Let us stop creating cannibals

2018-04-29 06:05
Many of us lack a basic understanding of history, to the extent that in some quarters former president Nelson Mandela is now considered a sellout, argues the writer. PHOTO: AP

Many of us lack a basic understanding of history, to the extent that in some quarters former president Nelson Mandela is now considered a sellout, argues the writer. PHOTO: AP

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In the summer of 1983, my village and those nearby became gripped by fear of a mysterious umkhwetha, otherwise commonly known as a Xhosa initiate. He was said to be a cannibal who specialised in harvesting the livers and hearts of his victims.

Women and girls stopped fetching water from the river, or firewood from the nearby woods. As herdboys, our lives became a nightmare. We operated in groups. We stopped swimming in the river and going to the shops towards sunset became a nerve-wracking experience.

It did not matter how much some people tried to explain that this cannibal didn’t exist. There was no known victim. Every account was about someone who spoke to another person who said they knew somebody who said they knew a victim, but couldn’t remember the details.

The legend became so intense that one of my neighbours claimed the cannibal had been seen sitting in front of the police station in town while the lawmen locked themselves inside. They were too terrified of the creature’s mystical powers and apparently believed they could not arrest him.

Over several weeks, people began to tire of walking around carrying outsized knobkerries and sharpened Okapi knives. The short cut to town that went through the woods was used once more and, by the next autumn, no one was talking about a cannibal at all. Life returned to normal.

The whole thing was patent nonsense, of course. There was a powerful reason the legend gained so much traction, however. Most people believed in witchcraft and this so-called cannibal had mystical undertones.

This set the evidence bar very low. It sounded too much like witchcraft, a phenomenon that entails everything from sending lightning to strike enemies to converting people into zombies. It was rare to find anyone who did not believe in such, even to a limited degree.

Where a person died suddenly, either through violence or a car accident, there would quickly be stories about how drunks bumped into that person wandering about as a zombie. Again the stories would be hearsay, but many people swore by them. It was uncommon for anyone to openly dismiss them.

We are an angry society at war with itself

Recent times have often felt like the 1980s, with an abundance of disciples of the modern version of this theory of witchcraft. They span politics and religion and are almost always predicated on a preconceived notion of enemies lurking in the shadows.

Questions that appear to challenge their understanding of reality are readily dismissed as the work of enemies out to destroy their beliefs or the leaders at whose feet they worship.

These fanatical followers are seemingly always on edge, ready to launch vicious ad hominem attacks. They effectively incite violence with language designed to disingenuously use the wounds of the past to glaze over the reasons behind the challenges of the present. These attacks are premised on meaningless moral equivalents whose sole purpose is to paralyse society into doing nothing about things that really matter for our collective survival.

The SA Reserve Bank (Sarb) found itself on the receiving end of this bile several weeks ago, when it announced that VBS Mutual Bank would be placed under curatorship. It was accused of putting a black-owned bank to the sword to “protect the interests of white people”. Many people who never bothered to offer a single shred of evidence made this claim.

Recent news reports indicate that VBS cannot account for almost R1bn. Like the cannibal of 1983, many of VBS’s ardent defenders have vanished into thin air. This after spewing bile against Sarb on social media, where many retweeted, shared and liked these base insults.

There are simply too many examples to cite here, but this phenomenon behoves us to ask what its meaning for society and our democratic system is. People are routinely bullied into silence or to parrot what the herd prefers, to suspend reason and independent thought.

This environment of fear is dangerous. It more than likely will solidify into a cancer that breeds citizens prone to unknowingly cannibalising themselves and destroying what remains a still-developing democratic culture. We risk developing into a society that breeds young people who never learn how to accumulate data and analyse it sufficiently to produce coherent thoughts. This is not so much that young people are born with intellectual defects, but the adults’ intellectual deformities become the only thing younger generations know.

Ours is becoming a society that lacks the very necessary ability to listen intently and to analyse sentiments we might be in violent disagreement with.

Slogans have replaced books. People develop intense emotions on the basis of a 320 character online post or a teaser to a news story they have yet to read. They attack or defend positions they have not even seen. The prevalence of such intellectual attitudes makes us ripe for demagoguery to take root.

While we like to trumpet the virtues of our democratic order, it is not sufficient on its own. It is not worth the paper it is written on if citizens continually lose the ability to deepen it by continually interpreting it in a way that responds to the realities of the day.

We find ourselves in danger of falling prey to leaders whose base instincts are inherently anti-democratic, but their slogans are catchy and their rhetoric mesmerising. We will become a dictatorship because we will not even know when its likelihood is staring us in the face.

The reason dictators actively deprive the societies over which they preside of critical information is so that they may diminish any chance that even a small number of people may analyse such information, to illuminate to the rest about what is really happening. In our case, we seem to already have a significant portion of our population lacking a basic sense of history and the willingness to learn enough about it to understand the context in which current events occur.

It sounds like an exaggeration, but it is not. Nelson Mandela is now a “sellout”. A united, nonracial society is no longer a dream worth pursuing, but a deception. Practical problems that require careful thought and consideration are to be solved by emotional rhetoric and slogans.

We now seem to prefer a version of history that is peddled by people whose profession was to prolong oppression, over that of people who paid with blood and tears for the freedoms we have. We are on the prowl for bogeymen, and our senses have frayed so much we are no longer able to tell friend from foe.

Brother has turned against brother, sister against sister.

We are an angry society at war with itself, with knowledge and the truth the most consistent casualties. In no time we will have hollowed ourselves sufficiently to create the conditions for dictatorship. That dictatorship will use the very same democracy as a Trojan horse.

To save ourselves we have to regain our individual and collective ability to analyse information and to separate fact from fiction. We otherwise will be the turkeys that voted for Christmas.

- Zibi is an author and former editor of Business Day

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Read more on:    nelson mandela  |  democracy

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