Revisiting 2010

In 1931, English philosopher Bertrand Russell published his book, The Scientific Outlook, in which he wrote: “To the typical modern mind nothing is interesting on account of what it is, but only on account of what it may be made to become.” What, then, would a modern mind say about 2010?

In science, a modern mind looks at a mountain not as God’s untouchable heap, but as a surmountable obstacle placed by nature in the way of human progress. The mountain is thus approached not as what it is, but what it may be made to become: a tunnel showcasing the genius of modern man.    

Indeed, only the foolish of scientists would come with tools to drill through a mountain without first studying its geological makeup; for what can be can only be made out of what is. Herein lies the profundity of Shakespeare’s adage: “nothing can come out of nothing.”

Baffled by tall skyscrapers, colossal submarines or gigantic space crafts, social scientists are wont to think that the most vexing questions are found in natural science. What most social scientists fail to recognize is that while a natural scientist can design a building and build it according to his plans, a social scientist can design but cannot easily build society according to his careful planning. 

Why? The answer lies in the materials used by both scientists. Of the two, the natural scientist is the most fortunate: bricks and mortar have no life or mind; they therefore cannot defy their master.  The materials for a social scientist are humans, who have life and mind; and thus endowed with the capacity to defy the one who attempts to mould them. 

Thus in answering the question ‘What would a modern mind say about 2010?’ we come face-to-face with the complexity into which Bertrand Russell has thrown us: Could 2010 have possibly been made differently?

The worst of times...

Let us consider the soft question of racial integration. In the middle of the Soccer World Cup, many were led by excitement to imagine a truly united South Africa. But Julius Malema was quick to sing “Kill the farmer, kill the boer.” And the death of Eugene Terre’Blanche smoked all kinds of Afrikaner zealots out of their holes. Is there anything a modern mind could have done to stop Malema from rending the soul of our nation?

Not long after the World Cup, our country fell into the grip of a damaging labour action; the sick were abandoned in their dying beds by nurses who placed money before human life. Teachers also revealed their true colours: that there are many hooligans to whose hands we have surrendered our children.  A modern mind might also ask: What can be done to make SADTU care about the future of poor children in black townships?

As if South Africa was a kindergarten, we found ourselves going round a circle drawn by Malema: nationalisation. Men and women with grey hair were deprived of sleep by the thought planted in their minds that mines could soon be nationalised. All shades of charlatans – masquerading as political analysts – experienced a boom as South Africans tried to understand the power of Malema in the ANC. Again, a modern mind poses a question to itself: Could this have been avoided?

Just as the gullible thought 2010 would be a year of unity, megalomaniacs unleashed their divisive boldness and threatened to create a media tribunal. Suddenly, reason gave way to sound; we witnessed a contest of the loud. 

Those who place a premium on the intersection between leadership and national progress have now appropriated a concept from aviation to describe matters political: auto-piloting. South Africa is cast in the image of an aircraft flying itself. Even the most ardent among President Zuma’s supporters have now joined – albeit quietly – those who view him as a cutter of ribbons, or someone who lends ‘dignity’ to sporting events, musical awards or such many a trifle.

When South Africans travel abroad, they now have to answer the question: Are you from the country with a dancing president? Or, are you from the country with a president who has many wives? When confronted with such questions, would it protect the image of South Africa for a modern mind to say “No”?

The best of times...

Yet, 2010 also bears pleasant shades for a modern mind. The poor performance of Bafana Bafana notwithstanding, it was lovely to witness the best of football in our own backyard, which is why we owe a huge debt of gratitude to Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki for bringing the Soccer World Cup to our beautiful country. Even if they don’t like it, the pens of historians are compelled to record the names of Danny Jordaan, Irvin Khoza and others among those who made history in the world of football. 

In the months leading to the World Cup, South Africa was a veritable construction site. From Musina to Sea Point, from Upington to Komatipoort, it was as if a new country was under construction: roads were refurbished like never before. This must have been the results of a modern mind that decided a few years ago that South Africa’s infrastructure was not interesting as was, and that it could be made to become.

As if to offer Bheki Cele an opportunity to shine, Shrien Dewani allegedly chose South Africa as the murder site of his wife, which finally confirmed 2010 not only as the year of the beautiful, but also of the ugly.

So as we lock our offices in anticipation of Christmas, a social scientist looks back on 2010 only to realise that his is a more complicated trade than that of a natural scientist. As dynamites blast mountains to form tunnels, even the most solid of rocks finally yield to the designs of natural scientists. But the best social scientist could not change the behaviour of ordinary people in Mpumalanga, when they burned down a library while demanding service delivery.

Hopefully, there is a modern mind somewhere that finds South Africa uninteresting on account of what she currently is, and contemplates what the country may be made to become.

- Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research ( and a member of the Midrand Group

Send your comments to Prince

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