Lying to be human

2013-01-27 10:00

A story has seized hold of me again, not that it ever let go from when I first came across it in 2007. After Tears is the title of the novel that tells the story.

Niq Mhlongo, who has written the novel that tells this story, is bold.

He tackles a theme I recognised immediately from my boyhood.

This theme plays itself out with disturbing regularity in South Africa’s public life today. I call it the heroism of lying.

Most times after a game of street soccer, we sat under a tree on a well-tended lawn.

We were in a constant battle with the father of one of our soccer mates, who did not want us on that lawn.

He shooed us away, but we always returned there to our shaded lawn and traded stories. Lying was one of our favourite themes.

Each of us had to tell a story of how a well-told lie got him out of a tight spot.

The stories often involved a black person fooling white people to escape from their cruel stupidities, hating blacks. We had such fun!

Sometimes a story of lying would itself be a lie invented on the spot as personal testimony. The pressure to tell a story led to some hilarious inventiveness.

But we would know if a story of a lie was itself a lie. A good liar of a story of lying knew how to handle improbabilities with skill.

A liar’s standing rose in our eyes with each remarkable lie of escape, or the double escape of also lying a lie. The beauty of lying!

Stealing was another favourite theme.

Stories involved real or imaginary raiding of the township’s peach and apricot trees, or magical siphoning of cash from tills of unpopular store owners, or hiding small items in one’s mouth in the split second that the store owner looked away, or helping oneself to coal and firewood in a coal merchant’s yard.

The narrative challenge was simple enough: how to use ingenuity to successfully acquire something that did not belong to you while avoiding the grim consequences of being caught.

He was always about to be caught, until his eventual escape released us from suspense with laughter. Phew!

Some of us little ones were lucky enough to be on one of those endless errands to the shops that boys were born for.

You might overhear older young men (abobhuti) hanging out in groups on shop verandas.

They could be trading personal stories of unsuccessful stealing, and living to tell the tales of horrendous consequences.

They bore the badge of our fear of them, or the honour of having been jailed.

Of course, by the time these stories got to the shaded lawn, they had been reimagined in new and exciting ways for our competitive entertainment.

White lies turn dark

But what of Mhlongo’s hero, Bafana Kuzwayo? Here is his lie.

He has passed his final-year examinations for a law degree at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

His expected graduation was to be a great moment for family and friends.

The Kuzwayo family would have an in-house lawyer! He would raise their status and take them out of poverty.

In the fire of his imagination, Bafana’s uncle began to call his nephew Advo – “short for advocate” – at the beginning of his studies.

As the novel opens, this burden of expectation is so heavy on Bafana he is unable to tell his family the truth: that he has failed.

So he spins a lie. He had in fact passed, he tells his family, but UCT would not release his results until a debt of R20?000 of outstanding fees was settled.

Bafana then watches with stoic indifference as the grim implications of his lie unfold.

To remove the barrier of a fictitious debt, Bongani’s mother takes the fatal decision to sell the family house. It is an investment, she reasons.

When the money starts flowing they might even buy a house in the white suburbs. Who knows?

Weaving in and out and around Bafana’s lie are sublies that involve other characters.

In this way, the novel portrays social networks of unreality sustained by lying, until you get the sense that those who live in this world can no longer distinguish between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, good and evil.

Lie of the land

As I got older I was to discover that our stories of lying and stealing carried more serious implications, far beyond our boyhood entertainment.

Many still remember that time in South Africa’s world of work when black people would ordinarily only be granted leave of absence on account of one catastrophic event: death in the family.

This requirement often resulted in the invention of all kinds of deaths in the family: lying to secure leave of absence.

I have come across numerous accounts of white employers swopping stories of their black employees who had their grand-parents dying several times, having forgotten that they had already used up that lie.

One import of this is that only white people were allowed to take leave for such normal human things as moving house, preparing for a wedding, visiting their children’s school over some parental concern, going to the doctor, or attending a wedding 500km away.

Of course, there were many white employers who treated their black workers with dignity and accorded them normal rights. With such employers, there was no need to lie to be human.

Such stories of lying about death to obtain leave of absence almost always induced laughter.

But who would be laughing? Probably the one telling the story of his or her own ingenuity, enunciating success, or those listening, whose laughter signified approval of the enunciation.

Their participation through listening and laughing is a form of accreditation.

Thus lying about death to obtain leave signified the triumph of a resourceful intellect.

White employers who then granted leave may have been successfully fooled.

Lies would be told again, and their “success” retold to an ever-expanding and appreciative audience, a listening public whose assured approval set the norm for entertainment.

But the “fooled” employers could be laughing too. It comes from their “acknowledgement” of having been fooled. They too have their accrediting audiences.

So everyone has a good laugh at this game of the illusion of deception.

It is played by two sides who laugh for different reasons.

The employer laughs for playing the fool who is not fooled; the employee laughs for playing the liar whose lie is seen for what it is, but is rewarded with the illusion of success.

Thus, the illusion of the brilliance of lying is rewarded with the illusion of its success.

It is a morbid form of entertainment.

