/ 21 November 2012

Looking-Glass Wars: Ubuntu in the bathroom

(Lisa Skinner
(Lisa Skinner

It's around four in the morning and I'm woken by the usual nightmare, one I've never had before.

You know the one – where distorted faces come out of the bright light, angry and deadly, and everything is burning, and your country becomes a place of the dying and the defeated.

It's the nightmare of the pessimist, and it's not one I've ever shared. And I don't share it now, but clearly the surfeit of excellent prawns at the Troyeville Hotel the night before, sauced as it was by a public discussion with Adriaan Basson, author of Zuma Exposed, has given me a restless night.

At the talk, I was starkly reminded that we have so very far to go before we are a country that can claim any sort of unity, even a contested one. And perhaps we don't ever want this unity, because our acknowledgement of the inevitability of difference is what keeps us moving forward. The talk featured author Antony Altbeker in conversation with author, City Press deputy editor and investigative journalist, Adriaan Basson.

At one stage, Basson had just finished the sad tale of the assassination of Moss Phakoe, the former ANC councillor who had personally appealed to Jacob Zuma and the ANC to stop corruption in Rustenburg. Phakoe had been told to look for a political solution, not a judicial one, and this neglect by the ANC hierarchy led to his murder. After giving the audience this example of the "breakdown in moral leadership in Zuma's ANC", Basson mentioned Zuma's recent injunction to traditional leaders. Zuma said to them, "Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man's way," implying a political solution rather than a recourse to the justice system. In a throwaway aside, Altbeker sarcasticaly muttered the single word, "Ubuntu".

A member of the audience shouted "fuck you", and became incandescent with rage at what he saw as a conflation of Zuma's personal corruption with the philosophy of community that underpins a certain definition of African culture. It was as instructive a moment as Helen Zille's use of the term "economic refugee", and Mac Maharaj's skillful deployment of the term "compound". Later that night, clearly prey to the same troubled sleeplessness as me, the same audience member posted on his Facebook page: "I went to Troyeville Hotel looking for some cerebral nourishment, and I came out having to accept that even Liberals, at some deep place, hold that which is African in contempt."

Jacques Derrida, that great African hero, would be proud of us. We've become a nation of deconstructionists, skilled at finding the one word in a discourse that betrays the ideological underpinning of that discourse. Unfortunately, most of us have proved less adept at the next step, which is to understand the negotiated meaning that these contrary messages create. When we throw out ubuntu with Zuma's dirty bathwater, we're doing a disservice to the complexity of our humanity. If we refuse to acknowledge that our understanding of what a word means is not necessarily the only one, we're compounding the inadvertent error

But at the same time we have to understand that this works at least both ways. To make one person's unthinking use of a word stand in for all liberals, is to make the same mistake the racist does when she (or he) assumes that everyone shares her (or his) worldview. But this is the awful consequence of the battle for meaning in our country. A fight as important as the one against racism almost demands the tyranny of the absolute. And when you have such manichaean emotion, you have the bottom feeders eager to take advantage of it. Mac Maharaj, for example, with his insistence that we discuss the racism inherent in the word compound, rather than the fact that we probably have a corrupt president. Why can't we discuss both? Because that would imply we don't take sides, and not taking sides in South Africa just means you have two enemies instead of one.

Another example of this destructive dualism is the often-flung accusation that our government is replicating the actions of the apartheid government. And there's the concomitant, of course, which is the accusation that comparing the current government to apartheid is sanitising the awful horror of apartheid, and insulting the many good South African people still fighting the good fight. I find the people who get indignant at those comparing the Marikana massacre to an apartheid atrocity as repulsive as those who compare it to an apartheid atrocity. How stupid are you people? Can't you wise up, step out of the boardgame of blame, and address the issues at the same time as interrogating the racism of our reality?

But as soon as someone has forced you to take sides in this artificially constructed comparison, we can conveniently be made to forget that our current government has everything in common with the previous white government – nepotism, rampant and unashamed corruption, patriarchal privilege, entitlement, terrible incompetence – except apartheid. And of course, they have this in common with most governments.

It's not unique. It doesn't mean that we aren't going to win this battle, in the same way that America moved from a nation built on a constitution written by crabby white dudes protecting their property, to a nation ruled by a black man trying to protect everyone's property. But we have to stop being tricked into thinking in black and white. Do you really want to live in a world where all white men are racists, all black men are rapists, and all Indians let off fireworks? Rather live in a world where we we can accept that people have the dubious freedom to be all those things at once, and allow ourselves the freedom to fight prejudice and hatred on multiple platforms, rather than just the one that those with vested interests choose for us.

By the way, this isn't a call for not confronting racists aggressively and immediately. That should always be the default response, While writing this column I noticed a sad tweet from @Babs_Nyembezi, saying "it's the subtle racist remarks or gestures that are spoken politely that are the worst, because you're trapped with no way to respond". Later, she tweeted, "Always feel like a coward walking uncomfortably away with no response." That's the terrible bind some people find themselves in. Racism is so powerful a weapon, even the "little" slights (and of course, there are no 'little' slights, not really) damage someone's humanity. But after you've smacked down the racist, don't be forced to side with the criminal.

Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisroper