The media cycle in South Africa, for the second week of March 2016, has been dominated by the supposed influence that a very wealthy foreign family (the Gupta's) have exercised on the South African state through Jacob Zuma. There have been rumours that the President Zuma, his family and cronies, have been on the Gupta 'payroll' in exchange for political favours. This week some senior political figures (deputy ministers among them) came clean, admitting that members of the Gupta family had offered them senior ministerial and state positions (such as minister of finance), while Jacob Zuma was supposedly in the same building.
Some are calling this a capture of the state - only the President can appoint persons to such posts. If a private citizen (a member of the Gupta family) can offer to get someone appointed, then it logically follows that they have power over the President to either coerce or instruct him to make the appointment they have promised.
It does seem that there has been some clear family benefit for the Zuma's since Mr Zuma's son suddenly received a 'gift' of shares in a mine that is owned by the Gupta family - see the Bloomberg report here. Of course the 'personal favor' that the President granted the Gupta family by allowing them and their foreign guests to land without permission or papers at an air force base in order to attend a Gupta wedding was also widely publicised. Many suggest that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of corrupt activity, special favors, and the erosion of state autonomy.
So that is the background - I would like to reflect, however, on how I have read and understood the misguided media reports and public sentiment around this political issue.
Of course there have been calls from some South African citizens and opposition political parties for the resignation (or recalling) of President Zuma. In South Africa a politcal party is elected to office, the party deploys a president - as with Zuma's predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, if the person does not perform as expected the party has the right to recall them and replace them with another person.
Here is my first observation - I found it interesting that the largest majority of persons calling for the resignation or recall of Jacob Zuma are from the South Africa middle and upper middle classes. Now there are probably many reasons for this - they are the ones whose wealth is under threat as a result of corruption, economic downgrades etc. But another interesting intersection is that these persons are predominantly white. I don't hear the same urgent calls from my middle class black friends. So, I wonder if we (the white middle class) are not in some ways just as bad as the Gupta's? While they hold the President to ransom, white wealth, power (prominence) and privilege holds the nation to ransom in other ways. We see that privilege and power waning and so we, and media we control, are making our voices heard. Of course I could be wrong.
Second, I was struck by the naivite of the expectation that the resignation or removal of Jacob Zuma will solve South Africa's problems. Yes, what he is doing is problematic and harmful to our political system, to public confidence and it has economic consequences. However, I think we are falling into the trap of what Scot McKnight called the 'eschatology of politics' in his book 'The Kingdom Conspiracy':
Many fall for what I call the “eschatology of politics,” the belief that the next candidate or vote can bring in kingdom conditions.
I am of the mind that it is a naive mistake to think that the change of one corrupt politician will resolve the complex intersectional issues that we face in South Africa today. The intersection of our condition is ongoing racism, massive economic inequality, simplistic identity politics and a lack of political imagination for a possible future in which all South Africans enjoy the fruit of our beautiful land. Why is it, as Slavoj Žižek has said, that we have the imaginative capacity as human persons to creatively and vividly imagine our destruction and demise (through killer viri, natural disasters and world wars - to mention but a few narratives in popular film and television), yet we do not have the political imagination to imagine a world in which we can all flourish - a world in which each has according to what they need, and each one gives according to their ability, a world where no one person has too much while another doesn't have enough to survive?
Barack Obama used a very powerful line in his political rhetoric of his first and second campaings 'We are the ones we've been waiting for'.
It is a beautiful sentiment. What few people know is that it comes from a Poem written by June Jordan called 'Poem for South African Women' (presented at the United Nations on August 9, 1978) which commemorated the courage and commitment of the South African women and children who marched on mass to confront the Apartheid government on the 9th of August 1956 - you can read the poem here, and about the use of it in later political rhetoric here.
I think it is important that we heed these words - we are the ones that we have been waiting for! Yes, change corrupt leaders, yes, expect your elected officials, and civil servants, to work for the common good of your nation. However, in South Africa at least, the revolution of change will come when you and I start living the alternative. It will come when I find creative, tangible, and significant ways to share my privilige, to develop wealth for all, and the deal with my prejudice and ignorance. I need to live the alternative and not expect others to change society in spite of me.
Žižek once again helped me to understand how flawed it is to expect a political system to solve all of my problems - he likens it to contemporary religious participation. Let me explain. In his typical 'off the wall' style he says that America's greatest cultural contribution to the world is 'canned laughter', i.e., the kind of laughter that one hears on sitcoms on TV. He says you come home, you are exhausted, you flop onto the couch and turn the TV to your favorite sitcom. At certain moments in the comedy narrative the producers have inserted laughter as a cue - but you are so exhausted that you don't laugh. The television laughs on your behalf. And when the show is finished you say to yourself, 'That was so funny' - but you never even laughed. You have given over your responsibility to choose when, where and how to laugh. He says that religion acts in this way - we give over our beliefs. We expect our pastor or priest to do the right thing. And when we have been to Church, yet not done anything, we believe that we are faithful.
I think the same applies in our politics. In South Africa we have fallen for a false and subtle 'civil religion' - after the 1994 democratic elections we began to believe that God has miraculously brought us into a new social dispensation - the new South Africa. We had faith in it. Our Messiah was the forgiving figure of Nelson Mandela, our high priest was Desmond Tutu (and the content of his sermon was the talk of a 'Rainbow nation'), our text was the constitution, and our liturgy was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. These are wonderful ideals, but they take work, real people, sacrifices, and commitment to achieve. We cannot just give over the achievement of transformation, healing and renewal in South Africa to politicians - this is the work of citizens.
Sadly, 22 years after the end of political apartheid we still do not live in a post apartheid South Africa. We remain as divided, if not more divided, than ever. When I meet with younger colleauges, students and friends on our University campus, I can see that they have lost their civil religion (perhaps not a bad thing! If your religion is killing you with slow violence, perhaps it is time to seek a truer faith?) These young people are impatient for change. It has been 22 years and very little is different for them. They no longer trust the 'big leaders', or the 'super narratives' - they are not sitting back and letting the television laugh for them. They are taking matters into their own hands, and sometimes the intention and outcomes are positive, and sometimes they are not.
So, yes, please do agitate for political change. Please do speak out against corrupt leaders in politics and business. Make your hard won vote count.
However, please don't fall for a false civil religion - live for something bigger, something more transformative, something more powerful. Please don't give over your right to transform South Africa for the common good of all to the state only - politics can become like canned laughter, it can become a naive form of eschatological politics. As we have seen all over the world, the next political leader, and the next political party, are unlikely to be much better than the one we have.
Please can I invite you to be the person you have been waiting for? Don't wait for a change in political leadership to live with love and grace in the presence of fellow citizens. Give of what you have, cross the boundaries that divide, seek creative and lasting ways to build friendships of trust, and relationships that are deep and honest. Be willing to discover 'the other', and in doing so you may just find yourself becoming a little more human, a little more like who you are, who you are meant to be.
I'd love your feedback, insights and ideas! What am I missing? What don't I understand?