Can the tide be turned?

Sometime during the last week I found myself having dinner at a hotel restaurant with a few government bureaucrats who are part of the “old school” liberation era ethos and who have served South Africa and her peoples with integrity, dignity and commitment over many decades. Invariably after a sumptuous meal, a few glasses of wine and some single-malt whisky the conversation turned to my favourite topic: politics. We began to talk about the state of politics in South Africa at present, the lived reality of the average South African and how all of this compares to the ideals and principles of our liberation era stalwarts. The words of the Anglo-Irish poet William Butler Yeats in his famous apocalyptic poem, The Second Coming are most apt in conveying the sentiments that were shared over the dinner table that evening, “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned; the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” The general sentiment expressed was that things were falling apart in the South African body politic, that we had moved away from liberation era ideals, values and principles to our detriment as a nation, that the country had lost its soul and was wandering around purposelessly in need of visionary, inspirational and principled leadership to wake it up from its slumber. We discussed the rich legacy of principled, values-based leadership that South Africa is blessed with and wandered how we had allowed ourselves to veer away from that. A country that has been blessed with once-in-a-generation leaders like: O.R Tambo, Anton Lembede, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, Walter Sisulu, Steve Bantu Biko, Beyers Naude, Bram Fischer, Helen Suzman, Albert Luthuli, Yusuf Dadoo, Ahmed Kathrada, A.P Mda, Moses Kotane, Jan Smuts and Pixley ka Seme, all in the period of the last century, should not be struggling with a leadership vacuum like we currently are surely? The general consensus was that South Africa needs to get back to basics. We need to identify the values, principles, ideals and aspirations that once made us the envy of the world and we need to put those back at the centre of our society. It was John Milton who said that, “the superior man acquaints himself with many sayings of antiquity and many deeds of the past, in order to strengthen his character thereby.” This is not only true for the individual, but for society as a whole because as the Greek philosopher Plato said, “states are as the men, they grow out of human characters.” In other words if South Africa is going to be the great nation that its rich legacy demands, we are going to need to look back at the past, rediscover the values and ideals that define us as a nation and move forward with that vision in mind. As we were continuing in this vein after supper, my mind began to wander to other concepts and ideas as often happens when I am involved in conversations of this nature. I remembered the words of that great patriot and exemplary liberation era leader, O.R Tambo, “we seek to create a united, democratic and non-racial society.” It then hit me that the very ideals that Tambo and his generation fought for, are the very ideals that have been under attack and threatened in the “new” South Africa. Our unity as a people has been under attack, as we have allowed ourselves to be pulled apart by all kinds of divisive elements. Our democracy has been under attack as institutions that had been created to safeguard our democracy have been steamrolled by individuals and cabals who have a lust for power and desperation for wealth-accumulation at all costs. The ideal of non-racialism has been under attack as a large part of the public discourse has been reduced to nothing but racial arguments. We all need to regather and reclaim this vision of a united, democratic and non-racial society and to own it and defend it with everything that we have. It is the responsibility of every individual South African to work at building and defending our unity, building and defending our democracy and to advance and promote non-racialism. That should be the common vision that unites us with our past heroes. I also remembered the words of the Greek philosopher, Plato, “our object in the construction of the state is the greatest happiness of the whole, and not just that of any one class or group of people.” This reminded me of the wonderful miracle of our negotiated transition, the joy of the 1994 elections and that emotional day on 27 April 1994 when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the inaugural president of a free and united South Africa. On that great day we all stood tall as South Africans, recognizing that we were entering into an exciting era. The vision that inspired us then, was that we were creating a state, a democracy that would be concerned with promoting and upholding “the greatest happiness of the whole.” In other words this new social contract we were entering into promised to look after and promote the interests of all, not some. It wasn’t a contract that guaranteed a future for black at the expense of white, rich at the expense of poor or educated at the expense of uneducated. It promised something for the whole, not just some parts. This is a vision we need to reclaim as we move forward as a nation and as a people and it should inform all that we are and all that we do because as Ralph Waldo Emerson stated, “what you are comes to you.” I then began to think of the whole modernity project that we began to embark on post-1994 and which became accelerated during the Mbeki presidency. South Africa is a society that is looking to modernise and to grow and develop. The things that have characterized modernity in other corners of the globe have been things like: liberalism, secularism, pluralism, relativism, materialism, individualism etc. This means that in most societies, the modernity project has meant a move away from conservative values, from absolutes, from focussing on family and society to focusing on individuals, from focusing on individual responsibility to society to focusing on an individual’s rights within society etc.  