Guest Column

2016, the year we broke civilisation

2016-12-20 08:01

Ahmed Areff

Human civilisation was a nice experiment while it lasted. 

We developed writing, the wheel, agriculture, laws, art and expression and sanitation. We harnessed electricity, built computers, created the Internet and broke down the physical limitations of the world. 

But 2016 was maybe the year we deserved. 

We are after all the same civilisation that perfected selfies, photos of food, flying machines that rain down death on poor brown people. We also worship the Kardashians, elected a crazy racist businessman as president of the United States, and here in South Africa allow President Jacob Zuma to survive everything short of a nuclear bomb. 

Sure, many have tried to get Zuma to go. People marched, members of his own party spoke out against him and tried to convince that same party to tell him to go. 

The reality is he is still going to be leading us for a while. Plenty has already been written about Zuma, but if he could survive rape charges, 783 charges of corruptions, scandals over his friends the Guptas, and the Nkandla debacle, he will surely survive until the end of his term. 

People tried their best to fight the tide and to protest against the dictates of Hlaudi Motsoeneng; to fight for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan to keep his job. As much as people have written articles, statements, compiled damning reports and took to the streets – Hlaudi is still at the SABC, Gordhan still has to keep looking over his shoulder and the Guptas are still here. 

Sure, the media spoke truth to power, but the reality is that we are just preaching our message to the already converted. Like a hillbilly in the American South that will watch Fox News to vindicate their own views, we are not talking in a way that speaks to people across the entire political and socio-economic spectrum. 

Let's look at our beloved country, and how so many racists, and those that were seen by some to be racist, vented their true feelings.

We had (deep breath) Penny Sparrow calling black people monkeys, Matthew Theunissen calling government "kaffirs" for taking sporting bodies to task over transformation, High Court Judge Mabel Jansen making generalisations of black culture, Vicki Momberg's racist rant against black police officers getting caught on video, a Sodwana Bay guest house owner saying black people are not human, student activist Ntokozo Qwabe telling a white ObzCafe waitress that she will get a tip when her people return the land, spectators at a UFS rugby match assaulting black protesters who had interrupted the game, black pupils at Pretoria High School for Girls protesting against the school's code of conduct which imposed restrictions on how they could wear their hair, two men beating up Victor Mlotshwa and forcing him into a coffin, a Cape Town ward councillor planning a “march against grime” in protest against the homeless in her area and most recently, Capetonian Vanessa Hartley referring to Africans on social media as “stupid animals”.

The media and some political parties were outraged at each of these events, but that in no way stopped people from venting their deeply held beliefs. 

Again, it is not just here in South Africa. Why in the US, the so-called bastion and leader of the world, do people still have to create a movement like “Black Lives Matter”? 

Why do we still have to talk about tertiary fees and decolonising education here in South Africa? Wouldn't our dreams of a fanciful "rainbow nation" have solved these problems already? Are we just giving a run-down broken Datsun a new paint job and calling it a restored vehicle?  

I don't doubt that racist events happen every day, but this year it seems that some people couldn't hold their views to themselves. Maybe it’s our social media culture, where we have to share every single intimate moment of our lives, including our bowel movements. 

Is it possible that our endless fascination with the spectacle and entertainment value of news and culture, and the desire by large swathes of population to cling to their "tribes" or nationalities, has effectively broken the social contract that is holding our society together? 

A couple of hundred years ago a bunch of  slavery-defending European philosophers extolled the idea of the social contract, which basically means that we all need to work together to achieve "society". 

Think of it as two people hunting a buck so that they can eat. You need two people to hunt the buck, so they have to work together for them to both benefit. If one of them decides to go hunt for a rabbit instead, which they can easily get, the other person is left hungry because they can't catch a buck on their own. The one who hunted the rabbit will be satisfied for a while, but not as much if they had half a buck to dine on. 

That's pretty much what happened, not just here in South Africa, but the entire planet. 

People appear to be tired of working together, and just want to chase the rabbit themselves, and plunge headfirst into what they think is Wonderland; pretty much like Alice. 

This is why right-wing, nationalistic populist leaders are taking power in Europe. This is why Donald Trump got elected and this is why Brexit happened. 

People are scared of the brown and black people, be they Mexicans, refugees or people who are like me – possibly with long facial hair and who turn to Makkah to pray. They prefer to stay with their own people, live their same routine lives, keep the resources for themselves and go into a corner and whisper and point at the 'other'. 

Some could argue that this has always been the case, but at least we pretended to play nice for a while. 

Chinua Achebe used WB Yeats’ apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” to explain that with the advent of colonialism, things fell apart in traditional cultures. 

Here is the relevant part of Yeats’ poem if you don't remember it: 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer; 
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; 
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned; 
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

I think it sounds pretty much like the way the world is now. The best people fight, some with conviction and some without, and we get small victories. The fact is that the worst people, with their passionate intensity, are still allowed to run amok, have all the power, and speak to the fears and desires of a lot of people. 

It echoes the sentiments of the late-great comedian Bill Hicks, who asserted that the good guys, people like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and in my opinion here in SA, Chris Hani, end up being murdered, while terrible people end up living long lives. 

Yeats believed that history moves in cycles, or gyres, and that each civilization lasts for around 2000 years. Our current civilization began with the birth of Jesus. 

We are way past the 2000 year mark, and I am pretty sure that anarchy has been let loose upon the world. 

Now we just have to figure out who is that rough beast whose hour has come around at last, that is slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.

* Ahmed Areff is National News Editor at News24. Follow him on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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