The preamble to our Constitution commits us to a journey during which we as a nation will heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights; will lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law; will improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and will build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.
The “rainbow nation” captured this commitment and invited us to fulfil the promise of the inherent splendour of this country and the beauty of its people. Once the symbol of a promising future and the resolve about things that will never happen among us again, the rainbow now seems faded and dripping with tears and blood. While we still reel from the socioeconomic impact of Marikana, De Doorns and Sasolburg and wonder where the next eruption will come from, we are stunned by the brutal rape of Anene Booysen, and the murder of Reeva Steenkamp and the sad figure of Oscar Pistorius in court. The list can be extended with more places, more faces and a variety of issues, but the point is clear: we are at a very uncomfortable place at the moment.
Where we seem to be now takes me back to Antjie Krog’s book, Country of my Skull, that I read a few years ago. The book is Antjie’s account of her journey, as a journalist, with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Although brilliantly written, the book does not make for pleasant reading. But having wrestled through it, I was left with one specific realisation, namely that a country that was embedded in division and violence for centuries will take longer than a decade or two to heal and find a different trajectory forward. Our history is still painfully with us, albeit now in different manifestations. Whenever the poor cry for justice and whenever violence strips a vulnerable fellow citizen of dignity or life itself, we are reminded that we still have a very long way to go.
In a way we seem to be a nation caught between hope and denial. Many among us seem to be hoping for the improvement of numerous things: economic conditions, job opportunities, social security, service delivery, policing, the quality of leaders, and more. Many also seem to be in denial about the severity of the remaining fault lines in our society: stereotyping along the lines of race and gender, the prevalence of male-dominated value systems and social practices, and the real size of the poverty gap, to name a few. There seems to be a prevailing attitude of “hoping for the best and ignoring the rest”. Such a disposition makes others accountable for what will be comfortable and assuring for us and prevents us from realising that we are all co-creating the society in which we live and fuelling the conditions that lead to the outbursts of frustration and violence, be it in the broader systemic social sense or in the more personal and relational domain.
Real hope, of course, is different from the type that I have described above. Real hope is restless and provocative in the constructive sense of the word. It does not let go of a promising future, but inspires responsibility for bringing it about. It is not passive in the face of injustice, but active in the creation of conditions in which the cry for justice will not be in vain. It is not satisfied with waiting on others to create a society such as envisioned in our Constitution, but moves the boundaries of the present in order to close the gap towards the dream. Real hope does not sit in the circle of the paralysed, but seeks solidarity with all who are ready to make a difference. Those with real hope live by Ghandi’s dictum of “be the change that you want to see in the world”.
If we then ponder about our slipping away from the vision and values embedded in our Constitution, where do we start to make a turnabout? For a beginning, I want to offer two possible answers, namely the language that we use and the behaviour that we reward.
Language is an important factor in this regard. The words that we use are not just descriptive of the world that is, but it also creates a world in the process of becoming. When our conversations are negative and full of blame, the future will remain the responsibility of others to take care of. When our conversations are characterised by stereotyping those who differ from us, we will not heal the racial, gender and income-related fissures in our society. When our conversations are constantly seeking our own interest at the cost of others, the ideal of a safe society will always escape us. Instead we need to recognise ourselves as citizens living with an imperative to exert a positive influence through our personal behaviour and in the relationships where we engage in conversations with others. We therefore need a vocabulary that will unlock the future for us, one that paints the future in which we will want to live. Such a vocabulary speaks of respect, empathy and solidarity. It is embracing and inclusive. It goes beyond barriers and reaches for new horizons.
Together with new language come new behaviours. We underestimate the influence of competitive behaviour and power play in our society. We get trained to win and sometimes we invest in making it happen at all costs. Competition is bound to leave some behind, to create divisions between those who can and those who cannot, those who have and those who have not, between the front of the pack and the back, between the top and the bottom of whatever scale we apply. In the process, we feed a spiral of envy and greed and we create a society in which some feel urged to protect what they have gained while others spiral into destructive protest over what forever seems to be beyond their reach. I am not arguing against advancement and progress here and I do not downplay the importance of idealism and improvement, but I do think that in our society we need to take note of the constant reminders that the size of the gaps has become an enormous risk for us.
I remember a beautiful story of a Russian author, Tolstoy if I am correct, that came across a group of boys playing a game. When he asked them what they were playing, they answered, “Cowboys and crooks, Sir.” He then recommended that instead of playing a war game they play a peace game. In the beginning they were excited by the idea, but after a while, and at a complete loss of what to do, they came back to him asking, “Sir, how do you play peace?”
If we want to fulfil the promise of our beautiful country, as stated in the preamble to our Constitution, we’ll have to learn how to “play peace”. Doing so will become possible though both the language that we use and the behaviours that we encourage. The attainment of real peace is perhaps the most ideal manifestation of provocative hope.
Prof Arnold Smit is the Director of the Centre for Business in Society and his field of specialisation is Leadership.