South Africa and the World Facing 2017
It is not without reason that we ask ourselves at this time what the year 2017 will have in store for us. For once, it seems that the prospects for South Africa are at this moment far better than the rest of the world, especially the Middle East, Europe and North America. I will come back to this unexpected prospect in a short while.
Just having come back from South Africa I realize that the level of anxiety has risen considerably since I left Sweden in July. In “uppdrag granskning”, a regular feature of Swedish television of investigative journalism, it was made pretty clear in the part sent on 30 November that the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015, did his planning from hideouts in Stockholm. He was shot dead at a flat in Brussels four months later, but one of his closest aids in the Paris attack, as it appears, is still walking around free, living close down below the small mosque at Hötorget in central Stockholm. This uncertainty, this very thought that this or that stranger may be one of the extremists, is eating you from within. The linkage to Islam also fills you with a feeling of uneasiness. Whole European nations are at this moment becoming prejudiced against one particular religion. Unless you have personal friends who are devoted worshippers of Islam you run the risk being stuck in a stereotype. (To avoid misunderstanding I like to state that I am lucky enough to have personal Muslim friends in Sweden as well as in South Africa, with whom I share not just everyday friendship but also a common faith in God.)
Then it is apparent that by the month our societies in Europe are becoming more segregated. The more educated as well as those who believe themselves to be more educated, those more privileged, those of liberal leanings of various sorts (and if I belong anywhere it is here), we are looking on in horror how the political landscape is changing fast, just in time for the new year 2017. Sebastian Payne, in his article in Financial Times on 28 December 2016 hits the nail just there: we are fast approaching “the year People Like Them (PLT) take control from People Like Us (PLU)”. There are a number of elections taking place this year in Europe (France, the Netherlands, etc.) and it may well be that after those People Like Them will be in majority leaving People Like Us behind. There are things to worry about and Payne quotes a letter from a certain Mr Craig: “We have two failed wars and the Middle East in flames, China expansionist, Europe enfeebled, America ineffective and Russia resurgent”.
Payne again hits the nail when saying that now when entering a new year we have to reckon with instinctual emotion rather than pure reason: “PLT are folks who act on gut not reason. Emotion, not facts. They the ones who voted for Mr Obama and joined the Trump train. They feel misled by the elites and have decided that change, whatever it might be, is better than the status quo.”
He is so right: “Calm heads and moral hearts are needed in politics, now more than ever.” Equally, he has got a point when saying, and it is about a reality that we are waking up to in this year of 2017: “If this was the year PLU were shunned, 2017 will be the year when PLT take control. Whether we like it or not, the divide in society is real and will be hard to close.”
Again, and perhaps being biased, countries like Canada and Sweden could well withstand the onslaught of the current populism.
Before coming back to South Africa, there is one more thing to say. PLT, as coined here above, are about those who have populist leanings, and they are many in Europe right now. In these populist movements you find this toxic mix of a genuine anxiety regarding our and our children’s future, not in a small measure related to various terrorist attacks, and something else. This something else could be outright racism, extreme forms of nationalism and ethnicity, and it is there. This whole scenario is very well described by Sheri Berman in her article “Populism is not fascism, but it could be a harbinger” (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016, 39 – 44). So, there is no doubt that Marine le Pen’s National Front for example easily could turn into a fascist movement. Berman contends however that there is a stronger culture of democracy today than in the interwar years. “[T]he right-wing extremists in the United States and western Europe today have much more limited options and opportunities than their interwar counterparts did.” Still she concedes that this might not be the case in parts of eastern and southern Europe. Her recipe is rather not to stare oneself blind on the toxic mix of current populism but rather pay attention to democracy itself and its institutions. “[T]he West should worry more about the problems afflicting democracy than about right-wing populists themselves… (and) make democratic institutions, parties, and politicians more responsive to the needs of all citizens.”
