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South Africa: finding our way

October 17, 2007

I wrote in my previous post about how we have lost our way as a country, lost our narrative. As the San poem says, “some one has broken our string”.

 People were those who

           Broke for me the string.


    The place became like this to me,

                 On account of it,

Because the string was that which broke for me.


         The place does not feel to me,

       As the place used to feel to me,

                   On account of it.


The place feels as if it stood open before me,

    Because the string has broken for me.


   The place does not feel pleasant to me,

                 On account of it.

    Dia!kwain, San People

Here are some suggestions for putting things back together.

First, we need to recognise what’s wrong:

Our main problem is that our social contract, our relationship with each other, is broken. It’s broken between black and white because of apartheid, but also between the poor and the elite, because the poor have failed to benefit from the end of apartheid.

Very few invest anything in our society – we’re all looking after our own interests, fighting against each other. Until we can forge an inclusive, common vision of the kind of country we’re going to be, we will continue the slide into violence, broken lives and gated communities: apartheid 2.0

Our social contract is broken, to put it bluntly, because white people came to Africa, stole the land and dominated the people. By doing this, they broke down traditional value systems, and family and community life. The urban poor are spiritually broken in many ways as a result of this dispossession – ironically by white settlers who had recently experienced similar dispossession and persecution in Europe: Huguenots, refugees from the Highland Clearances, the Enclosure Acts and more.

Almost all humans are victims of this dispossession at some point in our history. It just happened to Europeans before most other people, because of the industrial revolution and the rise of capitalism, and we spread it as we moved across the globe.

To quote my favourite band:

SwansGod Loves America

“We came across the sea we’d fill,

With offal and disgust

And any object industry required

We bought, enslaved or we crushed

And now our minds are as naked as

the paradise we stripped

Our reward is our entropy

Our emptiness is our gift”

I believe this is the root of our culture’s disengagement from the planet and our headlong fall into environmental meltdown. The land was stolen from us, and it still hurts. We feel cut off from the earth, and feel only vaguely concerned that we are destroying it. It is a cultural psychological wound we need to first recognise and then begin to heal.

White dominance has been broken in Africa now, and the floodgates of 350 years of resentment have opened. But we haven’t found an alternative story for ourselves yet.

The experience of Zimbabwe suggests that you can’t just undo history. Removing productive white farmers from the land and giving it to disempowered black peasants may seem just, but it hasn’t made Zimbabwe a better place – largely because it was imposed from the top down, not out of an attempt to create justice, but to shield Mugabe from his political failings and buy support.

Rather than trying to undo history, we need to acknowledge it and agree on a shared future where we attempt to make right what has gone wrong. In South Africa, this is likely to include a fairly large scale redistribution of wealth, but this needs to be done in a way that is sustainable and creates real wealth – life, health and friendship – rather than bling.

There is a principle in permaculture to always use what’s in your environment. If you want to turn a blighted industrial landscape into a garden, conventional thinking would be that all the rubbish needs to be removed, the land regenerated and a garden planted. This is expensive, and creates a waste problem elsewhere.

A permaculturalist would rearrange the existing landscape as much as possible: use some of the rubbish for compost, use the old tyres as plant boxes, and old buildings to shelter vulnerable plants. While it might not have the elegance of the Tuileries, this is much cheaper, and it creates a space for nature to step in and do the work for you.

We need to take the same approach to our political landscape. We can’t make apartheid go away, pretend it isn’t there or undo it.

But we can transform the landscape we have, and create a space for nature to work. We can build a momentum of positive change.

A good starting point should be the Buddhist principle of “first, do no harm”. Our people are already poor. The government’s eviction of people from their homes is absolutely indefensible on any level. People have their water and electricity cut off for non-payment. If people could pay, they would. Cutting them off helps no one.

The next thing we need to do is rather old fashioned: we need to build the case for a functioning social democratic state as a starting point for real change.

First, we need to start by holding our elected officials to account – from shop stewards to presidents – and demand better from them: whatever our politics, we all need accountability and transparency, and false loyalty to the Congress tradition is only going to make things worse.

We need to build transparency in politics. We need to build a sustainable infrastructure: a working rail and road network, public transport, a postal system, affordable and functional telecommunications.

We need a health service, and education – including lifelong learning opportunities for people who missed out on education first time around.

This all costs money, but that’s not the real problem. We have material resources, they are just not distributed fairly. The problem is a lack of political will, a lack of commitment to creating some kind of just, shared experience in South Africa. We can work on this together, unite around a new freedom charter. There are enough of us committed to this dream to make it happen.

South Africa is the world in microcosm. We have the rich North and poor South within spitting distance of each other. The consequences of our actions are immediately apparent to us. If we can get it right, we can provide a model for the healing of Africa and other victims of imperialism.

There are many people in the developed world who are conscious of the injustice done to Africa, and they would like to help put things right. They have the resources to make a huge difference. But they need partners in Africa, not just people with open hands, but people who will use opportunities to make things better, to find locally appropriate solutions to the challenges we face.

We can be those people.

To conclude, here’s a positive perspective from Findhorn on the results of the financial crisis the world is experiencing:

The image is of the waters of globalised economic activity dropping (in the face of steadily rising energy prices) to reveal initially isolated islands but eventually whole archipelagos of islands of sustainable models that currently lie just below the water-line. These are the community-owned agriculture and renewables schemes, the farmers’ markets, the alternative currency systems, the earth-based eco-education centres, the closed-loop waste-recycling businesses and so on that folk are currently working on up and down the country.
This is a time not for despondency about powerlessness in the face of the prevailing ugliness and waste – but for excitement at the shape of the new emerging from below the waves.

There are plently of people building alternatives in South Africa – these are going to become more and more important. Let’s combine our resource, and not lose heart.

We’ve pulled off miracles before.

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