Towards a New Heritage for South Africa

2015-09-23 16:42

It is stupid and absurd to burn people for their ideas. But it is more stupid and absurd to believe that ideas don’t matter.

Pretoria as the City of national rule and authority is like an octopus. The city's tentacles reach every person across the landscape of South Africa.

Pretoria Central as a physical space is a relatively simple arrangement. It is tightly held together by two main roads; on the East is the Nelson Mandela Drive that connects Pretoria with Johannesburg; on West is the Eskia Mphahlele Drive that also connects Pretoria to Johannesburg.

At the heart of Pretoria lies a well resourced elephantine community library that is officially called Eskia Mphahlele Community Library.

The legend emerges that the fact that both Nelson Mandela Drive and Eskia Mphahlele Drive are holding together our capital city - the city of Pretoria - it should be interpreted that Nature demands that the  ideas of these men should be taken as our national heritage - to live and to shape our human experience with.

Legends are powerful national heritage for most prosperous nations. Legends fires the country's citizens and rally them for betterment of society they live in. Legends are concrete ideas that are taken in the spirit of respect and faith, and influences people than anything else.

While in exile Eskia Mphahlele, the person, drew from several disciplines including psychology, sociology, psychoanalysis and political psychology to attempt to develop a heritage of ideas for the future integrated South Africa.

Precisely in 1962 Eskia Mphahlele wrote a great book called African Image. African Image was banned from South Africa during Apartheid. The ideas in the book provide a canvas for how a South African society should look like.

Eskia Mphahlele (at the time of writing the book the year 1962), notes that about 5 million Africans are urbanised, and therefore detribalised. The 3 million working on white farms are detribalized – owing no allegiance to a traditional chief. Only 3 million of Africans are under tribal chiefs and they constantly travel from villages to cities and making them exposed to different perspectives.

He writes that this represent the waning and decay of classical African cultural value systems. But Mphahlele does not see this phenomenon as tragic or bad, but as good and a kind of breakthrough. He writes that once Africans are able to step out of their parochial cultures the limits are taken off and that marks the dawn of a real freedom.

From there Eskia Mphahlele provides a motivating proposition that people who are bombarded by different conflicting ideas from various angles everywhere tend to have higher civilization. And because of this, Africans should allow themselves to be exposed widely.

Eskia Mphahlele says we construct culture and we can deconstruct and reconstruct it in the light of changing realities to improve our existence. The only acceptable culture is one that serves extended social interests, an expanded sphere of humanity.

A culture that is not dynamic does not allow people to evolve constantly but stunts their growth, and ultimately may even help them to die out. Consider the fate of the Massai of Kenya, the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Dinka of Sudan. These ethic groups are prisoners of the past. Like the dodo bird that did not adapt to its changed environments, these ethnic groups are approaching extinction. For the moment, they provide an excitement for curious people all over the world to visit them to understand how human beings lived tens of thousand years ago (not how people should live today).

Es'kia Mphahlele touched so many people and permitted them to touch him in return. His wealth of ideas are national heritage

To sustain South Africa we need a mental and psychological overhaul, a revolution in our thought, philosophical and value system. We must move beyond slogans and actually make efforts for the creation and cultivation of a new culture. We have not done this and that remains a pestering pain that constantly pops up at our unguarded moments. And when this happens we find ourselves helpless.

Of course Eskia Mphahlele was not ignorant of the challenges - what human nature is, that the run of humanity is for people to identify with those like them in skin colour and culture. The reality is that as human nature goes people find it easier to relate to those who look like them. The majority of people feels comfortable with, as they say, “their kind”.

Sometimes we are too faulty in our observations that this aspect of human nature, that we sweepingly dismisses or denounce it as racism, separatism or ethnicity.

Prejudice is inherent in human condition. You cannot successfully fight what clearly is the platform from which humans perceive each other. Prejudice in itself is not wrong or negative or bad. Prejudice is neutral. Prejudice is concern with and about oneself, one’s heritage, one’s race and one’s ethnicity.

An appreciation of Xhosa, Afrikaans or Zulu should be encouraged and promoted. These groupings are the gems that are part of the bigger national heritage.

What is wrong, what is bad and what is evil about prejudice is when people become arrogant and develop supercilious sense of superiority to other groups and start running around like foolish children thinking that they are special and better than other people. Perhaps this is what Eskia Mphahlele was talking about when he wrote:  White Man Slamming Doors.

As far as biology is concerned, there is no such category as races. Molecular biologists tell us that all human beings, regardless of race are genetically 99.9% the same. The .1% difference in people is because of such things as skin color, hair type and other apparent differences. That is to say that biologically, people from everywhere on planet earth are more similar than dissimilar.

