Maybe that’s why I am concerned not with the answer, but just why the question is so difficult to ask in the first place.


  • Simon Howell

    Simon is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre of Criminology, UCT. He has a few interests, most of which seem to revolve around drugs, gangs, and violence in South Africa. He was awarded a PhD in 2012, and since then has published on a number of topics, ranging from gay bashing to the izikhothane phenomenon. At present his research is focussed on policing in South Africa, and how it might be made more effective (especially in regulating illegal drug use). He writes in his own capacity.