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South Africa “under siege”?

“Can I see a falling tear, and not feel my sorrow’s share? Can a father see his child weep, nor be with sorrow fill’d? Can a mother sit and hear an infant groan, an infant fear? No, no, never can it be, Never, never can it be!”

“Does spring hide its joy when buds and blossoms grow? Does the sower sow by night or the plowman in darkness plow? Break this heavy chain, that does freeze my bones around. Selfish! Vain! Eternal bane! That free love with bondage bound.”

The two paragraphs above are respectively taken from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. The first prose was his opening verse in his On Another’s Sorrow and the last one is the closing verse in his Earth’s Answer. To me, they echo the same tumultuous emotional rollercoaster I endured as I read the ending of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: it remains painfully unclear to me whether was it because Okokwo’s Chi was never with him, or whether his imagined community (as Benedict Anderson could put it) caused his downfall.

Our country is finding itself in the above characterisations, to some extent. However, unlike Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, William Blake’s poems referred to above give us some sense of hope. It never can be that one would ignore the problems holding our young democracy in hostage. We will indeed break heavy chains, we have done it before and we will do it again. The poems of William Blake quoted above epitomise my reading of recent developments in South Africa, that we are shouting at the difficulties engulfing us and crying out for solutions.

However there are loud voices terming what we are sadly experiencing as a country a “crisis”; calling for change of leadership, name-calling, apportioning blame, and so on. These loud voices need to be taken seriously of course. But I cannot help wondering as to what exactly is the basis for some of the proposals that they are making. It is clear that we have entered a very difficult time in our short history of democracy, and my assessment is that there is general consensus across society and leadership on the problems confronting us.

The challenge remains the one of how we address those problems; there seems to be no consensus on that. The government and its leadership early this year, through President Mbeki’s address to the nation, stated explicitly that “it is obvious that we still have outstanding work to do” and proposals were made on how to speedily move forward with the agenda to eradicate poverty and expand human capabilities broadly (within the framework provided to the world by Amartya Sen). Four months down the line, loud voices are shouting “crisis” and are making wild proposals whose substance is contestable. Take a proposal calling for immediate leadership change as an example: Are we confident that the recent disturbing sporadic incidents in our country will be cured by immediate leadership change?

We are indeed a very complex society, not that we are special. Perhaps this society of ours is truly “under siege” from itself, and perhaps more so from the loud voices we are hearing wherever we are. It is hard to say anything today without being labelled with some name or the other or having what you say distorted so as to pursue the agenda of the loud voices. No one doubts that South Africa is going through rough times — what I called trying times two week ago (though my remark, which was a response to some points made at the Critical Thinkers Forum where I was a panellist on poverty issues in Africa, were grossly misrepresented in The Weekender of 31 May 2008).

I see trying times as a better characterisation of what is transpiring in our country. Terming it a crisis seems farfetched to me. It is true though, that things are bad, maybe it is just a question of semantics — maybe “crisis” means the same thing as “trying times” in different minds. As such, like Leon Trotsky argued at the dawn of the 20th Century, we should not be transferring our hopes to the future. We must deal with problems now, all of us (whatever little each one of us can do). This is not to say that we should not debate, philosophise, and intellectualise, but we also have a moral responsibility to engage with substance and rigour and most importantly responsibly.

Let me illustrate the point I am making, which many others also make, that ours is a very complex one: South Africans have been consistently giving an impression that we are developing some form of national identity. Public opinion surveys have been showing a trend of improving “social cohesion”. All of a sudden, we are faced with what appears to be a breakdown on social relations.

Another example is that of inequalities. Surveys seemed to be showing that our Gini coefficients were propelled by within-group inequalities. All of a sudden, it turns out that the significant increase in the Gini coefficient (an economic measure of inequality) is accounted for by increasing inequalities between whites and blacks.

The last obvious example relates to our economy. When we believed that we were correcting it, it turns out that it is still in very bad shape.

These three examples suggest, to me, that one can easily get things wrong about this great nation of ours. It is for this reason that I wonder whether proposals made to address the “crisis” are correcting the correct problem.

I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s comment on the challenge of the expansion of knowledge when he said: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” Maybe we can draw a lesson or two from what Abraham Lincoln is reported to have once said, that: “If we know where we are and something about how we got there, we might see where we are treading — and if the outcomes which lie naturally in our course are unacceptable, to make timely change”.

The recent events have caught most of us by a surprise, but not disillusioned — although we of course very disheartened. It is through ongoing dialogues that we most likely will find answers. However, a proper study of our state of affairs, particularly how we got here and what could come next, remain critical. This does not mean that we await the findings of some study. There is a lot that can be readily done and my sense is that a lot is being done.