Posted by: Steve Coplan | September 21, 2006

Nostaljah

My compatriot and all-around mensch Tony Karon wrote a fantastic post some time ago about the passing of one of South Africa’s football giants Ace Ntsoelenge – Hamba Kahle, Ace. Saluting the passing of a person at a funerals in South Africa with the simple phrase of hamba kahle, or farewell (and literally ‘go well’), is a sign of enormous respect. The funeral marks the passage to the world of the shades and ancestors, with the deceased joining the ranks of those who intercede on behalf of the living. The phrase serves a public acknowledgement that the person’s actions and qualities merits their acceptance by the ancestors, and became particularly well-used during the dark days of 1980’s state of emergency at the funerals of political activists.

The post got me thinking. Tony is a few years older than me, but between his college years and mine, the inflection point came in South African society. When I arrived at Wits University in 1991, it was clear that change was inevitable and imminent. How change would manifest itself was unclear, and the possibility of widespread bloodshed was still very real. Still, the monolithic edifice of the apartheid state was obviously crumbling irreparably. For me, the worst that could happen by taking an ideological stand (or earning a reputation as radical) was social antagonization and possibly some limiting of my professional horizons. In Tony’s day, making a commitment to the struggle raised the very real possibility of staring down the barrel of a gun at some point. By the time I reached the point when my psychic responsibility could no longer be ignored, the philosophical revolution had taken place and the gears of economic transition were slowly engaging.

In many ways, I envied the headier days that preceded, like the scenes I witnessed when I was learning Italian in high school at the Wits University language labs. The cops would corner marchers in the student hall after teargassing and charging them with sjamboks in the concourse. Then the riot police would appear on the scene, crack some heads and drag off the real diehards at the front lines. Open confrontation and pitched battles amounted to real, tangible opposition for a teenager that could somehow make up for my fortunate and cosmically unfair situation. As I get older, I’ve started to appreciate the defining sense of purpose and solidarity for the sake of a noble cause that characterized that time, particularly as I struggle with the complexities of South Africa 16 years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison — a resonant image of the triumph over injustice.

As I’ve pointed out earlier, the transition in South Africa from a borderline fascist regime with backward economic policies to one of the most progressive legal systems and in principle activist governments is an achievement that isn’t sufficiently widely acknowledged. On the other hand, there are plenty of signs that all is not well and justice hasn’t quite run its course. The question is then has the nobility of the cause been diluted or forgotten and the ideals been momentarily suspended? And if so, what’s the morally appropriate response for me?

The economy in South Africa is booming and although the rewards are more evenly distributed than they were in the past (witness the emergence of the ‘black diamonds’), for many people their lives remain as desperate as they were before the end of apartheid. Taking into account the enormity of the problem and the legacy of apartheid, it is reasonable to expect that entrenched social problems will take time to resolve. Plus, economic opportunities have expanded exponentially, which ironically has pushed social issues further back on the agenda. Still, it’s not unreasonable to question the ANC’s commitment to resolving these issues and human rights in general – in living up to its founding ideals essentially. Also, how much longer can the country realistically endure Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to deal with the spread of HIV\Aids. (The latest miracle cure is beetroot.)

The Jacob Zuma rape trial exposed that the ANC has its retrograde elements, even though much of Zuma’s support is based on his image as a champion of the poor — in contrast to the patrician Mbeki with a taste for the good life.  Now that Zuma has been acquitted on corruption charges after the State’s case was dismissed,  attention will shift to jockeying for power.  Now the question I ask myself is not how I expiate my white guilt but whether I should do something to defend the progressive values that the ANC stood for in the heat of the struggle.

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