She rightly argues that populism, right-wing or left-wing, is a clear sign that democracy does not fare well. Again, her distinction between populism and fascism is, at this point in time, probably of decisive importance: “Right-wing populism – indeed, populism of any kind – is a symptom of democracy in trouble; fascism and other revolutionary movements are the consequence of democracy in crisis.”
This could not be more true for South Africa: it is all about building that culture and ethos of democracy that also takes seriously the various institutions like the parliament, the judiciary and the freedom of media (the press). And one could even draw from Berman’s argument that there is distinction to be made between populism and fascism when it comes to South Africa. The break-away group from the ANC under youth leader Julius Malema in many ways acted in a populist way, also playing with a rhetoric that bordered on genocidal hate speech (against certain whites). But the break-away group has become a political party (EFF, the Economic Freedom Fighters) quite to the left of ANC, and in many ways plays the game with the other political parties, except, perhaps on one point. There is never a sharp line drawn between peaceful articulations of views either verbally or through demonstrations on the one hand, and actions that in themselves carry elements of violence or at least coercion.
One would have to say the same thing regarding the student uprising during the second part of 2016. The cause is justified when it comes to a drive towards free education for all and the dire need for decolonisation of curricula, and the vast majority of students only want to go about it with peaceful means. But, and this is important, somewhere along the line there is a seed of violence sown into the action and there is reason to suspect EFF to have a hand in this. It is not violence leading to physical injuries but what should one say about the following coercive action: students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) holding the Rector hostage after a public meeting for more than half an hour?
Education, including tertiary education, is a cornerstone of any society and universities have had to contend with the fact that they had become leading apartheid institutions, built on the basis of racial classification. There were even special universities for English speaking whites (UCT and Witwatersrand) and the other whites, the Afrikaners (Stellenbosch and Rand Afrikaans Universiteit, RAU).
Njabulo Ndebele is therefore right when he claims that all universities are in need of radical transformation, and that also goes for a place like UCT, which early on in defiance of the regime invited students of all races to come and study. There is no denying that a few of the former white universities like UCT have a higher standard than the others (UCT rated among the 200 best universities in the world). The academic standard as such has to be taken into account when transforming such institutions and universities that once had been designed for black students only will have to admit that their struggle credentials will not be enough when going into and becoming part of any international rating system.
Things have turned violent and ugly at two of the formerly white institutions, UCT and Wits, where at least half of the students are blacks today. The “discovery” of the colonial past, and, of course, continued white privilege in various forms (thus among their own class mates) have caused an uproar, but interestingly many white students also insist in being part of this uprising. However one can here sense an anger that will stop at nothing, an attitude that is clearly destructive, and a wish to smash everything to pieces (one library with handwritten documents and a lab have been burnt down at least). I am talking about the second semester 2016. However, Ndebele (well-known author and a former vice-chancellor of two universities) warned already more than ten years ago as follows. He first insists that all universities should be made black, not in the sense of colour coding, but in the sense of “the historic centring of the majority interest in national life”. What he says should not then be misunderstood as being a support of the historically black universities at the expense of the historically white ones. He says: “[I]t is not too difficult to see that, in general, our academic strengths are, with a few exceptions, not located in historically black institutions. It is not, therefore, in the universal interest of the black majority to seek to destroy existing strengths, merely because of their historic location, in the understandable desire to create new ones. To do so would simply be suicidal.” (Ndebele, Fine Lines from the Box, 166f)
It seems this is the crux of the matter. South Africa is still “white” but has to be made “black”, not in the sense of colour coding but in the sense of the majority, the vast majority (including the poor), having a decisive say in an authentic national transformation. Whites here become apprehensive, but this should not be so, as it ultimately is not about race or colour per se. One should rather try to understand that blacks having come into their own will make sure that the others, whites etc., are part of the (new) deal.
