Dashiki Dialogues: Silence and the meaning of our lives

2013-10-29 10:00

All of us must spare a thought for Mac Maharaj for having the toughest job in the world.

A friend of mine made this appeal after President Jacob Zuma made another public mess of himself in a speech about e-tolls.

As we all know by now, Zuma made disparaging statements that we shouldn’t think like Africans in Africa, generally, in a clumsy attempt to encourage people to embrace e-tolling on Joburg roads. I imagined Maharaj wishing the president had opted for silence.

This was a timely suggestion as I was meditating on the usefulness of ­silence in times of crises. The act of keeping quiet has, after all, acquired great meaning in the African ­experience.

Think of the role of silence in the life of the Afro-American jazz genius Charlie “Bird” Parker. Most of what we know about the meaning of his tortured life is from other people.

Parker was silent. Perhaps even denied a voice by the sheer size of speculation that surrounded his legend, most of what we know of him is steeped in misinformation.

Ralph Ellison described him neatly in one of his essays. He writes: “While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict from which issued both his art and his destruction, his public reacted as though he were ­doing much the same thing as those saxophonists who hoot and honk, and roll on the floor.”

The jury is still out on whether ­silence served to empower or ruin our memory of Parker’s humanity.

Here I’m reminded of a Lacanian joke: A man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to a mental hospital, where the doctors work hard to convince him that he is a man.

When he is cured and now ­believes that he is a man and not a grain of seed, he is allowed to leave the hospital and live as a normal man.

Once outside the front door of the hospital, he comes rushing back in, trembling and scared. There is a chicken outside the door.

The doctor tells him: “Look, you know that you are not a grain of seed but a man.”

“I know that full and well,” says the man, “but does the chicken know?”

The idea is that to opt for silence on discussions about our lives might also leave the meaning of our lives at the mercy of the chickens at the front doors of our institutions.

But I also agree with Jacques Depelchin, the Congolese historian, on the issue. He writes that, among those who have suffered political repression, colonisation, steady and relentless economic exploitation, as well as cultural asphyxiation, silences should be seen as facts because silences are actually facts that have not been accorded the status of facts.

It’s a tricky dashiki to wear into loud dialogues.

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