the comfort of enemies, or two unconsciousnesses
So, how interesting. As the terrible stuck-ness that framed our political debate in the dying years of Mbeki’s reign recedes, we are entering a time when the national debate seems both hopeful and frightening. Hopeful, because so many things are up for discussion again, and because there is space for a new, more grounded realism. Frightening because of the ugliness and narrowness that so many of us seem to allow ourselves.
On the whole, it is a time of interesting, alarming crisis. Everything is on the boil; every national institution is in trouble. The first lot of can-do technocrats are looking somewhat crestfallen. Although there have been some success stories (we’re good at collecting tax!) there have been some massive blapses (quite a lot in fact: think Eskom, SABC, SAA; think JSC, Telkom, OBE; think communications policy!) We’re speeding down a twisty mountain pass — and folks, the bus belongs to SA Roadlink. But we’ve not rolled over the cliff’s edge yet, and there’s some benefit in our current situation. To be sure: some of the disasters are truly dire. Of all that’s happened, the horrendous legacy of Mbeki’s HIV / AIDS policy and the massive betrayal (I can think of no other word) of our youth by our education policy and institutions will cast long dark shadows over our future: here Nkosazana Zuma, Mbeki, Manto, Bhengu, and their ilk have truly done us lasting damage. But most of the other problems, though serious, are fixable. Our political class have learned that they are not infallible – or if they haven’t, the voters have. There’s a lot of egg on a lot of faces. The shine is off the rainbow nation: we’re battered, bruised and tarnished. Nationally, you might even call it a depressing time
And that’s good news. For remember what Melanie Klein, for one, had to say about depression. The depressive position, she argued, was a developmental stage. It arises when the infant realises that Bad Mom and Good Mom are one and the same: when fantasies of magical redemption and fantasies of endless persecution make way for something much more painful, and much more healing: living in the real world, whose sweetness can only truly be experienced when we realise that we are alone, that we will die, that everything’s a fuckup: that I’m not magical, and neither are you, and we have to start the difficult business of being grown-ups — a thankless task, really, but can you show me an alternative?
Robert Bly writes about this in a lovely little poem called Where we must look for help. When Noah was drifting on the flood, looking for land, neither the eagle nor the dove or the ‘split-tailed swallow’ were of much help: it was the crow that came back with mud on its feet. ‘The crow, the crow, the spider-coloured crow / the crow shall find new mud to walk upon.’ I love that line, because I love the icon of the crow, the harsh-voiced bird that, in myth, speaks unlovely truths; and that in real life survives on roadkill, wily and alert. And I think what hope there is for South Africa lies in our ability not to find a highway to the future, but to ground ourselves in that black unlovely muck. We need to find ways to enter this dark, humbling and unheroic time: a time when we can give up the magical, romantic projection onto the ‘Beloved country’ and forgive it — forgive ourselves for being what we are.
The problem with the depressive position is that it’s so damn depressing. You have to stop dreaming of the country beyond the rainbow, and start thinking about the difficult, humbling, limited interventions: the triage required of us in the here and how. But then, there is nothing that forces you to do this. Why bother? You could also keep on investing more and yet more energy in the attempt to keep the dream of Dreamland going.
This is the frightening bit. For as the smoke of the Mbeki-versus-Zuma battle clears, and as the outlines of a new terrain of struggle are slowly revealed, it is evident that there is a powerful dynamic in our country centering on the desire to stay with blindness.
This is the way of the split-tailed swallow in Bly’s poem, and at the moment, it takes the shape of two unconsciousnesses: two parallel, competing and yet deeply complementary discourses of reality-denial. The one belongs to the camp that is forming itself around the likes of Julius Malema, Judge John Hlophe, Andile Mngxitama and their entourage: a camp that projects themselves as the voice of pro-African transformation, as the enemy of white domination; but which in reality can only speak from the place of powerlessness and victimhood. The problem with this group is not only their narrow ethnocentrism, their essentialist, racist, homophobic take on what African identity must be. It is not only that this discourse seems to function mainly as a way of providing ideological cover fire for the self-aggrandisement and enrichment of a particularly narrow-minded, bigoted section of our middle class. It is that as far as I can see (and I am on the white side of the fence, mind you!) the black subjectivity being articulated here is utterly disempowered, because it seems to pivot on a refusal of the possibility of a black person being held accountable (by anyone). Thus even the awful Leonard Chuene has been told by the ANCYL that he should not apologise for his lies about Caster Semenya. Now it is plainly true that there are many white racists who see corruption or incompetence everywhere, even where it isn’t. But the tragedy for our national process is that it is now seems increasingly possible for those who really are corrupt, or delusional, or who have acted foolishly, to accuse any and all critics of racism, or of resistance to transformation. Where is the honour, where is the power, where is the leadership in that? Frank Talk – the real one, not his pale imitator – must be spinning in his desolate, almost forgotten, little-honoured grave.
The second discourse is the mirror inverse of the first, its ‘racial’ and ideological twin. It is the voice of white denial, of a narrow, ideological, illiberal liberalism that refuses to acknowledge the persistence of racialised power relations and the ideological legacy of white supremacy in post 1994 South Africa. It uses the semblance of non-racialism (an insistence on ‘colour blindness’, lip-service to meritocracy) to sabotage the equitable transformation of unequal ‘race’ relations. While never overtly racist, it pursues the agenda of protecting the vested interests of the privileged white elite created by Apartheid, by wrapping the interests of this elite in a discourse about ‘world class cities’, global ‘standards’, governance and crime.
