Guest Column

Orwell warned us about this

2017-03-05 06:10
Close to home: Neil Coppen’s adaptation of Animal Farm, which was staged last year, featured an all-female cast Picture: Leon Sadiki

Close to home: Neil Coppen’s adaptation of Animal Farm, which was staged last year, featured an all-female cast Picture: Leon Sadiki

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Njabulo Ndebele

A few days ago, I came across this insight from British writer George Orwell. To many across the world, he is known for his novel Animal Farm, in which he explores the decay of political morality in the aftermath of a successful revolt by the oppressed against their oppression.

Here is my quotation of the day from one of his writings: “A PEOPLE THAT ELECT CORRUPT POLITICIANS, IMPOSTERS, THIEVES AND TRAITORS ... ARE NOT VICTIMS BUT ACCOMPLICES.” (My caps.)

I think Orwell wrote the book with citizens of any country in mind. But his message may have a special resonance for South Africans right now.

Just more than two decades after freedom, South African citizens face a dramatic and potentially catastrophic decay of political morality. This decay is spearheaded daily by powerful elected leaders, and is served and supported by numerous functionaries appointed by the leaders into key positions in government, and in the array of public institutions meant to serve the citizens. They work together to carry out a morbid agenda.

Orwell’s message is also that citizens ought to recognise the depth of their relationship with public institutions. Such institutions are not there only to serve citizens, but also so that, in turn, each citizen has the responsibility to such institutions by electing politicians who will strengthen their capacity to deliver on their public mandate for the good of all.

Elected leaders and appointed officers who repeatedly destroy the mandate and capacity of public office and public institutions deserve to no longer be elected or appointed.

It has become a self-evident reality – which can be derived from the Constitutional Court ruling on Nkandla and played out in so many ways in the public record – that the state president himself, in the capacities of both his office and of his person, has become the source and driver of this willed destruction. He acts like the invisible WiFi signal – never seen, but causing things to happen; the pull of gravity of an unseen star, but definitely known to be out there; seen by its presence in legitimising public rituals, but absent in the public and active defence of those rituals as embodying the power of corrective action.

That is why the destructive collective behaviour of many public officers today is no longer a matter of speculation. Day by day, both elected and appointed officers concertedly and consistently confirm Orwell’s quote of having become “corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors”.

Typically, they make anticorruption declarations. All the more are they Orwell’s imposters!

When citizens fail to exercise their responsibility to name what they have come to see – to embrace the consequences of that recognition – and when they fail to take corrective action with the power inherent in their human essence (as much as that essence is embodied in laws, rules and responsibilities they created and legislated) their salvation will lie in their tough recognition that no longer are they such victims; that they have transformed into accomplices working for their own demise through their silence, ignorance, self-fulfilling self-justifications, or illusory entitlements to what fundamentally destroys themselves and others.

Yet there are countless others who have chosen not to be accomplices. The citizenship they represent is of the kind demanded by the extent of the visible decay of the public sphere. It is a citizenship that cuts across the race, class, gender, education, culture, ethnicity, geographic location and political loyalties of South Africa’s diverse citizenry. It is a solemn responsibility shared across these boundaries.

By definition, it proclaims the solemn obligation of all citizens to rise above such boundaries and to reconstitute in the collective interest embodied in what belongs to them all: South Africa, the land of their past, present and future.

They are called upon to enlist for a new kind of struggle for a future liberated from the received sentiments in which it became so easy to call for the destruction or end of something, but far more difficult to be energised by a pulsating urge to create something new.

What was overcome in 1994 cannot be fought in perpetuity long after it was defeated, even when it may have reinvented itself in an order proclaimed to be new but that is in so many ways fundamentally old, and potentially more brutally repressive because it was self-inflicted.

I think this is what George Orwell meant.

Ndebele is an author and academic

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