It has been twenty-six years since Nelson Mandela raised his fist into the air.
On that hot late afternoon outside Victor Verster prison he dragged South Africa out of one historical epoch, into another. That, at least, is the standard line which many of us rehearse regularly to explain ‘the time before’ from ‘the time after’. A watershed moment. The harbinger of new times.
The State of the Nation Address (SONA) is a report from the head of the South African state to the people of the land on the achievements of his government over the past year, and an indication of what plans they have for the coming year. Whether this is achieved is seldom really the focus of the attention many of us pay the speech.
Partly the speech itself and the events around it tend to be performed like symptom recitals. It becomes a stage where politicians and political players, some inside the formal parliamentary assembly and the cabinet, many others from the trades union movements and the various non-governmental and civil society organisation which all have their complex relationships with political power in government, get to act out a certain script for the consumption of the people.
In some respects this derives from the old traditions of centuries past. Power as pomp and circumstance, as display. The people are meant to gawk at and revel in the mostly spectacle of ceremony, and only partly as distraction from the substantial issues in and through which their lives are made and unmade in a state. It is partly why Elizabeth Windsor does what she does on her busy schedule, in her gilded coach, sometimes with delightful hats, sometimes with a more elaborate hat of condensed carbon and rare metals.
South Africa, in 2016, is indeed a state in a state. Shakespeare’s Danish prince had a phrase for this state. Things are not going well. This is not cause for apocalyptic prophesying. Those are not the hooves of the fourth horseman’s steed, we hear; it’s probably just a horse race or a polo match beyond the electrified fence. We are, after all, the most unequal society on the planet – quite an achievement, in ways George Steiner would have been intrigued by.
As we listen to the head of state diagnose the state of the nation we imagine ourselves living in, it may be useful for all of us to look around ourselves and pay attention to the conditions we ourselves actually live in. Some of those are intimate, textured, in our daily experience of South Africa 2016. Some of it requires closer scrutiny of what we pass through, and by: the lives of others. But a more critical, interrogatory examination of the material world we live in, on, through, and off, would also be revealing.
Jan Smuts Avenue in Johannesburg, a city which has long been thought the economic heart of the country, is an allegory of the unbearable weight of being in these times. We have reason to celebrate the freedoms we have made and remade since 1994. We should value those gains, and guard them. But we must not become either complacent, or apologetic for the distance we have still not travelled. In addition to the ‘unfinished business’ of the colonial and apartheid past as Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza revealed in their work, we have accumulated new challenges in the last 22 years.
Jan Smuts Avenue, an arterial road which runs from the Nelson Mandela Bridge which takes one from Johannesburg’s CBD into Braamfontein, through its leafy northern suburbs which used to have the properties of the mining magnates who made the industrial economy of the country over a hundred years ago, and runs on further north through to Randburg, is like an allegory of our state.
Travelling along this road one may encounter textures of freedom and inequality which are so unavoidable and constantly, consistently elided from view for the middle classes of South Africa. The properties in places like Westcliff and Forest Town, Saxonwold and Parktown, can be viewed from this road. So are the minibus taxis which drop off the members of the servant classes who have to maintain the coiffured gardens, entertain the children of the inhabitants of those houses, and all for paltry amounts which they are also expected to be grateful for. Skills scarcity, unemployment statistics, and such, the usual grumble from middle class subjects keen to avoid the guilt which lurks on the edges of the burden of consciousness.
By the time one hits Rosebank, the stark contrast presents itself more directly. On one side of the road, homeless and indigent people have had to make a house out of the disused bus shelter (it is the rainy season, and they are using the discards and detritus of middle class living – food packaging to keep the water out, and themselves vaguely dry). On the other side of the road, a luxury car dealership and construction for a new set of flats priced in the millions per unit.
Then, as the road winds towards Dunkeld West and Hyde Park, one passes the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung. Its neighbours are an employment agency which trains and places domestic servants, a backpackers with an elephant and a giraffe painted on its ridiculously high outside walls, and next to that, a travel agency which has on its fence an image of phenotypically white bodies in what is presumably the Caribbean sea. Opposite these a store for bathroom accessories. Bizarre indeed. The new normal for many of us. And at every traffic light, people begging for food, sometimes with placards meant to be amusing, or tragic, or to inspire pathos.
Whatever the SONA addresses in this year of drought, of food and water insecurity, of economic woes, with rumours of tax increases and budget cuts, of curtailed social spending by government, of suicidal farmers in impossible debt, of junk status and allegations of corruption, a year of racism and the backlash against anti-racism, we are more likely to get a textured sense of freedom and its abrogation, of inequality and the shame it ought to inspire, from looking around ourselves, not only listening to the report from the head of state.
In the year that President Jacob Zuma had his lawyers agree, to the highest court in the land, that he ought to pay some portion of the exorbitant cost of his private residence at Nkandla, as various state-owned enterprises continue to sink deeper into malaise, as the currency instability and the price paid for it hits pockets, as food prices sky-rocket and the energy supply monopoly insists on yet another hike in its charges, we would do well to look beyond our usual ‘woe is me’ attitude to SONA.
It may be past time to exercise empathy as a radical political strategy. In addition to thinking about how the year is likely to unfold for ourselves, especially those of us who have concerns about the precariousness of our bourgeois lives amid inequality, or those of us who think ourselves better than that by worrying about how our bourgeois lives are ultimately unsustainable amid this kind of inequality, we may need to finally listen to that Edwardian English novelist, E.M. Forster, and ‘only connect’.
This is no time for superlatives and hyperbole, but we are compelled to get beyond our intellectual torpor and our moral indolence in the middle classes of South Africa. The state of the nation we imagine ourselves living in and as outlined in the State of the Nation Address, must be judged against the state of the material locations we find ourselves situated in and moving through. And then, of course, we must act.
This is, after all, a year for local government elections. Politics and political choice are not confined to plebiscites. Diagnostic analyses of the state In the year that President Jacob Zuma had his lawyers agree, to the highest court in the land, that he ought to pay some portion of the exorbitant cost of his private residence at Nkandla, as various state-owned enterprises continue to sink deeper into malaise, as the currency instability and the price paid for it hits pockets, as food prices sky-rocket and the energy supply monopoly insists on yet another hike in its charges, we would do well to look beyond our usual ‘woe is me’ attitude to SONA.