These days, this second voice has become less strident: instead of speaking flamboyantly and accusingly from the centre it tends to mutter bitterly from the shadows. I’ve remarked on some of its manifestations before, when I’ve written on Huntley and Disgrace. But it’s not only the voice of elite alienation or white underclass complaint. You can find its views confidently articulated in the mainstream as well, most obviously in the bumptious arrogance of the Democratic Alliance which, despite its own chequered history, acts as if it has the franchise on clean government; and which, though protesting always that it is not racist, has made its political mark by playing forcefully and effectively to white and ‘coloured’ fears.
The interesting thing about these two discourses is that though they appear formally opposed, they’re really deeply co-dependent. They’re enemies, but the emnity is of that special kind: it is that comforting emnity that exists where each adversary finds in the existence of the other proof of their own deepest, fondest fears and the vindication of their stance. The comforting enemy is the person without whom you would not be yourself, to whom you only have to glance to find the validation of your fear and rage. This is perhaps most richly illustrated in the cringe-making performances of Messrs Malema and Shivambu. Shivambu, you will recall, attained national notoriety for his blustering response to those who challenged him about his allegations that DA premier Helen Zille slept with her white colleagues. Malema’s most recent escapade even more tawdry: he stands accused of beating up a neighbour who came to complain about a noisy housewarming and now denies those allegations, saying that it is all all a plot by the spies of Helen Zille. This is so silly that I do not know whether to laugh or cry; our dear GodZille is famous for not knowing how to pick her fights, but the idea of she and her cabinet of aged pale males plotting deep into the night to trip up Julius is worthy of a second-rate Hayibo story, not of serious political discourse.
But of course the compliment’s returned. Where would the DA and its ilk be without the Africanist axis? Chris Roper has publicly declared his love-hate affair with Malema , but he’s not the only one. Just as Hlophe casts himself as the agent of African transformation without actually lifting a finger to change anything material in the judiciary, white DA denialism is content to look at Hlophe and their crowd and merely find in their existence confirmation that at root, this is a continent of Idi Amins. Or more properly, this is a continent in which any African politican has got to be either a Nelson Mandela (magically statesmanlike, laundered of all white fears, ‘transcending’ their local roots) or one of a set of interchangeable, indistinguishable goons. They are not able to engage with the very real difficulties and political threats posed by the rise of xenophobic, conservative and authoritarian African essentialism, because firstly they cannot acknowledge the need for social transformation which that essentialism attempts to appropriate for its own ends, and secondly they cannot see African politics other than through their colonial-racial lenses. Through this lens, African demands for change are not responses to real problems, but the expression of an essential corruption and a primal irrationality. This evident, for example, in the media-pillorying of Malema’s school achievement. (Personally I must say that I have no problem with his 20% for woodwork, if that was ever his grade: I must confess that I did not do much better in that messy, unforgiving discipline ). More subtly, it is also evident in the way white attitudes to Zuma have flip-flopped in the past year. Present-day white relief at the fact that he seems to be a pretty competent president is a direct correlate of the way he was turned into a black bogeyman in the days running up to Polokwane.
It seems to me this kind of thing can run and run. On the one side, the smug and dull refusal to recognise the reality of entrenched racial inequalities and colonial mentality; on the other an increasingly shrill Afrocentrism that calls for a ‘debate on race’ while trying to simplify and flatten all discourse on racial problems. Everything done by the one side will justify the excesses of the other. No doubt at a certain level this will be gratifying to those involved. But what is lost is the opportunity for a real and sensible debate on what can be done to address Apartheid’s legacy.
That is why I think it is necessary to say, with as much gentleness as possible: a pox on both your houses. That is why I agree with Zackie Achmat’s refusal to give politicsweb the right to publish his criticisms of John Hlophe. Charting a genuinely anti-racist politics depends, I think, on the ability to wrest the debate away from these mutually constituted, co-dependent, ideologically narrow, blinded camps. Creating a democratic South Africa, where we can encounter one another in new ways, less shaped by predetermined paths mapped out for us by Apartheid society, requires that we map out a third terrain, beyond these two mirroring unconsciousnesses.
To live on this terrain is, as I’ve said, to some extent a saddening business. It requires an honest tally of the losses and the recognition of irreversible damage. It means foregoing the illusory safety brought by high walls and gated suburbs, and entering into a real relation with our fellow citizens. It means letting go of many heroic dreams. Instead of trying to make an entirely new South Africa, unstained by its past, I fear that we may be reduced to trying to make the present one more livable, more merciful, more various, more kind.
But that’s not a bad thing to do. It does not require the abandonment of a radical politics; in fact I think it requires its enlargement. I think it requires the addition, alongside the awareness of large scale social injustice, a more fine-grained, interpersonal and existentialist concern. A door, one of Le Guin’s characters says in one of her short stories, is opened by a very small thing — a key. Liberation is not liberation if it has not rooted itself in our fragile bodies, if we cannot live it in the freedom and authenticity of our everyday encounters.
I would like to try to abjure the rough power of the simplistic splitting that turns our multifarious country into ‘two nations.’ I would like to learn to live without the comfort of enemies. Not in the promised land, but in the gefokte land. I think we will find that there is much to love there.