/ 27 April 2022

OPINION | The catalytic prospects of hopelessness

Graphic Iman Kzn Instagram 1080px
(John McCann)

For days, the heavens opened and the waters rose in KwaZulu-Natal, so strong and insidious that even the buried were unmoored from their final resting places. Whole families were consumed by the deluge and the sounds of grief and wailing were drowned in the roar of the water. 

Homes were relocated to new addresses, swept off their weak foundations, and the body count mounted. Heroic community members, volunteers and rescue personnel put their lives on the line in terrible conditions to save others and recover the dead.

In the devastation that followed the ark of accountability lay empty and marooned. An act of God is deemed the chief culprit but experts say  the real reasons for the exponential loss lie closer to neglected drainage infrastructure, unmanaged and/or unfit human settlements, and inadequate or poor risk assessment and disaster preparation.

And, once again, South Africans’ resilience is applauded and summoned to help to weather the storm. This resilience is powered by a brand of hope that things will get better. Open-ended, indefinite hope however, doesn’t fix drainage, doesn’t make muddy water drinkable and it sure as hell doesn’t resurrect life. The call for this type of hope is a poison in our cup.

For most South Africans, going back generations, hope — for better treatment, for a better life — has been as much a part of our make-up as the blood in our veins. In the freedom struggle, in the post-apartheid struggle, this mindset has been the biggest constant in our journey. 

Hope has been massaged into our pores and our psyches, willing us to be its servants — even its prisoners. When it really comes down to it, in the face of all adversity: What does hope do for us? Ask the enraged, mourning mothers and fathers of Durban’s uMlazi and Ntuzuma townships, who in their soaked grief and despair cursed the years spent hoping the promised infrastructure that would protect them from all the harm and hardship they endure would someday come to pass. 

Hope lulls us into a slumber in which morning never comes and keeps us in an accepting loop of darkness. We are programmed to hope for the best. Our eyes are transfixed in a search of every gloomy cloud’s silver lining, distracted from looking down to see the seething excrement of broken promises and lies bubbling around our ankles, threatening to engulf us. 

Hope roots us and immobilises us with the prospect of some mysterious justice to come, so that we cannot move with enough righteous indignation to effectively dismantle the systems that bind and force acquiescence from the masses. We wait and we hope; we are disappointed — and still we hope.

Each day we drink and sup at the trough brimming over with the hollow promises of politicians and failed institutions to create a better life for all. Yet those promises are matched by failure or mediocrity. Scandal, fraud and dysfunction run like sewage from more and more corporate and state-owned buildings. 

We are groomed to rejoice in the stories of the few extraordinary souls who miraculously escape from poverty or adversity, those who “make it”. We buy the lie that greater numbers could be just like them if they willed it hard enough, believed it hard enough, worked for it hard enough and hoped for it hard enough. 

You come to believe — no, are made to believe — that it is the fault of the “failed” that they became mired in their sprawling, overcrowded geographies. But when the cataracts of hope are excised from our eyes, we see the truth. We see a world mostly designed to keep the masses under-educated, with limited access to opportunity, blocked from progress or drunk on endemic aspirant culture. A culture that builds thirst for the things a person will lie, kill or steal to have or become. 

Our society eulogises hope. Libraries bulge with sermons dedicated to keeping us inebriated with the wine of its virtue. Keep looking to the horizon, sip; keep praying for change, sip again; just keep hoping and serving the mindless work loop and the kingdom of prosperity will be yours. Sip some more. Then pass out in the alley of futility and start again tomorrow.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s famous sermon of hope is encapsulated in the oft-quoted line: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” As scholar Jacob Levy reflects, King later offered a different approach: “Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively.” 

As I reorient my understanding of that rousing call, I learn more and more that action is required to force things to bend toward justice. In that spirit perhaps a first useful step is to see open-ended hope’s opposite — focused hopelessness — as a catalytic agent.

Now, in our culture, hopelessness has a bad reputation. We are judged negatively for expressing it; cautioned that it leads to pain, fear, and confinement to a prison of paralysis. And yes, there is a lot to be said about how once hopelessness takes root you run the risk of feeling disempowered. 

But hopelessness, when we avoid succumbing to its darker emotional reaches, can be a liberating force. By connecting to it, by welcoming the laceration of its sharp edges, the pain of that experience has the potential to galvanise us into action with potentially better outcomes. Hopelessness does not have to mean helplessness; in fact, hopelessness — the abandonment of open-ended hope — it can be argued, frees those who embrace it from the helplessness that many who live in hope truly feel.

Hopelessness can be a fuel more flammable against the reality of what greed and selfishness has wrought in our society. Perhaps if we reject the spittle-propelled gospels of cleaving to hope and choose our dissatisfaction; realise the awful truth that the only saviour is individual and collective agency, then a different outcome can be achieved. And this attitude does not have to threaten life — only the comfort of those who benefit from hoarding and who sponsor the messages that defang the disenfranchised. 

Hopelessness has the potential to take on a different meaning in a time of the grotesque and perverse preservation of exclusive privilege. For many of us, sick of feeling like we’re stuck in a perpetual déja vu of empty robo-call promises of change, it can be a liberating and empowering force. It can reveal the hollowness of platitudes that delay or dilute activism for change. It can be transformed into a battering ram against oppressive socio-economic structures that we have been lulled into accepting. 

So, as the messages of hope rain down on those who have lost, reconsider whether you want it.  Freed from the holding pattern that open-ended hope can create, we might have a real fighting chance to wake up activated and use hopelessness as a transformative agent. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.