Ahistorical, but food for thought
by Mcebisi Ndletyana
South African society faces imminent death. That is Prince Mashele’s assessment which he explains in his new and aptly titled book The death of our society. I don’t share the prognosis, but find the book a worthwhile read.
To be sure, Mashele is not revealing anything any curious person wouldn’t be aware of. That’s exactly the attraction of the book – its forthright, simplicity. Mashele draws our attention to things we would rather forget or to which we turn a blind eye. His is a mirror, reflecting back to us the very ugly spots that stain what we mostly prefer to believe is a beautiful country.
The ugly, pathological spots are illuminated in all their horror and (potentially) fatal impact.
One such fatal pathology is what Mashele calls “morocracy – the rule by morons”. In this “morocratic” state, Mashele writes, ‘‘he who shouts the loudest is he who gets the most powerful positions in government. He who is least educated and the most decadent becomes the most revered in the political system”.
A strong choice of words, but Mashele essentially means that merit is discarded in favour of political status. Mashele draws our attention to the injustice of the practice, preying upon the desperate job seekers who believe that their competence puts them in good stead.
On landing an interview, Mashele writes rather humorously, job seekers get excited, even buying new clothes for the interview with their last savings and not sleeping a wink the night before.
The interview is so easy that they walk out the door believing they have the job. Little do they know, Mashele writes, that the appointment was made a while ago in a branch meeting somewhere.
Officials spend public money on a futile advertisement and waste your time just to imbue the charade with a sense of respectability.
How that charade affects those who’ve innocently come for interviews and may even qualify for the job, is none of their concern.
Expenditure on such charades, Mashele rightfully points out, is obviously wasteful and thus unethical. But political appointees consider deployments just rewards and that entitlement extends to public funds. What of the ethical foundations of the liberation movement? Mashele asks.
He doesn’t probe this point in much detail, but you find this to be one of the most poignant questions posed in this book. The liberation movement was not just about political claims, but also sought to reorient South African society onto a firm ethical foundation.
That is why the anti-apartheid Struggle attracted the most noble within black society from John Langalibalele Dube and Zaccheus Mahabane to Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo.
Mashele ascribes loss of the moral rectitude to, among others, the saliency of racial politics, especially racial solidarity within black society. Black people are implored to rally around each other, regardless of the issue. This is a carry-over from the days of the Struggle.
But now black solidarity is used to defend mediocrity and incompetence as if they’re synonymous with blackness.
Just when you start thinking that Mashele is laying it on the black folk, he points out that racial solidarity is not just a black problem.
Actually, whites, Mashele posits with his usual candour, still suffer from racism. Although they won’t admit it publicly, most white people believe that blacks are incompetent.
Mashele is too sophisticated to use Julius Malema’s language, but he similarly ascribes the presence of black faces within the leadership hierarchy of the official opposition to tokenism.
They’re not taken seriously, he says, because the membership of the official opposition is still fundamentally prejudiced.
Mashele is not far off in pointing at the saliency of racism across the isle. But the DA especially believes itself to be the standard-bearer of non-racialism. The ruling party, Helen Zille informs us, with a straight face nogal, is the racist one.
Looking closely at the DA’s non-racial claims, however, you see an uneven picture. Blacks going across the colour line to vote for the DA, while whites remain within their racial laager, happily making their crosses next to Zille’s face. Do they really find nothing endearing about the ANC? Here you sympathise with Mashele.
Perhaps feeling that he’s being a bit too harsh on the white opposition, Mashele then draws an equivalence with the liberation movement, vis-à-vis white activists. They’re similarly unappreciated, but simply tolerated by the ruling party.
This is where you part ways with Mashele, albeit temporarily. This claim is not sustained by historical evidence. African nationalism has been a lot more faithful to the ideal of a non-racial future than South African liberalism. Its conception of citizenship was based on an all-embracing, universal principle of residence and equality.
Residence entitles you to citizenship, regardless of foreign origin. That commitment, made as early as the 1860s through the writings of pioneers such as Reverend Tiyo Soga, held despite protestation and schisms within and betrayal by liberals who professed to be “friends of the natives”, but were quick to sacrifice their voting rights in return for cabinet seats.
It took the Black Consciousness Movement for South African liberalism to face up to its own deceit. How can you possibly profess resentment of racism, Steve Biko asked fellow (liberal) white students, yet enjoy the privileges that come with whiteness? They had no retort.
The sincere ones among them went on to lend their expertise in the revival of trade unionism among black workers in the early 1970s.
White activists had realised that verbal commitments were insufficient in the absence of concrete involvement in building a non-racial future.
If there’s any critique of Mashele’s book, it is the absence of historical context. History does not excuse the present, but explains it.
The present is not divined into existence, but is an offshoot of the past. Understanding the present thus requires a study of its genealogy – that is the past.
At some level, however, you do share Mashele’s impatience with the past. He convincingly bemoans the manner in which politicians use the past to shield themselves from scrutiny. Heroes of the liberation struggle that they are, the ruling party expects blacks to be forever grateful to them, instead of faulting them for their present inadequacies. This is where I also, albeit partly, concur with Mashele: uncritical gratitude is a sign of a dying society.
In that history of heroism you also find the source of renewal.
Memory is a powerful, fortifying tool. And it is not only available for the ruling elite to manipulate, but the masses, too, can recall. It is them who swelled the streets in disgust, registering their rejection of an unjust apartheid rule.
They ousted a regime that considered itself ordained by God to rule over what it deemed an inferior race.
The black masses can always invoke that memory and tradition of protest to rise against an injustice.
Mashele’s book covers a lot more than space allows me to probe here. The black middle class, intellectuals and the academy, public (im)morality and corruption, among others, receive a close look in the book.
I’ll leave those to you to read. You may even reach different conclusions to Mashele’s. The book certainly provides food for thought.
One such gnawing thought is whether history, though rich with an explanatory value, has a lulling effect on our sense of urgency to address immediate challenges. How long do we remain forgiving of present ills because of their past origin, is the question Mashele wants us to confront.
But surely an ahistorical analysis is susceptible to misleading conclusions.
Such analysis would leave you wondering why there are hardly any white people in the townships. Or, it may be that we need more rage about the ills than understanding where they come from. That’s something to think about.
Ndletyana is a senior research specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council and a member of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection
The book is available on www.politicsresearch.redcactus.co.za http://www.iol.co.za/sundayindependent/ahistorical-but-food-for-thought-1.1082695