Empathy as a political value: now more than ever


Families of psychiatric patients who died after being transferred to NGOs from Life Esidimeni are holding a healing session on Saturday.

It may be time for those of us who live in South Africa to remind ourselves of the importance of empathy, again.  Too often the ability to imagine oneself into the life of another is dismissed as a sentimental approach in a world of realpolitik.  Empathy (understanding another person, or trying to) is mistaken for sympathy (sharing another person’s emotions, or feeling pity for their plight), which has its own importance and ought not to be devalued either.

In this week, several South African public officials and those employed in state-owned enterprises appeared in various judicial processes.  The spectacular failure of empathy on the part of many of these individuals, who are among the most highly-paid employees in this country of income inequality, constituted its own spectacle.  It would have been merely tragic if it were not also so ugly.

The appearance of the former MEC for Health in Gauteng at the Life Esidimeni arbitration tribunal is a case in point.  Qedani Mahlangu began her testimony by outlining her history as a political activist, followed by the shambles around the statement that she indicated would be her testimony in chief. It was difficult not to think of her as hiding behind lawyers rather than merely taking legal advice, such was the bathetic opening hours of her testimony.

When asked questions of clarification by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Mahlangu seemed unable to move beyond self-protection.  This in itself was understandable: why should she be the scapegoat in a tragedy in which we are all implicated, and in which several other people were complicit?  However, one had to wonder who was advising her to take this tack.  Under cross-examination from lawyers for families of the deceased, things went distressingly off piste.

In attendance were family members of some of the more than 140 mental health patients who had died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy.  Ordinary people, poor people, who had entrusted the state to take care of their relatives in the wealthiest province in the country were there to hear the explanations she could offer.  They had sat for months listening to the horrific details of what had happened to the people they loved but could not care for themselves. Now they had to sit through her defensive and self-exculpatory responses: she did not know, it was not her responsibility, and basically, she was merely the politician unaware of the administrative chaos she presided over.

Had she imagined how those bereaved families would receive her statement, and her demeanour and conduct in response to cross-examination?  If she had done so, perhaps a more contrite, less evasive and self-exculpatory approach to questions may have been appropriate.  Instead, she came across as a defensive politician primarily serving her own interests, rather than a person capable of imagining how her words and actions would be received by people whose wounds were still raw, and many of whom still have no answers about what happened to their loved ones.  And while appearances can be deceiving, in political life they often obscure substance.

Anoj Singh’s seemingly deadpan delivery in his appearance before the parliamentary portfolio committee seemed equally baffling.  Of course, it must be daunting to face tough questions about what you knew and when, and about what you did and when, especially in the embroiled and embroiling corporate chaos which seems to be Eskom.  However, and more importantly, people in positions like Singh’s earn enough money courtesy of tax payers to afford professionals who could advise them that demeanour and perceptions of attitude are as important as self-protection. The law is important, yes, but so is decency, even if only its appearance.

Surely someone told the officials they must try to come across as sympathetic, rather than uncaring, or arrogant, or defensive, or worst of all, impassive and indifferent?  However, to respond to such advice may require someone in Singh’s position, or Matshela Koko’s, or Brian Molefe’s, or any of the other people who had had to account for the crises at Eskom over the last decade, to imagine the feelings of millions of ordinary South Africans who do not earn the millions they do, but who have still had to deal with the consequences of their decisions and actions.  Remember load shedding, recall electricity tariff hikes, and do not forget the lay-offs.

But empathy also has to be a political value for the rest of us, not just a requirement of public and civil servants, or people employed in state-owned enterprises reliant on tax payers’ contributions to the fiscus.  The golden rule should apply universally.  And in these days of manufactured outrage sweeping across social media platforms, the necessity of imagining ourselves in the other, not just as the other, may be essential for the health of the body politic of the post-millennial post-apartheid Republic of South Africa.

Think of the pupils of Horskool Overvaal, who seem to have been erased from view in the political stand-off in which the school itself is the centre.   What is it like to be fourteen, sitting inside a school while adults gathered outside threatening one another, as the smell of burning rubber wafts into the classroom?  Or are the penalties for the sins of racism attributed to the fathers and mothers to be visited on the children?  What sort of morality suggests such collective punishment, insisting on reading people as ineluctably members of groups crudely defined? Some of us are only too familiar with the consequences of such collective punishment, especially here in South Africa, and only too recently, and still.

In the wake of the judgment against the Gauteng Department of Education regarding Overvaal, much rage was vented in public.  Judge Prinsloo was reduced to being an Afrikaner, and illogically, this was seen to be synonymous with being racist.  Have we so fully erased Bram Fischer and Ingrid Jonker from consciousness?  Despite a carefully delivered judgment, the argument was replaced by denunciations based on skin colour and surname.  The irony: in the same case an official was accused of using surnames to place pupils in schools, having assumed a name is an index for someone’s mother tongue.

Afrikaans, the language of Black Consciousness poet Adam Small, and the medium in which Hein Willemse helps us make sense of our world, has been reduced once more to a language of white oppression in an act of spectacular historical amnesia.  How tragic and ironic that in the same week, at the funeral for Keorapetse Kgositsile, a tribute read on behalf of his wife included an intimate and endearing sequence in Afrikaans.  This is no apologia for white supremacy or racism, but if reducing a language to a set of Christian nationalist historical distortions and counter-factual errors of understanding is tragic the first time round, then the repetition of the same by those dehumanised by the former a generation later is farcical.

Along with our refusal of empathy comes the ugly act of erasing realities.  Can we exercise some empathy and ask ourselves what the many different reasons may be that children want to be at a particular school, to learn in a particular language, and not reduce everything to crude categories?  Bessie Head once cautioned against such categorical thinking, because "with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all".  And that would be the true tragedy, the triumph of colonial and apartheid thinking, having been interpellated by those who suffered most from those crimes against humanity.

In these turbulent times, when political tempers are flaring and our suffering past and present can be so easily manipulated, it may be important to remind ourselves of the political value of empathy.  It may help us navigate through the days of fury and outrage towards a political dispensation in which our dignity as human beings does not require the dehumanisation of others.  We are better than that, but sometimes we need a reminder.  If we require this from our elected officials, we must demand it of ourselves.  If we insist that we are not people who cannot imagine the pain of others, we ought to start behaving as if we are not the only ones capable of being pained.