But it hides the deeper aspect of the game: the pain of self-deception, sensed or recognised, but never articulated.

The employer knows that he or she is condescending. The employee knows that he is playing the fool. Both are accredited by their respective listening publics.

But what is the nature of the morbidity at play and what could be the cost, individually or severally? Here we may gain an insight into how mirthful laughter transforms into pain.

The essence of this pain is in the sensing or recognition of the triviality at the centre of the game.

What trivialises the lying is the simplicity of its opposite, the truth: “I would like to go on leave to plan my daughter’s wedding.”

Instead, a lie could lead to an inquiry: “But John, didn’t your grandmother die two years ago?”

“Yes, Madam. But in my culture we have several grandparents.”

“And how is that?”

“The sister of my grandmother is also my grandmother.” And so on, in several painful permutations.

The pain is in the reduction of adults into being purveyors of dishonesty.

It results in the loss of self-esteem through the trivialisation of their intellect, of the integrity of their inner sensibilities, and the resultant and larger trivialisation of the public space that accredits such diminution. The triviality of lying!

Those caught in the game feel the humiliating pain from the resultant loss of self-respect: you become less than who you are, even to yourself, because of the choice you took to use a lie to obtain a benefit you may deserve, or could be denied, through a simple truth.

Thus, you experience debasement by your own hand.The more you lie, the more inferior and the more powerless you feel.

But the truth will not always get you what you think or feel you deserve.

It is perhaps here that an underlying source of this kind of lying may be found: anxiety over being

denied your request as a result of the truth. Here could be the source of anguish.

In a racist social system, the truth from the oppressed confronts the oppressor with the humanity of the oppressed. At base, the oppressed are discovered to have the same needs as the oppressor.

They too want to go to the doctor, to plan their daughter’s wedding, to go on a religious pilgrimage or to take advantage of having won a newspaper competition for an ocean cruise.

It is the recognition of the reality of a common humanity that leads to a sensed yet unarticulated anguish on the part of the oppressor. He or she cannot accept this reality.

So, they must deny it by accommodating the lying of the oppressed, and their own oppressor acceptance of it, in a common game of mutual delusion.

Thus we have the acceptance of lying as a principle for acceding to a request. The more the oppressors do so, the more they feel superior and more powerful.

And here is the nub of it: truth and honesty, for both the oppressor and the oppressed in this situation, emerge as a democratic equaliser.

A true request can be either accepted or denied.

While acceptance may close a chapter, a denial among equals may lead to a new chapter, one that is opened by discussion and negotiation.

This new chapter may be closed by new understandings, new decisions and, almost certainly, new mutual acknowledgements and even respect.

Thus, truth and honesty in the situation we are contemplating have the affirming and humanising power of real freedom.

Stealing the show

But lying in our society has gone with something that, in combination, has given us as a nation a toxic cocktail: stealing.

Stealing has carved a special place for itself in South Africa.

It joined lying as a co-mediator between the powerful and the powerless: the rich who have and the poor who do not have.

Stealing and lying together become a principle of social and political interaction whenever lying is used for something beyond itself: to justify stealing as a necessary component of social and political activism.

This kind of lying glorified stealing and accorded it something close to “heroic” legitimacy.

The words ‘repossession’ and ‘redistribution’ have been used to dignify Robin Hood’s stealing from the rich to feed the poor.

Each time they are used in this context, these words still evoke laughter.

Over time such laughter has come to signify a morbid condition.

This morbid condition has become clearer since 1994.

Electricity is routinely stolen from illegal connections. Others take a daring step further.

They go on to steal electric copper cables and routinely plunge communities into darkness.

This act magnifies the smaller convenience of illegal connections into a larger community inconvenience.

This larger inconvenience is unacceptable to many, but the moral capacity for corrective community action is undermined by the participation of many in the “smaller” acts of thieving.

It is a morbidity that, because it is tolerated, assumes the status of a way of life.

Factor into all this other kinds of stealing.

The car, the TV, the furniture, the camera, the laptop, the clothes, the cellphone, the watch, the cutlery, the sheets, pillows and blankets, which become defiled and dishonoured goods from the moment they have been stolen from someone, sometimes with the blood of the murdered dispossessed.

Meant to be conveniences and sources of entertainment, such redistributed, repossessed goods are products of crime that should bring no joy to their new owners. But they seem to.

This is in the context of general social participation in the supply and demand of goods distributed through crime.

Lying and stealing may occupy a significant space in the beating hearts of a people who, despite their historic idealism, still allow themselves the luxury of approving mirth evoked by tales of successful lying and stealing.

The aesthetics of such tales may very well be narcotic, but they will always call for a higher order of self-questioning.

Whether you were once the oppressed or the oppressor, the historic experience that shaped your interactions was the stuff that produced distorted sensibilities.

Remember the laughter of pain as a mask for humiliation and self-debasement, but unexpressed by the inferior, on the one hand; and on the other, the mirth of mockery and the gloating of the superior, triumphant for having put in place conditions for the humiliation of others.

Such distortions can grow to grotesque proportions, where they are allowed to pervade the entire national sphere.

»Ndebele is Research Fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative, UCT, and Fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

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