In 1963 James Baldwin prefaced and ended The Fire Next Time, two essays on race in America, with a lyric from a song composed by Africans enslaved in the United States: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, / no more water but fire next time!
In the Christian reading of Genesis, God “set the rainbow in the cloud” as a sign of a divine covenant that the elect, chosen to survive the flood that had cleansed the world of human evil, would never again have to confront the rising waters. But those who turned from the path of righteousness would, in a moment of final reckoning, perish in fire.
Today there is a clear sense in our society that the time of the rainbow, presented as a moment of grace releasing us all from a brutal history, is over. The horrors of outright war were averted under the sign of the rainbow, but the grace bestowed on the oppressors has not been extended to the oppressed.
This is not solely a matter of who is still rich and who is still poor. The oppressed continue to be governed by routine recourse to violence. This violence continues to be sanctioned, implicitly and explicitly, by much of elite society.
When racism has been appeased rather than confronted it has held its ground. Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State, perhaps the last public figure who continues to hold to a version of the original rainbowism, now stands in the ruins of his hubris.
More than a century after W.E.B. du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk, it still appears that on the rugby field and in the residences of the university in Bloemfontein the “police system was arranged to deal with blacks alone, and tacitly assumed that every white man was ipso facto a member of that police” (as Du Bois put it).
Those who affirm the Constitution as living proof of the rainbow covenant have to reckon with the weight of the point made by Aimé Césaire in 1956: “Equality refuses to remain abstract.” And although the jurisprudence of the Constitutional Court has often been progressive, the language of rights is a terrain of contestation on which those with most power often make their case most stridently. AfriForum can line up young white men in preparation for combat and simultaneously make its claims to privilege in the language of rights.
Taking up the crime of his country and its people, author James Baldwin wrote: “They have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
Under former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki many people took the view that, despite the degradations of the present, time was on the side of justice. But nobody buys the idea that President Jacob Zuma’s ANC is steadily shepherding us to a just future, a future that will redeem the rainbow covenant.
Unsurprisingly, there are those who ascribe the final end of the era of optimism to Zuma’s disastrous term in office. But for many others Zuma’s leadership, execrable as it is, doesn’t disguise the salience of the evident fact that, as Sisonke Msimang has recently written, “the decision to focus on peace as the founding principle of our new democracy was taken at the expense of justice”.
In the first essay in Baldwin’s book, a letter to his nephew, he takes up the crime of his country and its people: “That they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
He concludes that one must strive for some sort of philosophical detachment from this horror. But it is not, he insists, “permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”
In South Africa the rainbow may have offered a way out of war – a war that would not have been easily won – but the equivalence that it posed between oppressors and the oppressed sanctioned a fantasy of innocence that has sustained the crime. Peace without justice means that adequate measure has not been taken of the fact that we continue to destroy millions of lives – that people must make their lives and raise their children against fire, damp, shit and various kinds of men with guns in the shantytown.
It means that young people must live with the suffocating panic that comes with the realisation that there is no viable path into a livelihood and adulthood. It means that AfriForum can assume the right to police universities in Bloemfontein and Pretoria. It means that African people are frequently taken as objects of study, rather than subjects, as theorists and interlocutors, in much of our liberal academy.
It is imperative that, to borrow a phrase from a speech given by Baldwin in 1986, we “liberate ourselves from a vocabulary, which now cannot bear the weight of reality”.
But what comes next is not clear. The collapse in the authority of the ANC has not just put an end to the teleological fantasies that often functioned to legitimate many of the continuities in the deep structure of our society before, during and after apartheid. It has also created the space for all kinds of actors to stake their claims to what comes next.
The cacophony of contestation, some of it sincere and principled and some of it taking the form of increasingly crass opportunism, ranges from white revanchism to the predatory and authoritarian aspirations of the Zuma project, from traditional authority, ethnic entrepreneurs and religious hucksters to the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters and people who hope that an escalating economic crisis will enable a final affirmation of the inviolable authority of the market.
In some quarters there is a feeling – exhilarated, resigned or paranoid – that the time of fire, perhaps even what Baldwin called “historical vengeance, cosmic vengeance” is coming. The fires, metaphorical and literal, that have been burning in recent weeks are not new.
Since the end of apartheid, dissent – usually followed by repression – has spiralled from the poorer and blacker universities to the shantytowns, the mines and the factories and into the richer and whiter universities. Now that the fires are burning in the zones of privilege, there is a sense that things can shift, that they must shift and that they will shift.
The desire to, as Walter Benjamin put it, “blast open the continuum of history”, is an eminently rational response to what Frantz Fanon called “a nonviable society, a society to be replaced”. But the desire for a just society, or even the more modest goal of a society that is merely viable, is not the same thing as a politics adequate to a situation.
A recent statement from #FeesMustFall at the University of the Witwatersrand declares that: “Violence will bring an end to the world as we know it and cleanse all the evil, give rise to a completely new world where the only race that matters is the human race.”
This is a millennial fantasy inflected with a sublimated religiosity. It appears to take no account of the reality that the structure of our society is such that when politics enters the terrain of violence the people most at risk are likely to be poor and black. Protester Andries Tatane was murdered by police in 2011. Striking workers at Marikana were massacred in 2012. Abahlali base Mjondolo activists were assassinated in 2013 and 2014. We have not yet found a way, to return to Benjamin, to brush history against its grain.
The idea of a coming apocalypse, a redemptive apocalypse, has been around for a while. In some instances it is a mirror image of the apocalyptic fears that have always stalked the colonial imagination, entwined, in the deep structure of its thought, with what it opposes. Until recently it has largely been alienated from actually existing forms of struggle.
When broad mobilisations give way to smaller groups taken with millennial ideas there is often an attraction to ideas of purity and unanimity that makes sustained popular politics impossible. It can also make constructing and maintaining alliances very difficult. And when there is a collapse into an increasingly paranoid sense of us, the exalted and enlightened ones who hold history in our hands, and them, the weak and the fallen, free and open discussion becomes difficult.
Things can reach a point at which alternative views, and even minor differences of opinion, are read as betrayal when they should be part of a shared discussion within struggle. The commitment to immediacy makes strategic thinking about the long haul very difficult.
The result can be a smaller and smaller group of people pushing each other into an increasingly constrained and isolated space. In these conditions internal fractures, reckless actions and broad sanction for repression are real risks.
The rainbow is over. “A bill”, as Baldwin warned his compatriots in 1963, “is coming in”. What comes next is yet to be determined. But one thing is certain – an emancipatory politics adequate to our situation will have to take full measure of our situation, including the reach and power of international forces, build sustained alliances across the zones of exclusion and exploitation, and dig in for the long haul.
Dr Richard Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University and is also the senior researcher at its Unit for the Humanities. His new book, Writing the Decline, is out this month.