Brain Pickings Weekly (BPW), an online publication, timeously reminded me about Albert Camus’s thoughts about life and the human condition. As a former teacher of French who taught Camus and Sartre to eager A-level students in Zimbabwe, I want to use the reminders from BPW to comment on the South African condition. BPW began by evoking the reason for the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Camus for work that “with clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times.”
The era in which Camus wrote was fraught with violence, the violence of World War II and later the Algerian struggle for independence. BPW points out that in one his essays “penned at the peak of WWII, to the shrill crescendo of humanity’s collective cry for justice and mercy, Camus’s clarion call for reawakening our noblest nature reverberates with newfound poignancy today, amid our present age of shootings and senseless violence.”
I want to talk about the violence of the mind in South Africa in the light of the Penny Sparrow, Chris Hart and several other violent outbursts by white commentators at the close of the festive season, as if to remind South African society that the war for a nostalgic return to the apartheid utopia still rages within many a white bosom. Only a few months earlier, a senior member of the Democratic Alliance, one accustomed to reading volumes of material in her role as Member of Parliament, glossed over a Facebook post calling for a return of apartheid monster PW Botha and re-posted it on her account. When one thinks back to Zelda La Grange’s controversial leap to the defence of Jan Van Riebeeck, a lady who literally sat at Madiba’s feet, and the Freedom Front’s leader declaring in Parliament something to the effect that no one was here when the settlers arrived, you can forgive black South Africans for thinking that they are being taken for granted and that reconciliation has mostly been a one way street over a double decade in to majority rule. The armed struggle ended a long time ago, as did the bush war and sponsored insurgencies in neighbouring countries and there is peace in South Africa but it is a violence peace. I am talking about the violence of the mind.
It is clear that in private conversation, with the occasional public slip, some white South Africans are lamenting the loss of apartheid utopia. I do not know how large that number of people is but if this sentiment is widely held, one can start to explain why restaurant bookings are an issue in the Western Cape, black people are routinely stopped and questioned in suburbia on suspicion of trespassing, the glass ceiling in work place promotion is not only sexist but racist in nature, buying or renting a house, especially in golf estates, is a draining experiencing for black people and the high number of black engineers, accountants and lawyers who are not getting the contracts, briefings, jobs or promotions they ought to be getting by now.
Camus wrote, “We have not overcome our condition, and yet we know it better. We know that we live in contradiction, but we also know that we must refuse this contradiction and do what is needed to reduce it. Our task as [humans] is to find the few principles that will calm the infinite anguish of free souls. We must mend what has been torn apart, make justice imaginable again in a world so obviously unjust, give happiness a meaning once more to peoples poisoned by the misery of the century. Naturally, it is a superhuman task. But superhuman is the term for tasks [we] take a long time to accomplish, that’s all. If we are to save the mind we must ignore its gloomy virtues and celebrate its strength and wonder. Our world is poisoned by its misery, and seems to wallow in it. It has utterly surrendered to that evil which Nietzsche called the spirit of heaviness. Let us not add to this. It is futile to weep over the mind, it is enough to labor for it.”
Historical fact dictates that it is up to white people to display tact and wisdom. To give a couple of examples, the North London and Baltimore riots and the black lives matter movement were sparked in large part by the manner in which black people have been treated on the streets of the UK and the US by the authorities. The resulting riots cost the UK and US their image, the London and Baltimore economies their businesses and individual business owners their balance sheets. To rail against violence of the oppressed is the short sighted response. The same reasons why the ANC embarked on the armed struggle apply in any situation when the dignity of a people is impaired to a tipping point where a declaration of enough is done so in violent terms. Arrogance and continued racism are very unwise options for white South Africa and the anger of black people in response to provocation collectively via social media and calls to radio stations is plain to see.
The best and sustainable response is for big business or to use the more popular term, white capital, to go beyond BEE points and employment statistics and actually be seen to be promoting black people, on merit, in to leadership positions. Big business must get out of its cartel mentality and brief black owned businesses on huge contracts whether it is engineering, law or accounting firms to cite the few examples that are a source of chagrin at the moment. Big business might think it is naïve for me to suggest that they just hand over business. I am convinced that it is more naïve to think they can continue with the current laager mentality business practice and not expect an uncontrolled backlash. In North London and Baltimore, the disgruntled are a minority. In South Africa, they are not and they are poor, hungry and angry. It may be easy to dismiss the likes of Penny Sparrow but it only takes a few more sparks from the likes of Chris Hart, who should know better and, in time, the masses might not be able to tell the difference in their rage.
In the meantime, the ANC must not only look at legislation to punish racism for that is but a social ill. It must look to urgently address the economic legacy of colonialism of which apartheid was the most vicious manifestation. Land reform is particularly urgent and if racist South Africa will not budge, then democratic South Africa must move it out of its comfort zone and right the wrongs of the past in every sphere of the economy, unapologetically.