A journalist friend, Lester Venter, reminds me that years ago in Windhoek, Namibia, there was a famous journalist named Smittie, a big chap, who always used to ask, shaking his head from side-to-side: "Waar is ons, kêrels, waar is ons?" (Where are we, chaps, where are we?).
How many South Africans ask themselves the same question? As does Venter himself: Ja, ja. Dit is waar ons is. Ons wag om te sien wat oor die bult kom. Ons hoor al die geraas. Ons verbeel ons dit is die halfmens stiefkind van Gog en Magog. Ons hoor hoe knor en brul hy, hoe sleep hy sy mank been. En ons is bang.
[Yes, yes. This is where we are. We wait to see what is coming over the rise. We hear all the commotion. We imagine it is the half-human step-child of Gog and Magog (Genesis, Ezekiel, Revelation). We hear how he growls and roars, how he drags his crippled leg. And we are afraid.]
Gog and Magog, explains Google, are (according to Islamic tradition) "Sons of Adam" - human beings, who would be released when a people return to a town which was destroyed and from which they were banned. They would possess great power and, when released, would cause corruption in society, causing such most to be led to hellfire.
Reminds one of Yeats: The Second Coming?
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,|
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
(For Bethlehem read the Union Buildings, Pretoria).
This has been my week for more than the usual quota of emails (do people still use telephones?), so this is a rather personal, eccentric column.
Among the messages I have exchanged has been one from my old friend Hermann Giliomee. Guess what he asks? Vanwaar sal ons hulp vandaan kom? (From where will our help come?) This question, from an eminent historian, clearly is not just to me, but to whom it may concern. I offered an answer that is both pessimistic and optimistic:
The pessimistic answer is the country needs a Gotterdammerung. South Africa must sink to its knees before it can stand again. There must be a cleansing of this corrupt and increasingly violent country. Meanwhile, citizens can construct a citadel from which to witness the final, annihilating battle of the gods (the gods being the big players in the ever-fiercer infighting in black politics).
The optimistic answer is that once the combatants exhaust themselves, a new South Africa may be born. Nelson Mandela was premature when he pronounced the rainbow nation, just as Mbeki was premature when he declared the African renaissance. There had to be a settling of differences first.
This game is unfolding now in a rather extraordinary way. The 37 million Africans, willingly or unwillingly, have been ring-fenced by their leaders in preparation for the internal battle, while the 10 million "minorities" (whites, coloureds, Indians) look on - affected, but not participants.
Picturing the battlefield is like looking into a vast amphitheatre. The combatants have gathered, the great doors have been locked. If Zuma is still president, he will preside like Caesar and await the outcome, knowing that his own fate is at stake.
There is no question now that political passions are rising in South Africa. What lies ahead could be a kind of African "civil war". It is still a verbal one but has the potential for rough play. If there is an optimistic outcome, there will be an historic opening of the huge encirclement in which Africans have been locked (or locked themselves), a rousing welcoming of the "minorities," and the beginnings of a rewriting of the ANC's 100-year-old political script.
This would be a revolution - a description to which the ANC cannot object, because it proclaims its own central aim to be a National Democratic Revolution. Anyway, who would want a violent, rather than a verbal, revolution? After a violent revolution, would the country be worth having? Yet, historically, revolutionary fervour often has turned upon itself and devoured its own children and died from its own venom. Such a ritual of self-cannibalism always involves gluttonous binges of corruption, criminality, authoritarianism and luxury.
It's an important question though: can the leaders of the combatants discipline their followers (and themselves) in the battle for which they are now rounding up their foot soldiers, ranging from lowly ANC branches and affiliated trade unions to the field-marshals and generals themselves.
There is little assurance that the leading combatants will not be Janus-faced. Cosatu's general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, said: "We are heading rapidly in the direction of a full-blown predator state in which a powerful corrupt and demagogic elite of political hyaenas increasingly controls the state as a vehicle of accumulation." Yet when Cosatu's members went on strike, and disgracefully picketed hospitals and schools, Cosatu looked the other way.
As for the ANC Youth League, one might ask - is this where Yeats' rough beast restlessly waits?
In February 2008, writing in these columns, I recalled that wonderful poem, Waiting for the Barbarians, by the Alexandrian Greek poet C.P.Cavafy, who died in 1931. Without remotely having South Africa in mind, he captured the country's present unfolding scene. (JM Coetzee's 1980 classic novel is also called Waiting for the Barbarians).
Discussing Cavafy's poem, Lester Venter writes to me: "What fascinates me is the strange, hypnotic, state of suspension the keepers of the castle go into as they contemplate their fate. The coming of the barbarians is viewed as inevitable and all but token resistance seeps away. It's the effect of the rabbit in the headlights, mesmerised by its oncoming doom. In the case of the Romans, when their empire was declining, they simply sank into ever-deeper levels of indulgence and moral debauchery as they awaited their doom - the coming of the barbarians.
"For some while now, this is what has intrigued me about the Zuma administration: its strange inaction. Think about it, in a country crying out for radical interventions in poverty, jobs, education, crime, health ... simply nothing is being done. The rulers busy themselves with [are accused of] plundering the state coffers, desperate for what they can hoard and salvage, while the roar of the crowd outside becomes ever-louder and ever-more insistent and threatening".
In the article I wrote in 2008 on Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, I omitted his most powerful lines:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.
To reply to Smittie's question: "Dit is waar ons nou is." (This is where we now are).
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