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[OPINION] The need for silent reflection

The centenary commemoration of Armistice Day provided us with a very rare global moment of reflection. It was a moment of silence to reflect not only on that senseless war in which millions lost their lives, but also on all wars still happening around the world. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, to name but a few war-torn areas, the guns have tragically not fallen silent.

And so the memory against forgetting becomes even more powerful. In France Emmanuel Macron spoke eloquently about the power of global co-operation and the destructive rise of nationalism across the world. As US President Trump looked on, one wonders what Macron’s German counterpart Angela Merkel was thinking. The previous day, she and Macron were part of a moving ceremony near Compiegne.

Yet, even as that happened, Trump was tweeting up a storm from his hotel room. And so it is that moments of reflection are always disturbed by the reality of the present state of the world that seems precarious and evermore insular. Reflection is also increasingly difficult given the speed at which news is reported all around the world and the immediacy of response with which we are bombarded, literally, from minute to minute.

That which is instant, coupled with affect and emotion, has come to dominate both how we consume news and how we decide to respond. As Annie Proulx has said:

"We do not live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time… we observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures. We are living through a massive shift from representative democracy to something called viral direct democracy, now cascading over us into a garbage-laden tsunami of raw data."

Powerful words.

We are collectively guilty of firing off a tweet or responding in ways that are not reflective. The speed of response has also often allowed us to abandon facts and research in favour of the emotion of the moment. In the US, President Trump continuously puts information into the public domain that is fact-free. The recent yarn about the imminent arrival of a ‘migrant caravan filled with Middle Easterners’ being but one case in point. Scaremongering has become the order of the day. Instead of a reasoned debate on immigration reform in the US - which everyone agrees is necessary - a tweet storm of fear and loathing, has become the preferred method of dealing with problems. Those who are purveyors of fact seem to be sidelined and vilified.

Similarly, in the UK, Brexiteer charlatans like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg bandied about numbers during the run-up to the referendum that they could not substantiate. In the instant world, everything is to be believed if there is enough noise and bluster and sufficient emotion attached to such assertions.

The challenge of course, as the commemoration of the Great War shows us and what Macron tried to bring across on a wet day in the shadow of the Arc De Triomphe, is that reason, debate and facts do still matter. And we can indeed learn from history and the pause inherent in reflection.

South Africa may have been thousands of miles away from this moment of reflection - literally- but our situation is no different. Democracies across the world are faced with the challenges of inequality and the urgency to deal with each country’s problems immediately. One need only look to the populism that has taken root in Venezuela and now Brazil to understand that no country is immune to global shifts. South Africa’s objective conditions are precarious, to say the least.

And it is precisely because of this that reflection and reason are so necessary in our context. Every day we are beset by demands for immediate action on issues. As one watches the Zondo commission of inquiry into state capture, one can’t help but realise yet again how destructive the Zuma years were and how much time it will take to fix what Zuma and the ANC broke. It was nearly a decade of looting. Each day the headlines scream, asking President Ramaphosa what he is doing about it all, today. Every minute is categorised and fresh outrage forms. It is right that we are outraged by what has - and is still happening - but reason and perspective may also be useful. How does a Sunday newspaper lament the failure to turn around the economy in 11 months, for instance? That seems a reflexive and not reflective response.

The process of restoring what has been broken will, at the very least, be a long game. Also, tragically some things may well be incapable of being restored.

Given the scale of looting and that the stakes are very high for those who were involved, it was always obvious that a fight-back would be staged by the corrupt. The facts, however, remain unchanged after a mere 11 months.

They are that Ramaphosa won a narrow victory at Nasrec, that involved compromise with some nefarious characters. ‘DD’ Mabuza is part of this deal and Ramaphosa has to save the state and his party, or at least try to.

Yes, Ramaphosa himself and others like Pravin Gordhan were in Zuma’s Cabinet and they could have resigned, but where would that have left us and is hindsight not 20:20 vision?

Change will therefore of necessity be incremental. It will be a ‘slow burn’ to a better place. What we do know is that Tom Moyane is out (clinging to legal processes, as is Jacob Zuma), that state-owned enterprises have started some kind of clean-up, that we are in an open process to select a new National Director of Public Prosecutions to replace ‘Shaun the Sheep’ who prosecuted virtually no-one. We also know that mistakes are being made: South Africa’s abstention in the UN vote on Myanmar is a case in point, as was International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s unjustifiable defence of Tanzania’s detention of journalists without reason.

This past week Ramaphosa was exposed for accepting a dodgy political donation and possibly lying or misleading Parliament on the issue. We need further facts before some clumsy social media calls for his resignation. The president must come clean on this issue and that means more than returning the donation. He needs, inter alia, to sign the Party Funding Bill into law and commit to transparency as regards political donations during the 2019 elections. He also needs to ensure that no family members are doing business with corrupt actors.

So, hold this Presidency to account we must, but based on facts and reason and not simply the emotion of the immediate response.

Nowhere have we witnessed the vacuity of the immediate than in the often clichéd responses to that South African chestnut, ‘transformation’. We saw it in the #FeesMustFall movement and its large appeal to affect and often not reason.

Recently, photographer Paul Weinberg asked for the return of his historic photograph of Nelson Mandela voting for the first time. It is currently at UCT. Weinberg believes that a committee whose task is to decide which artworks perpetuate institutional racism relegated it from pride of place in ‘special collections’. One wonders what kind of ‘debate’ led to such a conclusion? Perhaps the committee was swayed by the argument that has gained cachet; that Mandela sold us out and actually the first vote was meaningless without full economic emancipation? It’s difficult to tell. Weinberg is right to request the return of his photograph. If the university is unable to appreciate it, surely others will. But it uncovers a larger issue regarding the way we speak about ‘transformation’, how it comes about and what it actually means.

We have also seen some unthinking responses within schools regarding what transformation is and is not. Mostly, it’s framed as a clichéd zero-sum game, throwing the baby out with the bathwater and where everything falls. Everyone is armed with righteous outrage, sometimes unfounded, sometimes not. The challenge, therefore, is to see the difference between the former and the latter. But it is difficult to have a constructive debate in a fact-free environment, egged on by a rabid media keen on another headline lambasting an institution for being ‘untransformed’. (As if our entire country is not one large imperfect transformation experiment.) These headlines sell, but they do not make a better debate and they seldom bring us stronger institutions. The problem is that after the call for things to ‘fall, we never hear what should rise in its place apart from the mediocrity we often witness within our institutions.

And so, the debate is not about whether we should seek to change our society. It should be our overwhelming imperative. But rather it is whether we do so with care and reason as opposed to succumbing only to affect.

If we are to become a reflective society on such issues, facts, reason and history will be crucial.

Can South Africa muster this even in a world that has spurned reflection?

We need to believe in the world as it ought to be and work for it. Sometimes, that work is painstaking and tiresome - and in need of reflection as opposed to the knee-jerk responses we often witness.

Silence of reflection has its own regenerative benefits.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy'. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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