Vusi Gumede
Vusi Gumede

South Africans: Pledging a new social contract

Martin Luther King Junior, in one of his most powerful sermons ever — the one delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Christmas Eve of 1967 — stated the obvious but critical that “we must either learn to live together as brothers, or we are all going to perish together as fools”. The sermon in question reminded me of a Chinese saying that a journey of 10 000li starts with a single step. South Africans have just taken that important “single step”, as we marked our ballot papers for the new administration. In essence, we have made a pledge for a new beginning — the 2009 general elections is another significant “single step”. The recent past, in almost all walks of our lives as South Africans, has seriously challenged us. Although we are not coming out entirely unscathed, we are bruised. We are however a nation of immeasurable resilience and ability to overcome vagaries of our realities. What we need is a real social compact, or alternatively an effective social contract, as argued in another post. This polemic is more about where we could start: forgiveness.

In his groundbreaking book, An Ethic for Enemies, Donald Shriver argues that forgiveness begins with memory suffused with moral judgment. He explains that “forgiveness does not require the abandonment of all versions of punishment of evildoers, but it does require the abandonment of vengeance”. This, in my view, is the most challenging aspect of forgiveness. Our Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s processes are a case in point. An undertaking as robust as our TRC was tested, it could be argued, by the difficulty, understandably, to abandon vengeance and to some extent by the difficulty to punish evildoers “accordingly”. As a people, as South Africans, we have, however, come a long way and we all most likely concur that “we must (either) learn to live together as brothers [and sisters]”. To move ahead, we have to try to join hands in moral truth, forbearance, empathy and commitment to repair a fractured human relation — the four fundamental constituent elements of forgiveness as presented by Shriver.

As humans, or as a human race, we are learning a lot about ourselves and as such we are getting closer to the possible solutions to our challenges. In his outstanding book, The Wisdom of the Ego, George Vaillant educates us on how we relate with our realities, as human beings. Among the most critical headlines of his analysis is that:

There are many kinds of denial, [and] many forms of self-deception.
– The value of understanding defences is to understand the ultimate humanity, and even the ultimate decency, in behaviours that, too often, we dismiss as either mental illness or sin.
– People become a source of conflict when we cannot live with them and yet cannot live without them.

One of the points I took home as I read his book is that “the maturation of the ego is as highly dependent upon environment as it is upon biology”. I suppose the lesson that can be deduced from this point is that our environment, given how fractured it is/was, could have consequently fractured our egos. Note that Vaillant defines ego as the “integrated brain”.

So, as we start this new journey, what are the important issues that we should be alert to? In my view, over and above issues of prejudice and ethics — which I wrote about a month ago — we must confront the re-emergence of racism and ethnicity/tribalism. In relation to racism in particular, I am taken by David Wellman’s definition of racism — in his book, Portraits of White Racism — where he defines racism as a “system of advantage based on race”. This definition suggests that as long as some race has (accumulated) advantages over the other there is racism. In present-day South Africa, it would seem, there are still visible despicable racial discrimination acts over and above the “system of (accumulated) advantages based on race”. Our repulsive history testified to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s opening sentence in his incisive essay, Social Contract, when he submits that “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. We must acknowledge that most of us are still in chains, and begin a necessary agenda of unchaining these chains. Again, forgiveness for me is an ideal starting point. As many have argued, forgiveness does not equate to forgetting. It however, as Shriver contends, require forbearance, empathy — as very different from sympathy — and commitment to repair a fractured human relation.

Like ethnicity and/or tribalism, the issue of the “obtaining” economic system needs some mediation. In order words, we need to negotiate between the economic system that propels greed against the compassion that is necessary to be a better society. Excellence and/or “success” should be encouraged, but not at the expense of humanness. Similarly, ethnicity and/or tribalism, however defined, need not be a problem. In fact, it could be argued that these are important for self/cultural-identity. It is however a problem if the prominence of ethnicity and/or tribalism contravene others. In the same vein, we must manage our prides in our cultures, ancestry and so on. These should not unravel tensions and conflicts that end up taking us back.

The points I am making could sound naïve and could be labelled as a pipedream and/or daydreaming. They are based on the premise, informed by the environments of comparable nations, that it is possible to coexist in a heterogeneous society: it is possible to share a vision and a destiny, and jointly make it a reality. A South African “national personality” — an overarching national identity — is feasible, just like the Brazilian national identity happened. As an important gesture, as we queued to vote we have renewed our resolve to a South African national identity and to our national vision as spelt out in our Constitution. We have pledged to a new social compact.

One of the extraordinary poets of our time, Ben Okri recently challenged humanity to join hands to a new social compact — it is almost as if he was talking to South Africans mainly. The extract below, from his Mental Fight, depicts the possibilities for a new South African national identity:

You can’t remake the world
Without remaking yourself
We could use the new era
To clean our eyes,
To see the world differently,
To see ourselves more clearly.
Only free people can make a free world.
Infect the world with your light.
Help fulfil the golden prophecies
Press forward the human genius.
Our future is greater than our past.

We are better than that.
We are greater than our despair.
The negative aspects of humanity
Are not the most real and authentic;
The most authentic thing about us
Is our capacity to create, to overcome,
To endure, to transform, to love,
And to be greater than our suffering.
We are best defined by the mystery
That we are still here, and can still rise
Upwards, still create better civilisations,
That we can face our raw realities,
And that we will survive
The greater despair
That the greater future might bring.

Ben Okri, in this same work, raises questions that each one of us need to think about. He asks, “will you be at the harvest, among the gatherers of new fruits?” I guess if the answer is yes, he argues that: “then you must begin today to remake your mental and spiritual world and join the warriors and celebrants of freedom, realisers of great dreams”. My optimism, though at times dwindles, remains because we have “capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love, and to be greater than our suffering”.