Where Have All Poppa’s Heroes Gone?

Propaganda is flooding the media at the moment, exploiting the violence which has been troubling large areas of South Africa. This propaganda takes two important forms. One is to denounce the present government as evil and incompetent for not preventing the violence, and arguing that therefore the present government must be removed and replaced by Jacob Zuma, who has, with his team, done nothing positive in the crisis. Another is to denounce South Africa as evil and corrupt, following the lead of the foreign media who hang their own anti-African xenophobia and racism on the violence. Because the “rainbow nation”/”ubuntu” propaganda construct which the media engendered has been shown to be a lie, the media declares that this proves that every positive aspect of South African life is a lie. Hence we should all emigrate (the media naturally speaks only to the rich and largely to the whites).

This is disgusting, but that is unsurprising. Disgust is the proper emotion with which to respond to most journalists across the world. However, it is also unusually irresponsible. These journalists live such sheltered lives that when they see a bloody conflict which endangers the fabric of our society, their responses are to try to weaken the authority of the state, and to attack the self-respect and communal confidence which hold our society stable. They do not really believe that they live in the same country where horrible things happen. Perhaps, emotionally and financially, they do not.

What holds a society together is shared values. Certain behaviour is held to be improper. Certain acts are considered to be the right thing to do. If nobody respected any codes, society would disintegrate; not all the police in the world could patch together a nation determined to fall apart (and how could the police hold themselves together without a code of conduct on which to base their self-respect?). Often these values make up a collective value-system which is usually mythological in structure. Symbols related to that mythology are respected and often their empty form is more important than their substance — but the act of respecting symbols identifies one as a person who shares the values and follows the codes.

Does South Africa really possess this? The violence does not necessarily prove that we don’t. When thugs are on the rampage people understandably fear to stop them. When unpopular people are attacked even sensible people sometimes get sucked into behaviour which they would normally regret. Rioting of this kind is not unique to South Africa, although understandably the media likes to pretend that it is, for political purposes. But it is worth asking why the cultural bonds holding our society together appear to be so weak.

On Ntaba ka Ndoda (the Mountain of the Elders), a hill between Keiskammahoek and Dimbaza, anyone can see the problem of imposing codes and values by fiat. On top of the mountain is a spectacularly ugly concrete structure supposedly meant to represent the horns of a bull. Here the Ciskeian National Day was supposed to be celebrated, with schoolchildren brought from all over the Ciskei to worship at the national shrine under the auspices of the divine President-for-Life Lennox Sebe. Here is the War Memorial of the Ciskeian Nation, and apparently there were once other monuments, too. But the War Memorial lies in fragments, the other monuments are empty plinths stripped of their pathetic tiling, the shatterproof glass which fenced the concrete off from the onlookers is shattered, and the building has been systematically looted and defiled.

In truth people did not want the Ciskei to be a nation. It had no meaning for Xhosas as a nation. Instead, to them it signified repression, corruption, dishonesty, violence, thieving and a false oligarchy who were really the puppets of racists outside its borders. No wonder they trashed its monument.

Recently, a monument was put up to commemorate the Duncan Village massacre in 1985, a massacre too easily forgotten. It seemed appropriate; a statue of a Xhosa warrior, symbolising the indomitable spirit of Eastern Cape people who were not defeated by the guns and clubs of the police. However, someone almost immediately broke off the warrior’s spear, presumably to sell to a scrap-metal dealer. Then locals provided the excuse that this was done because the warrior was a Zulu. (Of course the warrior was not a Zulu — he wore a characteristic Xhosa headdress — but the locals don’t like Zulus and so they declared that the statue was an affront to them.) People were trotted out to declare that they had not been consulted. (It turned out that not a lot of people had attended the public meetings.) In the end, the whole notion of a monument to a half-forgotten but terrible crime against the poor people of the Eastern Cape was flung down and pissed upon by people who saw nothing better to do than to attack other people’s efforts without doing anything themselves.

Does this mean that the anti-apartheid struggle enjoys no more legitimacy, any more, than the Ciskeian pseudo-state? It would be tempting to think so. If so, of course, then the government also enjoys little legitimacy for the same reason. If this is the case, also, it is not going to solve the problem, to replace an urbane sophisticate with a goatee, with a shaven-headed bumptious charlatan, however much the press (who are predominantly owned by the same people who own Zuma) say it is so.

