Daily Maverick, 21st February 2023
CRISES bring out the best of us. But once they are past, we are often left with the worst of us. COVID 19 is case in point. It was the worst public health crisis in living memory and we were asked – especially in South Africa – to do things that we would never have normally done.
We were told to obey – and we did, as the days turned into weeks and then months. Our lives were turned upside down; we had to work from home, teach from home, live form home as our civil liberties were radically constrained to contain the spread of the virus.
We did not question, instead we dug deep within to find the resolve to make sense of this new normal and dug even deeper to show compassion and generosity to the many who had less than us – often far less - so that we all might make it through the ordeal together.
And then it was over.
The threat passed and we became complacent. It’s is not a unique phenomenon. Many of today’s generation accuse their parents of becoming complacent after the democratic dividend of 1994; apartheid was over, the country was free – and yet 25 years later it still wasn’t free at all, still enclosed in the spatial and geographic boundaries and still, to a certain extent, presided over by the same social and psychological strictures.
Their parents, say today’s generation, dropped the ball. They became complacent and accepted 1994 as the end result, not as a milestone on the greater long walk to freedom that Nelson Mandela espoused. Today, there is a tendency to believe that since we are no longer in any danger of a zoonotic virus, we can just settle back into a version of the new normal which in many cases blends the worst excesses of the old normal with the selfishness of the new.
But the truth is we are still in danger – mortal danger:
We are beset by crises; there is an ongoing electricity supply crisis, we are in the middle of the climate crisis punctuated by extreme weather events, from storms and flooding to baking droughts. There are wars – in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Crime is a crisis. Unemployment is a crisis. Governments are in crisis; economies are in freefall.
We are literally spoilt for choice for something to focus on as an existential crisis. But this smorgasbord is so vast that it has become overwhelming, so the increasing response of people is to retreat, in the old South African way to make a plan, to avoid the reality of the decline, and simply disengage.
But we dare not.
COVID 19 showed us in more ways than one just how interconnected we are and how we all have to work together to get to the other side. Collaboration, whether observing the onerous state restrictions or finding ways to live and work from home, was key. But with the passing of that crisis, working from home is no longer the right tactic when it comes to regrouping and focusing on the new: that of a failing economy and a state at its own existential crossroads.
We have to get together; starting on the shop floor, around the water coolers and in the boardrooms to work through one another’s pain and find ways of helping each other cope, while holding other parts of the community to account. Cynics ask what the point is. The answer is simple. If we do nothing, we are guaranteed that nothing will change. Ultimately everything will collapse because it is a delusional fallacy to pretend it can self-correct. If we do act then there is a chance that we can change this trajectory. But we cannot do it alone.
We cannot recover from the current polycrisis without working together, without finding or common purpose and channelling it into something around which we all coalesce. We need serious conversations about the planet; about inequality; about unemployment; about crime; and yes, about Eskom. We cannot afford apologists either, the crisis we face is not one that can be wished away nor ignored from behind our walls, our homes powered by solar and fed by JoJo tanks.
We need to speak about this massive hydra-headed crisis that affects the entire world, but threatens to engulf us here in South Africa. But we can’t do that shielded by the barriers of our phones’ touch screens. Real activism is robust and physical, it can never be remote and abstract – not if we are serious about sustainable change. But equally there is never any reason to give up and pull the laager closed around us. We have seen the damage fake news, bots and propagandists can wreak in times of crisis like the pandemic.
What helps me cope is to take a look at the pioneering art of Tim Noble and Sue Webster (http://www.timnobleandsuewebster.com/dirty_white_trash_1998.html) and remember Barry Johnson’s work on polarity management.
Noble and Webster collected six months of their rubbish as well as two stuffed seagulls. They arranged it all on the floor and then shone a light on it. The shadow that this heap of rubbish created a picture of two people sitting back-to-back relaxing over a cigarette and a glass of wine. How you want to interpret the juxtaposition of those two images is entirely up to you. For me, it shows me over and over that life is all about your perception of it. The rubbish is always there, but if you don’t fixate on it and instead work through it, we can get to the happy part at the other end. The art work reminds me that life is imperfect, because we ourselves are imperfect and it is only in the struggle for perfection that we can actually make a difference and improve our surroundings.
Johnson’s work is about looking at the interconnectedness of opposites; confidence v insecurity; consistency v flexibility; generosity v selfishness; strength v weakness. We need bits of each to succeed, because too much of one without the other is disastrous. It’s like breathing, you can’t just breathe in, you have to breathe out – and then breathe in again, otherwise you die. We have to get back to work and we have to get out from our semigration behind the zoom screens. We have to connect. We have to ask the hard questions and we have to be prepared to listen to the even harder answers and we have to work together.
If we don’t collaborate, we might survive as individuals for the moment, but we won’t thrive in the long term. The only way to do that is to focus on them with the same unity of purpose and sense of mission that we showed two and a half years ago – and that our forebears did almost 30 years ago ridding us of apartheid. As in both those cases, the long walk to freedom depends on us taking the next step, together.
There isn’t a convenient shortcut – or a mute switch on a tablet screen.
This article was first published on Daily Maverick.