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‘A time of grey’

Njabulo Ndebele, in his excellent essay of introduction to Nelson Mandela in the book South Africa’s Nobel Laureates, points to what he believes is one of the abiding legacies of Madiba, namely, his counter-intuitive leadership. ”The characteristic feature of this type of leadership is in the ability of a leader to read a situation whose most observable logic points to a most likely outcome, but then to detect in that very likely outcome not a solution but a compounding of the problem. This assessment then calls for the prescription of an unexpected outcome, which initially may look strikingly improbable … A leader then has to sell the unexpected because he has to overcome intuitive doubts and suspicions that will have been expected.”

For Ndebele, such counter-intuitive leadership ”can be profoundly liberating when, all of a sudden, it makes old enemies friends; and deeply disturbing when it turns old friends into enemies”.

Apartheid encouraged polarities. Black against white. Goodies against baddies. Cowboys against Indians. Contrary to the popular Hollywood narratives, we knew that here, the Indians were the good guys. But Ndebele points to the possibility of Indians becoming cowboys. Perhaps when the guns that the cowboys sell them have the capacity to make the Indians rich.

For some, despite the vast changes that have occurred since 1994, the us-them narratives have remained comfortable laagers from within which to understand and engage with the world. So they dismiss a meticulous court judgement for it is made by a judge with a Rhodesian past.

At the same time, some of them cannot accept that a hero of the struggle against Rhodesian oppression has subverted the law, human rights and democracy so that ordinary Zimbabweans are probably at least as oppressed today as they were by the white Rhodesian regime. They dismiss the white prosecutor in a corruption trial as insensitive to black aspirations, while selectively embracing the defense counsel who was white, Afrikaans and male, a symbol of all that they had struggled against. This is done not on the basis of values and reason, but on the intuitive premise of ”our team” against ”their side”.

As a backdrop to literature and theatre, apartheid was boring. We all knew who the good guys were, and how the story would end. There was moral clarity on the broad canvas of anti-apartheid struggle. Indiscretions and misdemeanors among the oppressed majority fighting an epic battle against their unjust rulers were awarded minority status in the context of the greater evil of apartheid. In this battle, heroes were born, icons were made, gods — many of them false — were created.

Eleven years after the political defeat of apartheid there are still large narratives unfolding. The narrative of poverty. The narrative of HIV/Aids. The narrative of a democracy based on human rights principles enshrined in a Constitution. New narratives, old icons. New stories, old heroes. New moralities, old false gods. It is inevitable then that we experience the profound liberation of old enemies becoming friends, and of being deeply disturbed when old friends become enemies.

If the simplistic, empty-vessel radicalism rooted in defunct polarities were all that prevailed right now, that would be cause for pessimism. But the current political crisis around the former deputy president has unleashed impressive — and encouraging — public debate around values, constitutionality and democracy, not simply along the old white-black fault lines but, more importantly, among black intellectuals, civil society activists and ordinary people who phone in to radio talk shows, who write letters to news-papers or who have conversations around dinner tables.

If nothing else, the ”Zuma crisis” has created the political space for comrades to debate comrades, friends to challenge friends, personal loyalties to be questioned in the context of the greater social good.

It is a time of grey, rather than black and white. A time when stories are still being written, with the endings not known. A time of contradiction, of irony and complexity. A time of more questions than answers. A time for unease, for discomfort, for uncertainty. A great time to be an artist, a novelist, a playwright.

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