It may well be that whites have great difficulties in unlearning this part of the story. J.M. Coetzee says: “If the work of hands on a particular patch of earth, digging, ploughing, planting, building, is what inscribes it as the property of its occupiers by right, then the hands of the black serfs doing the work had better not be seen. Blindness to the colour black is built into the South African pastoral.” (J.M. Coetzee, White Writing, in Ndebele, 61)
Ndebele concludes that “[p]astoral is the clinical tranquillity of the contemporary white South African suburb”, still very much in existence. An invisible hand has done its work. “Always hidden behind the legacy of imperial achievement has been the unacknowledged presence of black labour and the legitimacy of the political claims based upon that labour.” (Ndebele 62f)
In brief I will now tell why South Africa’s future is less bleak than that of Europe and North America.
As a model for this certitude of things coming right in South Africa I take a young, black woman, graduate from one of the universities, competent, well-articulated, self-assured, thriving in the multidimensionality of the new South Africa, not too much bogged down by the country’s historical burden, yet fully aware of its history, just as critical of President Zuma’s corrupt regime as of previous apartheid regimes. One such person will give you hope!
There are at least five reasons why I cannot say that South Africa’s future looks bleak but rather bright.
First, we have seen that democracy is becoming entrenched. I have earlier written about the local elections which took place in early August 2016. They were not only free and fair, they were also reflecting how diverse this society is and how decisive it is to support the party that delivers (social services, water, electricity, roads, litter, etc.).
Second, South Africa is a very open society. It is a society open for debate, and you get the sense that people are rather fearless in their debating, not afraid of giving expression of diverging opinions. With this I am not trying to intimate that things are always expressed with empathy.
Third, one can, not only sense, but actually see that society is being transformed. The born-frees (those born after 1994) are here very important. If you look at print media for example, Mail&Guardian, Cape Times, or Sunday Times, for example, you will find young, black men and women dominating the space, still finding some very good white people around.
Four, young, black academics and other professionals are emerging (too many whites are leaving the country for better pastures, but some are staying), and we have been able to see this for ourselves at the various graduation ceremonies at University of the Western Cape through the years. With such people future is bright.
Finally I again want to mention the student uprising of 2015 and 2016. It is a stern warning to the leadership of the country, but also a hopeful sign that already the young students want to be involved and share responsibility. And, again, I should emphasize that this uprising, which is against colonial and racial legacies as well as against the current insufficient political leadership (read President Zuma), very much is an expression by the whole student body of all shades. Many white students have played a vital role here.
And yet, enumerating signs that things are hopeful may not be enough. Encountering people is most of the time a real blessing. People seem contented and are as a matter of course very humane, and most of the time you discover after a little while that you are dealing with people of faith.
Two perspectives of faith should be mentioned here. First, there is a generous attitude to people of other faiths. There is a small Muslim community in South Africa and also a Jewish community, equally small, but both very vocal. The Christians predominate, a well-known fact. On 16 December, the day of reconciliation, there was again a walk in District Six in central Cape Town, where Christians, Muslims and Jews took part. They walked from the church, to the mosque and then to the synagogue. In each place there was a talk given by a person of a different faith and a prayer, and the walk involved people representing all three faiths.
But the Christian faith dominates in the country, especially in the black community. However, this dominance does not come across in a high-minded way. Media reflect this in many ways. For example, every Sunday night there is a gospel choir programme on national TV at prime time. On radio, the public broadcaster, SAFM, at the same time on a Sunday night, there will be a programme on Christian faith and ethics. One whole evening was devoted to the Christian marriage for example; another Sunday night was set apart for what is Christian leadership, etc.
The people of South Africa are very much like the full summer there right now, coinciding with Christmas, colourful, rich, bright, fearless and hopeful. Being partial, all that I have now said explains why the prospects for South Africa maybe so much better.
Reference: Njabulo S. Ndebele, Fine Lines from the Box. Further Thoughts about our Country. Roggebaai, Cape Town: Umuzi, 2007.