Solly Moeng: Beware of polarisation, South Africa

Solly Moeng (SUPPLIED)
Solly Moeng (SUPPLIED)

It is always good to leave South Africa a bit, from time to time, and to have a chance to observe its endless cacophony from a distance while enjoying the privilege of comparing it with how things are done elsewhere in the world.

Longer stays in different countries are always best, of course, as they stand a better chance to expose one to more local touch points in said countries and, consequently, to more realistic and broader views of how other societies operate and deal with their challenges, many of which are not different from the ones we face in South Africa.

It is only a pity that not a lot more of us are able to leave the country for such purposes, even though this is not unique to South Africa. In most countries, it is only a small percentage of the entire population that gets to travel beyond the borders of its country and to, hopefully, learn from perspectives gained from elsewhere and to be grounded by them.

In a beautifully strange way, worldly perspectives free one from the choke of the normal and insular, and widen one’s horizons. I suspect many of our everyday arguments – some of which as circular as dogs chasing their own tails – are with us because we tend to think we occupy the centre of the world as a specially anointed people.  

Yesterday may cost us tomorrow

South Africa has been through a lot over the past 25 years – but more so in the past 10 years when the country’s journey to recovery was slowed down, even pushed backwards, by horrific and devastating state capture and other forms of corruption under the enabling watch of the former president, the one whose name I shall no longer mention in this column.

In more recent years, we have witnessed student uprisings that demanded free tertiary education, without concern for where the money would come from to fund it; and heard some of them demand what they described as a 'decolonised curriculum' without telling us what, exactly, that would entail.

Few seemed to invest time and effort in detailing practical programmes that would lead to adequate consensus on what aspects of the existing curriculum would constitute an unacceptable colonial heritage to be kept.

We have become suspicious of one another and are watchful of the slightest utterances and actions by others. We’re worse than the irritating predictive texts and automatic spell checks on our smart devices.

And racial profiling has become a big thing, even when we like to pretend it’s not. White on black suspicion is on the rise; so is black on white suspicion. Whites get emotionally bludgeoned as soon as they open their mouths on certain truths of today and blacks are considered irritants when they make reference to their painful past.

Such double-edged references do ensure that old wounds remain open, as they feed today’s anger over yesterday, while they also serve as padlocks that keep the chain of shame around the others’ necks, to make sure they never forget past inhumanity brought about by others who looked like them. It is a vicious cycle of unnecessary self-flagellation.

'What-aboutism' has become a preferred tool to justify and to defend the indefensible. It is the same tool that was used to defend the shielding of former Sudanese president on our soil, Omar al-Bashir, from arrest and prosecution a few years ago. In my opinion, he was shielded because he was black like us and couldn’t reasonably be made to face international justice for his crimes, while others who did not look like us, in far-away countries, had been left untouched.

More recently, what-aboutism gets used daily to give reason to the political criminals of our times – led by the one whose name I still refuse to mention here – despite the devastating impact of their crimes on our very social fabric and institutions. It is fine for some to threaten racial violence, even when postponed 'for now', but it is not fine for others to do the same. If we stop them from making such racial threats today, what about the bad stuff done by others who do not look like us, in the past?

Looking back in anger

Judging by many conversations I have had, it seems there are increasingly those who imagine an idyllic continent and country that could have turned out perfectly, had West never ventured out to meet South, and had East - including middle-East - remained in its assigned place. Many allow themselves to be trapped in anger that dates back centuries. In doing that, they miss opportunities to hold hands for today in order to build a better tomorrow. We’re oblivious of the devastating effect similar behaviour we see in our country today has had on other countries on the continent when people allowed emotions to guide actions.

We probably still have a chance to hold hands, put emotions aside, rebuild and strengthen our vital institutions before we reach a point of no return; cross a line that certain countries to the north of us seem to have crossed long ago. We do not have a choice. This country belongs to all of us. There should never be room for ‘winners take all’.

Unlike in a country like Rwanda, a benevolent dictator will never succeed in South Africa, as some seem to believe we need. We’re too opinionated and beautifully diverse for that.  

Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.     

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