It is with the goal of modernizing in mind that we created one of the most liberal constitutions in the world. It dawned on me that maybe what we need to do in some instances is to reverse the effects of modernity and to go back to traditional values if we really want to fulfill our potential as a nation. For example we have a large percentage of our population that is dying of AIDS not because government is not doing its job or condoms don’t work, but because we have embraced liberal sexual ethics and values instead of traditional ethics and values when it comes to sex. I mean if people just lived up to the traditional value of waiting, finding one partner and being faithful to that one partner for the rest of their lives then AIDS wouldn’t be such a problem. That is just simple common sense and a return to this simple traditional value would have massive impact on the future of this nation. Secondly problems like teenage pregnancies, unemployment, crime etc could be solved by returning to family values. It has been empirically proven that societies that are founded upon stable family units are more economically productive, have lower levels of crime and other socio-economic problems such as alcoholism, teenage pregnancies etc. So a return to the promotion of the simple value of family would save us billions of rands in social grants and other expenditure which could be used in more constructive ways. I am aware that this is not  new or original thinking, but a glance at South African society and some of its key challenges shows that it is because we have moved away from these traditional values whilst pursuing the goal of modernizing that we find ourselves in such troubles. In the words of the poet Robert Frost, “most of the change we think we see in life is due to truths being in and out of favour.” We need to reclaim those old truths, those old values as a nation if we are going to overcome our challenges and become the great nation that we aspire to be. Finally we need to fight against the phenomenon of commodification and crass materialism that has consumed us all as South Africans. As I was sitting at that dinner table, drinking my wine, I remember this liberation stalwart lamenting at how young South Africans have sold out our liberation era vision by pursuing money and wealth at all costs, with no thought to the kind of people and society that we are becoming. He expressed his sad regret that they had sacrificed their lives for a South Africa which was so inhumane, so driven by money and wealth at the expense of our humanness. The words of the poet William Wordsworth came to mind, “the world is too much with us, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” I realised that I was part of the problem. That I had moved from idealism to crass materialism, that I was a reflection of the very society that was being criticized by the liberation stalwart, that I needed to go back to the basis, to rediscover the values, ideals and principles that made our struggle for liberation the most iconic of the twentieth century. The words of the American writer, E.B White came to mind, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” I realised that most South Africans are probably stuck in the same dilemma. I was reminded of the words that had inspired me for most of my life as a young man, uttered by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, “It’s all here; an ideal for which to fight coupled with the responsibility of setting an example that doesn’t depart from it.” And “our only hope is not to give up even one iota of our principles.”  It is time that we rediscovered the values, ideals and principles that make us great as a nation. It is time that we reclaimed ground from the charlatans whom we have allowed to steal in and divert us from the vision of creating a South Africa that can produce a better life for all (not just some). It is time to go back to the basics. Let us look to the past for inspiration to move towards our common future. Let us do all we can to turn the tide so we can create a South Africa that embraces and celebrates all its peoples as well as giving opportunity to all. In the words of the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
Profile photo of Mugabe Ratshikuni

Mugabe Ratshikuni

introverted, shy, nothing to write home about

2 thoughts on “Can the tide be turned?

  • July 30, 2010 at 8:17 am

    Great stuff. you onto something here Mugabe!! Take it to the streets now

    • July 30, 2010 at 1:34 pm

      That is always the challenge isn’t it Wes, to get a critical mass of people to buy into a vision like this and run with it.


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