M&G LitFest: Adam Habib on SA’s ‘moment of reckoning’

Upon arrival at the Market Theatre on Friday, one is greeted by two signs: "Keep calm and don't suspend the revolution" and "Please be patient, Main Theatre under construction". These twin exhortations – to dogged commitment to the revolution and patience in the face of continuing (socio-political) reconstruction – seemed to appropriately capture the spirit of the night.

Adam Habib, the newly installed vice-chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand delivered the keynote address of the fourth annual M&G Literary Festival. This year's festival honours the legacy of the late Chinua Achebe with its theme "Achebe’s Children: Africa’s Suspended Revolutions".

The idea of dormancy or deferral echoes the title of Habib's book South Africa’s Suspended Revolution: Hopes and Prospects (Wits University Press, 2013).

M&G books editor and festival co-director Darryl Accone officially welcomed everyone and introduced the festival, insisting its aims are "communal and social" rather than commercial. He also read Seamus Heaney's poem The Forge in honour of the Nobel laureate who passed away on Friday.

Newly appointed Mail & Guardian editor-in-chief Chris Roper briefly shared his vision for the future of the M&G. He was inspired by Habib's approach, which insists that the "academic" and the "activist" are in fact "mutually compatible".

Habib began his lecture by celebrating Achebe, a great writer who was "also a revolutionary” who "spoke for the downtrodden and was scathing of elites who abandoned them". Habib, too, was scathing of the current political and economic elite and their pursuit of "enrichment without empowerment".

In the spirit of the late literary theorist Edward Said, Habib declared his intention to speak truth "plainly to all manifestations of power".

'Declining legitimacy of the ANC'
His delivery was incantatory, as he argued for the necessity of the creation of a new "social pact" if South Africa is to emerge positively from this latest in a long history of "moments of reckoning". He detailed the "declining legitimacy of the ANC" and the increasing corruption and political factionalism which influences decision making at the highest level.

Habib listed the multifaceted impacts of Marikana especially with regards to the "collusion of the ANC and corporate South Africa". Inequality remains the biggest challenge facing the country.

Nonetheless Habib insisted that there is hope, but this hinges on the creation of a new social democracy and a social pact to which all members of society are signatories. To achieve this, imagination, maturity and the "magnanimity of the elite" are essential, he argued.

In sum, Habib claimed the reason why the revolution has been suspended, remains the inability to "moderate the expectations of the rich", failing which, it is impossible to "moderate the expectations of the poor". He remains concerned with the question of how to "give leverage to the disempowered" and to warn the political and economic elites of the urgent necessity of compromising, now, before it is too late.

Quoting political scientist Achille Mbembe, Habib concluded that at this pivotal moment in South Africa's history, we are "caught between an intractable present and an irrecoverable past; between things that are no longer and things that are not yet”; we remain "trapped in South Africa's suspended revolution". Imagination in confronting this stasis is vital for the revolution to continue.

This was a provocative start to what promises to be an exciting and enriching festival.

Habib is on the panel for the second session of the festival on Saturday, August 31 9.30am – 11am, entitled "Hopes and Impediments".

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