Weathering uncertainty

2007-12-28 00:00

It is still the Christmas season — a time for reflection and contemplation, as well as for relaxation and for reunions and communications with family and friends. At such a time as this one tries if one can to steer clear of political concerns, but at the moment it is particularly difficult to do this. A big political event has taken place very recently. It isn’t easy to slip back into normality, even the normality of contemplation and relaxation.

I don’t intend, however, to offer another analysis of what happened at the African National Congress conference in Polokwane, of the waning of Thabo Mbeki and the waxing of Jacob Zuma. The basic facts are well known, and the main reasons for these facts are well known too. What I want to discuss is the fact that we have entered a period of uncertainty.

Zuma and his main supporters have made a strong effort to reassure everyone, as one would have expected. They are confident, they say, that a good working relationship will be set up between Zuma, the president of the ANC, and Mbeki, who remains president of the country. But can we be sure that this confidence is well-founded? They suggest too, perhaps a little idealistically, that the economic policies of the ANC will remain essentially unchanged but that the direction ushered in by the new leadership of the party will take far more cognisance of the plight of the poor. One hopes that they are right and that this can be done.

What will Zuma be like as a leader? Then there remains the doubt about whether he is about to be charged with corruption: it must be almost unheard of that a newly elected leader of a political party finds himself faced immediately with the strong possibility of an indictment.

A final point. At some stage a new set of ANC leaders will take the place of a number of those who hold cabinet office now. There is considerable talent in the current cabinet; there is considerable talent among those who are likely to lead in the future. But can we be sure that the combined new talent will be superior to, or even as good as, the talent that we have now?

It is, then, a time of uncertainty. Of course in one sense all times are times of uncertainty: in political as in personal life one never knows for sure what will happen next. Surprises and catastrophes are part of the stuff of being alive. But some uncertainties are more obvious and more potent than others.

Investors don’t like uncertainty. They are used to risks, but they prefer to take the risks themselves, knowing the situation in which they are investing; they don’t like having risks thrust upon them. So that is a further cause of uncertainty: will South Africa’s overall economic situation, which has been pretty good for a newly emerging developing country, become distinctly less secure?

Uncertainty and the anxiety it engenders are indeed a part of living. They are burdensome, but they also represent challenges, opportunities for change and growth. If South Africa as a whole — its leading politicians and its citizens — can weather and work its way though the present time of uncertainty, the country will have added something significant to its earlier achievement of a mainly peaceful transition to democracy.

Any really new or big event produces uncertainty, the challenge of uncertainty. We may in some instances have good reason to be hopeful or full of trust, but still there is the hurdle of uncertainty to be crossed.

This brings me to the Christmas story, which Christians see as being about the birth of a divine saviour but which people who are not Christians sometimes see simply in poetic or symbolic terms.

The poet T. S. Eliot — some of whose poems, I can’t help adding, formed the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats — wrote a poem titled The Journey of the Magi. The magi were the three wise men who, according to Matthew’s Gospel, travelled from the east in order to pay homage to the newly born Jesus Christ. In Eliot’s poem their journey is not confident and triumphant, but painful and difficult. And its climax, the meeting with the child, is fraught with paradox and uncertainty:

were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Eliot gives a strenuous metaphysical depth to the scene of the baby Jesus which has often been sentimentalised. At the same time he stresses one of the bracing general truths of human existence.

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