South Africa In a Bigger Picture
Stanley Uys has broadened the discussion of the historical juncture that South Africa has come to, and the options that lie ahead.
In his article last week (see here) he raised the thought of a Gotterdammerung, an annihilating battle from which a new Jerusalem could arise. He wrote of the eerie political impotence that seems to have gripped South Africa's rulers, who plunder the state while they wait for the intervention of fate. He linked the country's present experience to the poet Cavafy and the writer JM Coetzee, who captured this suspension of animus in their works Waiting for the Barbarians.
This is the right thing to do. The South African story has always been bigger than just the political manoeuvrings of the day. It has always been drawn in sharp reliefs of right and wrong, of good and evil. It has embodied both great billowings of hope and deflations of despair. Not only its own people, but many others around the world have attached to South Africa their belief in the possibility of a better society, one that might be replicated elsewhere, in other broken places. And just as many have turned away in disgust at the betrayal of their faith. It is still like that.
For these reasons South Africa is a subject for artists as much as it is for historians. And the land cannot be properly understood until it is apprehended in the register that the poet and the novelist provide.
I think Stanley Uys is also the right person to nudge the discussion in this direction, and to open more widely the window to these thoughts. Stanley, whom I am pleased to acknowledge as a friend, has a panoramic vision of the span of the South African story. Every detail of it matters to him, passionately, and is stored in his prodigious memory. His mind's embrace of it and his ability to recall it is, I think, unbettered by any one person.
Stanley was there, looking down from the press gallery as Tsafendas shuffled across the carpeted House of Assembly floor and plunged his dagger into Verwoerd. He chronicled the Afrikaner nationalists through the peaks of their hubris and resolve to enforce baasskap. Ruth First took Stanley to meet and interview a youthful Mandela, then on the run from those who today wish he was back in charge. Stanley transferred to London, a highground from where he viewed, and wrote at length on, a changing South Africa in a changing world.
He saw the fall of white hegemony. He saw the revolutionary rise of the black rulers. He recorded their promises of a new beginning and he sees, now, how they are closing the circle of history by re-enacting the abuse of power of those they took it from.
The great surprise in the trajectory of the South African story is that it is time once again to speak out against the corrupt use of power.
Stanley's reaching out to art and history as a means of understanding our predicament has brought a further allusion to mind - the famous lament of Pastor Niemoller:
They came first for the Communists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Pastor Niemoller was talking about the fascists of World War ll. But his point has never faded. Fail to speak out now, and pay dearly later. It's the principle, not the facts.
What's central to Niemoller's declaration of regret is the way it rests on the notion of "speak". It's striking in its relevance to South Africa today because the ability to speak freely is precisely what is under threat from the government's plans for new controls on the media.
Naturally, the government denies that its moves are intended to interfere with free speech. The measures are designed only to curb harmful abuse of the freedom of expression, it avers.
Of course it does. The false denial has become part of the government's political currency. We're used to that, now. It is plain, rather, for any thinking person to see that the measures are intended to curb reportage of the personal peccadilloes, the moral failings, and the abuses of office by every state functionary from the president down to the most lowly municipal official. And pretty much every thinking person has seen it, plainly. The protest and outrage are universal.
The outcry may yet cause the government to concede a point here, and to tone down a measure there. But enormous and lasting damage has already been done through the mindset that has been revealed. There are well-founded anxieties now, based on this and other, circumstantial, considerations that South Africa stands at the door of a new era of authoritarianism.
This is especially worrying because South Africa has only a tentative hold on genuine, deep-rooted, civilizational values. The nation has only just emerged from an era of denial of human rights, and even more recent signs have shown that the authentic spirit of democracy is not wholly part of the native response of its people.
Now, in this febrile atmosphere, if we cannot speak freely to one another, about one another, and for one another; if we cannot speak without hindrance, without fear and without challenge then we stand to lose much. For if we cannot do this then we cannot know one another. If we cannot know one another we cannot know ourselves. If we do not know ourselves we cannot better ourselves.
Here I can hear the government's apologists say: oh, come on, you're getting carried away. It's not such a big deal.
Well, it is. What's really at stake in the bid to curb the media is not freedom of speech, as such. Freedom of speech is often treated as an absolute, but it isn't, really. It is merely a means to an end. And the end is truth itself. By the employment of freely expressed ideas, people reach towards a description of the truths of their existence.
It is not readily apparent to us, as we go about our daily business, what we are doing here and what the consequences of our actions are. In our onrush of life, the construction of meaning is the work of those who try to record the maelstrom in words, in images and in ideas and theories. It is only through our attempts to describe ourselves to ourselves that we approach an understanding of who we are and what we are doing.
Consequently, once a nation loses the right and the opportunity to fully explore its existence through the free exchange of ideas and information it diminishes its sense of self, its identity. Once some parts of the national self are allowed to operate in darkness, unexamined by the rest of the collective self, confusion follows. Anger, despondency, chaos and decay are the step-children of the confusion that replaces a lost identity.
This is what the ANC government is putting at risk.
One can only surmise it doesn't know what it is doing.
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