It is, as has been common case over the past decade or so, yet another momentous week in the South African body politic, reminiscent of that famous quote by Vladimir Illyich Lenin, “there are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”, as former President Jacob Zuma appears before the State Capture Commission.
As the nation is caught in a semi-trance watching the proceedings unfold with Zuma appearing before the Commission, so much of what is happening gives one an insight into the psyche of South Africans, a window into the soul of the so-called Rainbow Nation. President Zuma’s well-worn strategy of pleading victimhood, aimed at drawing sympathy from ordinary South Africans more than responding to the pertinent issues that have been raised at the commission, got me thinking about our collective psyche as a people, as a nation.
South African society seems to have embraced a permanent state of victimhood, even to its own detriment and hence our leaders and prominent people find it easy to use this against us to advance their own narrow agendas. We saw it in the case of Hansie Cronje, caught with his hands “in the cookie jar” and disgraced as a result, but he died as a victimised hero to many who found it easy to sympathise with him. We see it in the seemingly millions of people who support and defend Zuma, seeing him as a victim of mainstream South Africa’s racist and classist agenda, despite his many misdeeds.
We see it in the black majority, who constantly harp on about the unjust past, to explain their current impoverished status despite being in political power and having the capacity to change the status quo. We see it in the white minority, who cry victim about BEE and EE, despite still being in a position of economic power and privilege.
In fact, it is a disease that is prevalent in African society at large, hence we still go to the West with a begging bowl, asking for aid and debt cancellation when we have the mineral and agricultural resources that are critical to the functioning of the global economic system. So, a critical first step in moving from a deconstructionist to a constructionist “African Agenda” and decolonise our economies, within the global political realm requires that we disabuse ourselves of this victimhood psyche. It is a necessary step in the evolution of the African’s struggle as we seek to increasingly assert ourselves in the 21st century.
This took me to the thinking of a brilliant 20th century thinker, Reinhold Niebuhr, who’s collectivised philosophical outlook is captured in one of his quotes, “evil is not to be traced back to the individual, but to the collective behaviour of humanity.” In fact, as renowned American ethicist Dr Lisa Sowle Cahill hypothesises, according to Niebuhr, “the task of the community, in the interim, then, is neither self-reliant action nor patient resignation, but a sort of quiet preparation- a creation of the conditions of real construction”.
Niebuhr believed that profound change in the world we live in would not come about without occasions of destruction taking place. So, in pursuit of the radical socio-economic transformation (not the political red-herring of Zuma’s RET crew) that is an existential necessity for building the type of inclusive and equitable South Africa that most reasonable South Africans would like to see, we have to be brave enough to take steps that will lead to the destruction of the current system with all its idiosyncrasies, unless we want to perpetuate cycles of inequality and exclusion that produce a permanent state of inertia through a victimhood psyche.
This touches on critical issues of restitution and historical redress, necessary preconditions for growing our country together, that must be imposed as opposed to taking a laissez-fair approach that is characteristic of a disempowered, victimhood state of being. Reinhold Niebuhr himself was highly cynical about the power of appeals to human-fellow feelings to bring about great transformations.
In his eyes, real social change could only occur if there where adjustments in the balance of power, forcibly so if needs be. This is the type of stuff that a society with a victimhood mind-set would never embark on. Of course, it bears highlighting Niebuhr’s thinking was utilitarian in nature, in that the outcome would be long term societal good, a movement towards the desired national democratic society in the South African context.
So we need to move to shed off the victim mentality if we are ever going to grow our country together in a manner that produces a better South Africa for all. We need to prove the bona fides of our young democracy, by taking bold steps to resolve all the problems that we have inherited, as opposed to seeing ourselves as passive recipients/victims of consequences for historical actions which we had no control over. As Reinhold Niebuhr himself stated, “democracy is finding proximate solutions to insoluble problems.”
Mugabe Ratshikuni works for the Gauteng provincial government. He is an activist with a passion for social justice and transformation. He writes here in his personal capacity.