What do we believe?

2008-06-09 00:00

South Africa has ascended once more to a hideous eminence in the world’s media. Causes and explanations proliferate. Nationalism, citizenship, economics, ethnicity are debated. Matters of African unity and our specifically African patrimony are discussed. Blame multiplies: third forces, poverty, poor service delivery and porous borders are implicated.

Most of these accounts are unequal to the primitive urges displayed. Does poor service delivery justify burning another alive?

Certainly, as Chief Justice Pius Langa has said, this brutality is “a tremendous setback”. It’s a daunting indictment of our national project. The new South Africa was founded on a vision of improvement. Recent actions are grotesquely corrosive of that collective hope. Is the dream of enriching pluralism — the Rainbow Nation — unweaving under the pressure of history? Caught in this history, analysis is especially tricky. Governments, unlike commentators, must act. In the wake of xenophobic disordering, ours eventually summoned the army and a rhetoric of ubuntu.

This combination of law enforcement and restatement of principle dramatises the tricky intersection of state power and value. This tension informs the president’s belated comments on the problem in his Africa Day speech: “Th[is] violence and criminality stands against everything we have sought to do to build a humane and caring society based on the values of ubuntu.” He continued, “The actions of these few individuals do not reflect the values of our society.”

This is inaccurate. The actions do and do not reflect the values of our society. They expose critical fault lines in those values, which is where the tremendous setback is lodged. What values might gainsay the violence? What principles might prove adequate in the zones of material deprivation? Our current disenchantment stems from facing an old dilemma: (African) humanism does not inevitably translate into humane behaviours.

For Steven Friedman, citing the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa), “The gap between [political] insiders and grassroots … is itself a cause of the violence.” His assumption of a homogenised grassroots is one difficulty. The problem is more profound: the crucial gap is between principles and behaviours. Demonstrably, our core values are not widely and deeply enough internalised to ensure the unthinkability of certain actions.

To better understand our current demoralisation, we should refine an understanding of cultural crisis.

As Philip Rieff puts it, “If a culture could grow to full crisis, then everything could be expressed and nothing would be true.” In other words, our culture would be inhabited by id-driven individuals. In its brutalities, our recent history evinces a flirtation with the expression of everything. The “unbelievable” events are true, because they did occur. But key values still remain a bastion of truth because many, thankfully, express opposition to the anarchy. This oppositional voice draws on the Constitution and ubuntu. Axiomatic — because they deal with the right to life — are the words of Langa in S vs Makwanyane, the Constitutional Court decision outlawing capital punishment. His words draw on both crisis and ubuntu: “During violent conflicts and … when violent crime is rife, distraught members of society decry the loss of ubuntu. Thus heinous crimes are the antithesis of ubuntu.”

Recent events constitute a cultural crisis because they point to deep fissures in our conceptions of value. Even had we unanimity on shared values, how do these translate into shared commitments? This is a key cultural challenge. Values and beliefs only move from abstraction by becoming convictions. Allegiance to the Bill of Rights requires appropriate behaviour. Without this, value or belief remains merely personal. To realise our core values, beliefs must become social virtues.

Clearly, (official) values have not sufficiently taken root as conviction. As George Lukács said: “It is only when feelings and thoughts are put to the test … ” that the “essence of man” is revealed.

Tested, many of us are failing. The apartheid-post-apartheid timeline is vested in the dream of a transformed culture. It’s a wager based on a model of how citizens should and should not act. Only an internal psychology of commitment will win this wager.

Neither the army (an external force) nor a rhetoric of ubuntu (as an official ideology) will suffice. If we are to be securely at home in our official culture, we all need an act of will that makes our culture at home in us.

As in the eighties, we come face to face with behaviours that seem to defy reason and value. We’ve awoken from the nightmare of history to find a bad dream. It cries out for analysis. We might begin by wondering why our values are in the Constitution and ubuntu, yet insufficiently inform us. Without answers to this, we are doomed to repeat history and our values will evaporate as hollow shams.

• Timothy Trengove Jones lectures at Wits University and has written widely on culture and politics in South Africa.

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