Songezo Zibi's book raises the Bar on SA Sociopolitical life

2015-01-26 13:39

Occasionally a book that attempts to transcend discussion boundaries comes along. Raising the Bar: Hope and Renewal in South Africa by Songezo Zibi, the editor of the Business Day newspaper, is such a book. One may wonder what sets it apart from books such as The Fall of the ANC, by Mashele and Qobo, or A Nation in Crisis: An appeal for morality, by Prof. Paulus Zulu. The former is a conclusive book focused in setting on the state of affairs (and history) of the ANC drawing its reader to the fall of the oldest African liberation movement. The latter book is an explorative indictment on the lack of public morality in those that govern and confines its setting largely on the interplay between the state and the ruling party. Zibi’s book achieves its uniqueness (whilst having elements of the other two books) in that it attempts to be a transcendent discussion book that invites us to the dialogue table in order to find solutions towards building the South Africa we want.

The setting of Raising the Bar is also much more expansive and explores not only the sphere of governance and the ruling party. The book goes on to look at the role of day-to-day cultural practices that were once seen as normal, such as ukuthwala and ukungenwa. Zibi contends that these cultural practices can be seen as part contributors to today’s challenges such as patriarchy, violence and continued women marginalisation in society. Throughout the book, words such as ‘trust’ ‘malfeasance’ ‘ideas’ ‘social contract’ ‘intelligence’ and ‘knowledge’ are well repeated. These words form the core of the book as it condemns the malfeasance that has taken root in governance leading to diminished levels of trust between the citizens and the ruling elite and thus breaking the social contract necessary to move South Africa forward. In order to rectify this, the author calls for ‘honesty and resolve’ when we face our challenges; doing this in a nuanced manner infused with great intelligence drawing from existing knowledge and critical thinking.

It is this language that makes Zibi sound like a Plato of our times, being interested in the best of ideas that can change the developmental path of South Africa. He too, as Plato did, calls for the best amongst society to raise their hands and provide both intellectual and moral leadership for society. Unlike Plato, he believes strongly in making our democracy work and is not caught up in some fantasy of the creation of an Aristocracy. The book is written in such a way that it draws examples from various parts of the world to illustrate its points, I suppose in an attempt to show that some of the challenges besetting South Africa are not unique to us. In the proposals on education, it would have been interesting if the author drew examples from around the globe. For example his proposal to create district schools of excellence in poorer communities (which he concedes could be viewed as elitist) has been well implemented in China; achieving commendable results.

The book opens with a detailed discussion on the concept of ‘blackness’ and how the definition of such should be rethought and given meaning that is useful in today’s age. The counter discussion on ‘whiteness’ happens in scattered form throughout the book and has a small section dedicated to it in the closing chapter. Given that this seeks to be a transcendent discussion book, my view is that it should have dedicated a fair amount of space to discussing roots and forms of institutions that continue to perpetuate whiteness. It is understandable that Zibi draws much from his life experiences in decoding some of the cultural and structural issues that perpetuate gender-based violence and patriarchy. As thus, much of his reflections are born out of ways of life in the black rural communities.

The shortcoming in this is that a white or indian woman may not feel represented, as though there are no cultural and structural issues within their contexts that keep them in the bondages of patriarchy. A bit of ventilation on such issues would have made the analysis cross-racial and thus achieving the transcendent objective of the book. Lastly, Zibi has dedicated – rightfully so – a lot of time investigating the place of women in the South African society and how their struggle should not be divorced from that of race. However, the absence of the much contested and controversial Traditional Courts Bill in his book is a striking omission.

The most incisive contributions by Zibi are his discussions on the shortcomings of cadre deployment, its history within the ANC and its potential damage to the integrity of the South African state. Another great contribution, probably the first detailed account of its kind, is his chapter on ‘Violence’. He does well to trace the history of violence in society away from the ‘apartheid era incidents’ to show how deeply it runs even on what some consider part of their culture or sporting activity, such as boxing. An example, not in Zibi’s book, is that the Western world even had honourable duelling (fatal as it were in most cases) as a normalised activity. Like any analysis done well on violence, such as that by Slavoj Zizek (used by Zibi in his book), Franz Fanon, Thomas Hobbes etc, Zibi illuminates succinctly the embedded problems that give rise to violence, especially when he employs the concept of objective and subjective violence.

There are many proposed points of discussion in the book on how to move South Africa forward, even though some already claim to be moving it forward. These range from the need for a change in the electoral system, a need for greater information transparency from the government, the democratisation of education through redefining its driving philosophy and the need to deal with ‘the residual effects of colonialism, and later, apartheid’ as these remain unmitigated. There are countless other points of discussions raised in the book, which is the strength of the book.

Whilst the ANC and subsequently the National Development Plan (NDP) identifies the triple challenge in South Africa as poverty, inequality and unemployment, I would posit that Zibi views the triple challenge in South Africa as being violence, poor governance and substandard education. This is a much ‘honest and resolute’ way of stating our challenges as a society. In fact, I have never understood the ANC’s concept of poverty, inequality and unemployment being the triple challenge when they fall within the same category of challenges in that, if you decrease unemployment, poverty and inequality will begin to be dealt with. Thus, Zibi’s main areas of focus present a more nuance and concrete articulation of our problems as a nation today.

In terms of organising our national economy, Zibi leaves a discussion hanging for us to nibble on about making a choice between liberal capitalism and social democratic capitalism. Throughout his book, the author is conscious of the race question in South Africa with its polarising effect. This drives us apart more than it brings us closer to the dialogue table. Race scholars and critiques may not agree with Zibi’s assertion that today we experience subliminal racism as a country and they may be tempted to cite the well reported and unreported cases of overt racism that happens on a day-to-day basis. Safe to say that today the state is not organised, constitutionally and legislatively, to mete out racism. This is due to the ANC’s ability to transform our democratic institutions and this admission leads Zibi to introduce us to a concept of ‘organisational involution’ borrowed from the works of Xiabo Lu in relation to a liberation movement’s contradictory pursuits.

The chapter on government, I would have asked it be titled ‘The State’ and implore Zibi to conduct a brief discussion (given his position) on how the media is an enabling or hindering block towards the creation of platforms for us to have these complex and elaborate discussions he calls for. However, I must state firmly that the objective of a transcendent discussion book on contemporary South Africa is almost reached and where this lacks it surely should be made up for in the rich and meaningful discussions that are necessary to be held as a result of this book. An important parting shot that can be concluded from the book is that: before we reach catastrophe as a country, let us embark on that intellectual journey to define the path we ought to travel and elect the leaders with the integrity and intellect necessary to lead this beautiful country. Can it be done? Zibi says yes and I agree with him.


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