“Patriotism” may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but something like it is essential. The trouble is that it cannot be imposed, as the Ciskei shows. Nor can it simply be urged on without any meaningful justification. The AIDS pandemic, for instance, shows clearly how it is almost impossible to change sexual practices even though people are perfectly aware that certain sexual behaviour leads to a vast danger of transmitting the disease. People know it’s wrong, but it’s more convenient (and supposedly more fun) to be wrong. Likewise, South Africans’ behaviour on the roads; people routinely speed, drink and drive, wander along the middle of the road with their backs to oncoming cars on blind rises — how can they be so foolish? Because they know better, but they do not really care; they do not truly think that the laws, or even the rules of sane behaviour, apply to them.

How can this be changed? We are told that we have a wonderful Constitution. However, the Constitution applies only to rich people, who can go to the Constitutional Court and claim their Constitutional rights. We have a marvellous system of traditional communal living which supposedly lies behind a set of codes which prevent people from misbehaving towards each other — but nobody takes this seriously, and the system of initiation of children is simply a way for crooks who call themselves initiators to pick the pockets of the rural poor; no wonder it leads to no real change of heart. We have the Western democratic values and social codes, but these have been disintegrated and undermined by the revelation that in large measure they don’t work, and indeed never did. We have the Afrikaner tribal tradition, which still exists, but now seems to be used as a deliberate tool by corporate neoliberals to foster a convenient racist attitude, an anti-black paranoia, and thus encourage Afrikaners to tear down the state which they helped to create. None of these is going to help us in the years ahead.

In contrast, what is coming is an atomised capitalist anti-community where divisions grow rather than shrinking. The love of emigration among the rich is paralleled by the violence against foreigners among the poor; both are signs of a general refusal to accept that we live in a society where such behaviour is not helpful. Corporate and bureaucratic corruption among the rich and powerful matches the crime wave among the poor and downtrodden. It is a low-intensity war of all against all. Kurt Vonnegut oversimplified when he said “The winners are at war with the losers”, for he forgot that the winners are also at war with the winners, and the losers with the losers. We cannot actually afford to live in a society like this, and yet this is what we are having built around us.

But it is impossible to go “back to basics” in a conservative sense. Conservatism will not save us from radical plutocratic capitalism, and this is only partly true because most radical plutocratic capitalists are nominally conservatives. More importantly, conservatism is based upon traditions which are no longer believed in because social structures no longer sustain them and hence these traditions no longer benefit anybody. They depend almost entirely upon social pressure which arouses precisely the kind of nihilistic resistance to authority which neoliberalism feeds upon. Not for nothing is it called neoliberalism; it has at its heart a determination to be free from responsibility for others — effectively, to have as much freedom as one can buy for oneself.

So, what is needed is to reconstruct social bonds on more meaningful bases. And this — you saw this coming, the Creator is sure — means, on a social level, socialism. It means developing the notion that mutual aid is more desirable than greed, and that (at bottom) being nice is more productive in the longer term than being nasty, however much nasty enables you to swagger around with a .357 under your jacket and a necklace bearing your first name outlined in tiny diamonds. It means showing respect for each other on every score, even showing respect for people you disagree with or don’t like or think is a danger to humanity. It means, however, providing channels through which that disagreement can be meaningfully expressed. It means democracy, and sharing the wealth, and refusing to accept the divisions of society on a basis of race, class, gender or any other basis which is irrelevant to collective need and individual capacity.

Could something like this be offered? Perhaps it would be difficult. After all, a great deal of support for socialism relies not on these positive issues, but rather on the negative issue that socialists hate and despise the rich — especially those who have become rich without effort. Socialists hate and despise the authority which the rich exploit and distort. Hence it is easy for a socialist to be glad when authority breaks down, even if the socialist is incapable of making productive use of the breakdown. That, surely, is the key to making socialism successful; generating a productive ideological structure, a way in which we can build up a truly socialist morality in terms of which we would behave towards each other as individuals, and as part of a collective greater than ourselves but which we would serve because the collective also served us as individuals.

This is not impossible. It seems to have existed in much of Russia in the 1930s, if Platonov’s Chevengur is anything more than a fantasy. It was vaguely babbled about even in South Africa with the Masakhane campaign, which was, however, dishonest at bottom, and failed. Elements of it were hinted at in some of Mbeki’s rhetoric and in a submerged part of the propaganda around Polokwane. It could be brought together.

But it would require one almost supernaturally difficult task. It requires that politicians reconstruct public trust in them by being faithful to their promises. It requires democracy and humility and willingness to listen from its participants. I see little or no sign of that in today’s South Africa. Maybe it is too much to ask.

But if it is, very possibly our society will not survive the terrible crises which are surely coming within the next couple of decades.

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One Response to Where Have All Poppa’s Heroes Gone?

  1. […] Jump to Comments In a piece tagged “doom and gloom” The Shrieking Man writes about what one can only call the moral degeneration in South African society, which he […]

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