JUDITH FEBRUARY: Where might we find the redemption our country so needs?


Social media and modern anger have their own lexicon.

Recently, Minister of Transport, Fikile Mbalula, and MKMVA veteran and general ‘Radical Economic Transformer’, Carl Niehaus were involved in a spat on Twitter.

It was all rage and little substance as one has come to expect from these two men. Of Mbalula, it can be said as Richard Ben Cramer once said of a US politician, "He never exits the same sentence he enters".

Initially it was thought that Mbalula’s account had been hacked. But to allay general concerns, Mbalula appeared, his glasses peeking over his surgical mask, to declare that the tweets were indeed his. "They are mine, Mr Fear Fokol’," Mbalula said referring to the name of his Twitter handle. All class, our Mbaks.

Analysts were lined up to decipher the nonsense and indeed, beneath the hot air, it really was about access to 3,000 proposed security jobs at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa).

Prasa falls within Mbalula’s purview as Minister of Transport. Niehaus then accused Mbalula of not wanting to allocate these jobs to MK veterans and declared him ‘young and insulting’.

Coursing through this spat is the deep strain of ANC factionalism with which we are so familiar. While this exchange may have been received by most South Africans in a dismissive manner, it points to the degradation of our public life and the inability to move towards mature deliberation, which is axiomatic in any democracy. This is not a challenge unique to South Africa, of course.

As Guardian columnist Keenan Malik said, if social media has its own lexicon, then its grammar almost inexorably leads to polarised confrontations. This erodes the capacity for both self-reflection and self-restraint.

Or as writer Annie Proulx said of the moment we are in, “Everything is situational, see-sawing between gut-response likes or vicious confrontations.”

In South Africa our society is awash with demands to fix what is broken, yet there is mostly an inability to have conversations which prefer reason and eschew violence. We are a country well-versed in seesawing between incredible highs and lows. A decade of state capture has left the kitty bare and our democratic institutions hollowed out. It has also cemented the deep levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality within our society.

Therefore, ours is a country ill at ease with itself, with its social contract (such as it ever was) straining at the seams. As with everything else in South Africa, the reasons for violence are complex. Sometimes it has been driven by xenophobia, other times a rather more confusing cocktail of anger, frustration and intolerance bubbling at the surface of our society. It is fuelled by exclusion, poverty and rampant unemployment.

We also know only too well that violence has always been a part of the South African landscape: physical violence and the violence of language and name-calling. Protest is an everyday occurrence in South Africa and mostly they end in the cul-de-sac of violence.

Violence, after all, is the language of the unheard. The question then becomes why and how have the crucial elements of participatory democracy broken down? In countless works of research on local government and conflict in municipalities, the same mantra is heard over and over again: “They only come when we start to burn things.”

“They” are the politicians who have the power to change things, yet often are unwilling or unable to listen.
Given the inherent socio-economic complexity and the intersection of race and class in South Africa, reason and deliberation are even more necessary.

And yet we falter each time we need to talk about anything at all. That pesky question then arises, “Who are we really?” That country which took itself out of the throes of violence, to a negotiating table and fashioned a new Constitution out of the ashes of apartheid? Are we a people who knows only violence and are doomed to be forever in a state of stasis about the issues which we are unable to confront constructively? Or, do we find ourselves somewhere in between? The latter might be equally destructive and paralysing.

Of course, for some politicians, violence is political strategy and currency too. The EFF would be Exhibit 1 in such an argument. Julius Malema and his comrades very skillfully mobilise small groups to violence. “Everything must fall” immediately. Whether it is the EFF trashing H&M, Vodacom or Clicks stores about racist ads and transformation, violence seems almost inevitable. It resolves very little and is dangerous. But for the opportunistic EFF, it cements the politics of spectacle.

But the EFF is not alone. Recently, the public servants who went on strike declared that they wished to make the country ‘ungovernable’, that tired mantra of the 1980s.

Recent events in Senekal in the Free State brought rage and racial tension to the fore in a dramatic way. When Brendin Horner, a young 21-year-old farm manager was murdered there recently, chaos and violence broke out when the two men accused of his murder appeared in court. A police van was torched by white farmers taking part in a protest about farm murders, while others stormed the court.

In calling for Police Minister Bheki Cele to act against all involved in violence, Malema said threateningly, “…If those people are not arrested, we are going to incite civil unrest”.

