The flag of South Africa
Only connect. This is the cryptic epigram at the start of EM Forster’s Howards End (1910), a novel about the multiple fractures which marked British society at the start of the twentieth century. At the start of the twenty-first century, on the other side of the equator, South Africans may well wish to heed that dictum.
Economic inequality and corruption are linked, and not in some easy causal relationship. The pauperisation of the Black majority is not explicable as the consequence of nature or accident. Many conservative political elements playing in the progressive light in post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa propose analyses of the contemporary and discount this fundamental truth. We are an unequal society by design, and over centuries. And even in the post-1994 settlement, we have not done enough to unmake the past, and remake the present and the future
Corruption, poverty, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, and the class warfare against the poor fuelled by economic inequality and in some Satanically vicious cycle, fuelling further inequality and pauperisation. And it does not help us any that we seem to have compartmentalised our troubles into neat categories. We are, after all, a people dedicated to categorisation, debased children of Linnaeus.
No aspect of the world is ever neatly contained or limitable to whatever neat scheme we humans hubristically insist on. Our troubles, made by us, are no different. Some of us imagine a neat schism between the past and the present, even as times past bleed into the long vowel of horror which the present feels like, especially given the last week in South Africa. We hope to ward off the evil eye, imagining the poverty, the violence, the horror will be kept at bay. It won't, it is not being kept at bay. We are no longer 'a land apart', and all the measures to take us back there are doomed to fail, if for no other reason than the unsustainability of how we live here and now.
Some among us continue to insist that old ways of seeing our world – that country of messy divisions now misremembered as neat organisation – are truthful because commonsensical. That is lazy un-thought, politically unproductive, and morally corrupt. The immorality of elements in our political disorder is not unrelated to the inhumanity of our economic structure. Additionally, our social crisis is hardly incomprehensible. Those of our political leaders wringing their hands in despair are being thoroughly disingenuous. No one can any longer claim ignorance.
We made this country, all of us who are adults, politicians, bankers, businesspeople, teachers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, voters, traders, priests, rabbis, imams. entertainers, shopkeepers, parents and grandparents, farmers: all of us. If we wish to unmake its unpleasant and destructive components, that is our work. If we wish to remake the flawed bits of this country, this post-millennial post-apartheid South Africa, it is our work, collectively, as people who live here and now.
No neatly sectioned off collection of people can do it on our behalf. We live with the consequences of having tried that before. No carefully cordoned off process in which those identified as perpetrators get to confess and then engage in atonement and rehabilitation, however public and sincere, will fix our collective woes. The fixing cannot happen elsewhere. We need to fix it ourselves, and we need to fix ourselves, all of us.
Dealing with the corruption, violence, and dehumanising people and processes is not someone else’s work. Whether it is reformation or rehumanisation of life itself, it is our work. We have all been implicated in making this country what it is, with all its moments of victory and all its debasing components of failure. It is all happening on our watch, this diseased economy of a small number of beneficiaries and a mass of victims, this political horror show which speaks democracy but practices inequality, and this social disease we live as the invisible abnormal terror of the everyday. The shame is ours. The work is ours.
Only connect what we so arbitrarily separate: the past and the present, us and them, our social ills and our economic and political arrangements, the losses and the gains, what was and what we aspire to, how we speak of and to one another and what happens to some of us in this society. If we stopped looking away from what happens in our name, if we stopped pretending we are merely bystanders, we may just begin to pay attention, and then, hopefully, do the work on ourselves and how we live.
We should get to it, without fanfare. We know what to do. It begins inside each and every one of us, here and now, and then the person next to us, and so on and so on, every day, in perpetuity. Special grand gatherings are what they are, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing they will be enough. There is a lot of work to be done, by all of us. It is how we get to be fully human: all of us, or none of us. Together.