Confronting the Great Divide

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A century from now, those seeking to know whether post-apartheid South Africa's historic mission was a success or not will tell mainly on the basis of our current, collective ability to bridge the great divide: the gulf between various strata of our society.

In the 18th century, David Hume, in a finely constructed passage entitled "Of Essay Writing" said the following:

THE elegant part of mankind, who are not immersed in mere animal life, but employ themselves in the operations of the mind, may be divided into the learned and the conversable. The learned are such as have chosen for their portion the higher and more difficult operations of the mind, which require leisure and solitude ... The conversable world join to a sociable disposition, and a taste for pleasure ... (David Hume, 1996, Selected Essays, p1)

You need not possess quixotic intellectual qualities to discern and be offended by Hume's arrogant dismissal of the category of human beings he describes as "immersed in animal life". But you still cannot take away the aptness of his observation regarding what he terms the "learned" and the "conversable".

Hume was absolutely right to describe the "learned" as people whose lives are characterised by solitude. These are people who spend their time in study rooms, laboratories and behind closed office doors; reading books, inventing artefacts, innovating various technologies or hatching out profound ideas. In today's South Africa, we do have people in this category, albeit small in number.

The "conversable" are also a ubiquitous phenomenon in our society. They are fun-lovers who spend time drinking with friends and entertain a variety of social topics that the "learned" deem trivial. After work, or on weekends, the "conversable" criss-cross towns, villages and townships enjoying themselves as if tomorrow was their last day of existence. These are hedonists par excellence!

Same social space

Both the "learned" and the "conversable" deride each other in ways that reinforce and widen the chasm betwixt them. The "learned" think that the "conversable" waste invaluable time immersed in unproductive routines. On their part, the "conversable" dismiss the "learned" as vain people who take themselves too seriously.

Their mutual derision notwithstanding, both the "learned" and the "conversable" - including the rich - occupy the same social space. They live in leafy suburbs, and they are the economic beneficiaries of the post-apartheid democratic dispensation. While people in these strata constantly complain about racism and other forms of discrimination, objective reality renders it necessary for them to intercourse in their daily affairs.

If the "learned", the "conversable" and the rich were the only citizens of our country, the story of South Africa would, to future generations, read like a tale of roses. For they all live in situations of relative comfort.

Indeed, the divide amongst the "learned", the "conversable" and the rich is not suitable to be called the "great divide". The great divide is rather the gap between these strata - as a collective category - and the poor and toiling workers (as a distinct stratum of society). History's judgment day will be about whether or not, in our time, we were able to make a dent in this great divide.

In order for us to fully appreciate the width of the great divide, we must first examine and comprehend the nature of the divide. This requires that black and white South Africans put aside the racial blinkers that lead to chimerical conclusions about the nature of our society today.

Because the black middle class are now a palpable reality, most whites in our society tend to pass on the responsibility of bridging the great divide to blacks who appear successful. "Let them help their own people," some might say!

On their part, blacks who have "made it" continue to blame whites for the misery of those who languish in poverty. By so doing, the reality that, objectively, these blacks have now been sucked into the very socio-economic trappings designed by apartheid's social engineers gets eclipsed.

Deal with the divide

While affluent whites and blacks continue to point fingers at each other, the great divide also widens its yawn. Black and white elites withdraw further into a private sub-state, leaving the public space to be occupied by the poor and toiling workers.

Even as the elite pretend to be indifferent to the public space they have deserted, they continue to be seriously troubled by statements occasionally made by leaders in the public realm. When trade unions call upon their members to picket, each time the Monitory Policy Committee convenes, the elite grumble: "Do these Neanderthals want to take over the running of our Reserve Bank!"

Our elite may, like David Hume, label those who occupy public spaces as people who are "immersed in mere animal life", but this will not narrow the great divide. All it will do is further sharpen contradictions between the haves and the have-nots.

If they hope to secure space in history among those who would have made a positive contribution to bridging the great divide, the elite of our country - both black and white - must begin seriously to explore practical ways of dealing with the divide. They should stop behaving like the "learned" and the "conversable", who constantly exchange mutual derision.

When the elite send their children to good private schools, while the sons and daughters of the poor do not progress due to a dysfunctional public schooling system, we must rest assured that the ills that characterise our society today will still be the face of our country in years to come. Thus must it become the interest of those who can afford private education to support and advocate for a better functioning public schooling system. It is the mastery of this social dialectic that will rescue this country from the abyss.

Only until we have all adopted this kind of thinking and begin to take practical steps in that direction shall we, a century from now, satisfy those who seek to know if post-apartheid South Africa's historic mission was a success or not.

- Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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