Again, the politics of spectacle played itself out in violent discourse and in scuffles outside the court as EFF supporters and groups supporting white farmers sought to outdo each other with shows of strength.

President Ramaphosa subsequently used his weekly letter to speak about the Senekal issue and about high levels of crime in general. As Ramaphosa said, crime affects us all - black and white.

Most importantly perhaps, Ramaphosa made reference to our founding document, the Constitution and holding fast to its principles and to the rule of law. Some may say we have strayed far away from the Constitution’s unifying purpose, even as Ramaphosa invokes it. In many ways, we have abandoned the order which it provides.

Dialogue and deliberation, while in short supply in our democracy, can be the only way in which we confront our present challenges and deal with our haunting past.

Where we start, however, is by defining the tone we allow to shape our public discourse. Ramaphosa has said we need a dialogue regarding farm murders and concrete action following that. His words should not be allowed to simply fade into the ether. Dialogue is ‘work’ and requires of us all to ensure that our interactions are constructive. It starts with what US academic Harry Boyte calls “respectful conversations”.

Essentially Boyte argues for a new kind of (citizen) politics that centres on “negotiating a common life”. The creation of so-called free spaces is essential to the notion of citizens organising themselves. In a sense, Ramaphosa is calling for us to do the work Boyte suggests and that is to, “work across differences to solve common problems, advance justice, and create community wealth, from schools, public spaces, libraries and local businesses to art, music and healthy lifestyles…”

In Ancient Greece, the agora - or marketplace - was at the centre of public life. There goods were bought and sold and nearly every Greek city had one. It was easily accessible to citizens, but was not only a trading area, but also, importantly, a place where ideas were exchanged. The likes of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle frequented the agora, along with those less philosophically inclined. In the agora, democracy was perfected and deliberation came full circle.

If we are to live up to the ideals of our Constitution, then we need to ask ourselves how we can establish the agora within our complex communities, so that we can mediate public life constructively and talk about what ails us. We cannot wait for the state to fashion our public discourse. As citizens we too define the boundaries of reasonableness in the public sphere.

Ramaphosa’s call for a return to the Constitution really is what Franklin Roosevelt called for in his 1933 inaugural address, when he emphasised an abiding faith in democracy by saying: “We do not distrust the future of essential democracy.”

Now more than ever we need to keep faith with our democracy and the rule of law that must undergird it.

But there is another rare commodity that is needed and it is redemption, one of the other. How do we speak to each other in a manner which do not simply pit us against each other in the most reductionist of ways? In the context of brutal murders and attacks in Senekal, where might we find redemption our country so needs?

There is a moment in Chasing the sun, the beautiful documentary rendering of the Springboks’ Rugby World Cup win last year, which is in so many ways the essence of redemption.

In 2019 as our country wrestled with gender-based violence in the period after Uyinene Mrwetyana’s brutal murder, we could do nothing but lament.

During a warm-up match against Japan, Makazole Mapimpi scored a hat-trick of tries. As he looks to the camera in celebration afterwards, he flicks his wristband to reveal the name ‘Uyinene’ in bold, black letters. It was a powerful gesture from a man who himself said he plays through the pain of his own traumatic upbringing in rural Eastern Cape. Mapimpi has gone on to become a role model, even though nothing about his success was inevitable.

There is a moment when then coach Rassie Erasmus, a man with preternatural leadership instincts, speaks side-on into the camera lauding Mapimpi’s actions. We see Erasmus choked up with tears apologising for missing the national mood and missing what the importance of such a gesture and taking a stand after Uyinene’s murder could mean - for Mapimpi, the team, for Erasmus himself and for us all.

That exchange contained in it what is often so missing in the crudeness of the violent language we foist upon one another almost daily. It is the understanding of redemption as work of its own kind.

Core to our constitutional settlement and our vision of the future has to be the understanding that redemption of the other must be at the heart of our deliberation in a democracy. Without it, we are doomed to fail as we fight our way into the paralysis of extreme positions, forever ‘us’ versus ‘them’ and never ‘we’.

Erasmus did not have to say much more. In that single act of accepting his misreading of the situation, he saw Mapimpi and Mapimpi saw him - and that allowed us all to see each other, even if briefly.

More than violence, redemption helps us to draw from the deep well of resilience that still exists in our country - even in Senekal and the darkest of places. Or, what writer Marilynne Robinson calls, “that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things."

Judith February is a lawyer, governance specialist and 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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