The background from which Eskia Mphahlele is coming from is that not so long ago, people were dispersed across the surface of the earth and did not even know about other people. For example Africans had no contacts with Europeans and Asians.

People lived in particular parts of the world and adapted to the realities of the world they find themselves in. And because they were of the same race they evolved particularistic cultures. (Culture enables people to adapt to their world.)

People who adapted to the temperate world of Europe had a particular relative culture that respond to that environment; those who adapted to the tropical world of Africa evolved a particular culture and so on. Consider Africans, with the vast space of the Continent of Africa they were dynamic and moved from place to place and that made the idea of building of solid houses nonsensical.

Eskia Mphahlele is asking South Africans to create a new community beyond the realm of the past - not that the past is discarded but it is used to enrich the new reality.

A community is comprised of people whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, people who have developed a commitment to rejoice together, mourn together and to delight in each other, make others conditions our own. Or as the psychologist Scott Peck writes: people become a community in the same way that a stone becomes a gem - through a process of cutting and polishing. Once cut and polished it is something beautiful. This presupposes that there is a lot of hard work involved in the building of society.

Each part of one part of humanity influences all other parts; each part is always responding to what other parts are doing; and in these modern times there is no such thing as an independent culture. The universe is one and humanity is also one. We are the same. People are the same and equal; that is the dictate of nature.

Eskia Mphahlele is of the believe that once the grip of African culture and outlook has been weakened (as it was doing in 1962 when he was writing African Image) a new spirit of openness arises: a spirit of experimentation, exploration and diversity.

Culture is forever evolving from lower dimensions of perceptions to the higher level. Clusters of human beings (ethnic groups) always find better improved ways of doing things, and as they do that they discard previous ways because they are of no service anymore. What was considered adaptive yesterday could be improved today and even make better tomorrow.

Proximity leads to cultural diffusion and cultural diffusion leads to higher ways of living – higher culture.

Higher culture is experienced through friction much like the way rain is produced. Rain makes the grass green, bring us fruits and it also makes your garden grow. Rain is a results of a rage and anger in the sky as charged clouds collide and comingle -  and lightning and thunder striking.

Eskia Mphahlele refute  people who see their culture as static and clinging to it, defending it at all times unaware that culture is supposed to change the moment it confronts different environments.

Eskia Mphahlele begins African Image with two quotes, one taken from Book 9 of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, written 167 A.D.

Soon will the earth cover us all: For if a man reflects on the changes and transformations which follow one another like wave after wave and their rapidity, he will despise everything which is perishable.

Marcus Aurelius was Roman Emperor from 161 to 180.

The other quote is from Ralph Emerson, the American philosopher: There are no fixtures in nature. The universe is fluid and volatile. Permanence is but a word of degrees.

What Eskia Mphahlele writes about in African Image was said earlier before in 1958 by Chinua Achebe with the publishing of Thinks Fall Apart. Chinua Achebe was able to show that African cultures are varied among themselves and it has always been a phenomenon that they are capable of changing with time.

Chinua Achebe not only succeeded in taking the African cultural heritage to the outside world but also taught Africans tough lessons on the emerging global society that is a conflation of foreign effects, that meant adopting new ways of living to help you succeed in life.

Eskia Mphahlele in the 1950’s and 1960’s personally met and dialogued with many great leaders such as Franz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyerere.

Both Nelson Mandela and Eskia Mphahlele represented high human principles. Both are of the same age; Nelson Mandela born in 1918 and Eskia Mphahlele in 1919. Both men displayed deep integrity that was demonstrated in the fact that they would not sell their conscience for a pot of porridge. They were inspired of selflessness and doing service to society than the seduction of cash.

It is hard to capture in words the way in which Eskia Mphahlele was amazingly – scandalously – humble. He was allergic to all the things people manufacture to antagonize the human world into camps. . His favourite subject, ideas that he cherished and stood for,  was that he longed for a South Africa that is a meaningful community and coherent idea.

Against all temptations, he refused to soil his name.

No evidence suggests that Nelson Mandela while in prison was consciously aware of Eskia Mphahlele's ideas. Nevertheless, Nelson Mandela's views radically changed in prison  and suggests that both may have been drawing from the same fountain.

We learn most when we are exposed to people from different diverse backgrounds. Diversity is the spice of life. Nature is wise in making people come in different colours and shapes. A cohesive shared heritage represent an ideal or ideas that Nelson Mandela cherished and for which he was prepared to die for.

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