MY readers will recall that sometime back I promised to run an instalment tackling what — for lack of a better reference — I referred to as “politics of conscience”.
After my last instalment, a good friend told me she was sick about our incessant whining about the residual effects of colonialism and/or apartheid. Granted.
I, however, indulged my friend because I consider myself a constitutionalist and a public intellectual and, as such, I would go to the bounds of the earth to defend the constitution and its inherent regime of rights, privileges and obligations with my entire intellectual wherewithal.
A regime which includes the right to hold an opinion and the unfettered expression of the same within the bounds of civility, policy and law.
Further, I am deeply convinced that we need to have the so-called difficult discussions whenever we can, especially within the reassuring confines of genuine friendship and camaraderie, because this is one of the most effective ways of liberating some of our sisters and brothers — from across the ideological, ethnic, racial, religious and nationality chasms — from what can be guardedly characterised as an adulatory interpretation of South Africa’s tempestuous history and contemporary reality.
Faced with the unsettling but stark eventuality of having to explain to my good lady friend the dialectics that scar South African history and contemporary existence in a way that would not alienate her while affording her a chance to embrace a liberating perspective in the sense of casting away the layered shackles — some of which we may never be conscious of — occasioned by multiple generations of subtle and not-so-subtle privilege, I opted to spend a quiet evening explaining to her what I refer to as a politics of conscience.
Part of the discussion I had with my good friend is reproduced and recreated in the ensuing discussion.
First, I gently reminded my friend about what one would call “the fallacy of political and ideological homogeneity”, which is to say the false assumption that in our kind of politics that have largely been advanced and enacted on the bases of ethnicity and/or race, there is a convergence of political persuasion and thought as well as ideological orientation among members of an ethnic group and/or race that happens to control the politics of the day and the attendant levers of the state and implied permutations of the business world.
Using concrete examples dating back to South Africa’s colonial days through to the misadventure that was the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910 as well as the aberration that was the National Party experiment with an indigenised policy of eugenics that came to be known variously as either apartheid or segregated development, I pointed out women and men of singular courage and not-so-much-courage who stood up and challenged the status quo that oftentimes was at complete odds with progressive human values.
Against this backdrop, I once again gently introduced the idea of “inherent historicity” that seems to stalk human civilisation(s).
Simply stated, it is the idea that human civilisation seems to follow a cyclical pattern where moments of madness — be they economic distress and/or social and political anarchy — are followed by moments relative calm and progress — be it in the form of economic prosperity and/or surpluses in democracy and its attendant rights, privileges and obligations.
Some sages of yore referred to an “invisible hand” especially when referring dynamics attendant to societal economic infrastructure.
However, any diligent student of political economy will tell you that the hand under reference does not only manipulate the market but — and further — its actions often cascade into the political realm.
History has repeatedly shown that women and men who resist the temptation of conformity and the false comfort that the lull of the status quo affords society are the levers that move the muscles of the invisible hand that determines the political and economic destiny of human societies.
Still on the idea of historicity, I asked my friend why anyone would be tempted to imagine that South Africa’s democratic transition virtually arrested the notion of historicity to the extent that there will never emerge a critical mass of women and men who would be ready and selfless enough to challenge the status quo when things went wrong on this side of our democratic adventure?
I ventured to wonder why anyone would think a society like South Africa that is highly politicised through centuries of civic activism would fail to produce women and men who would only owe their allegiance to their goodconscience and be willing, to paraphrase former president Nelson Mandela, to — in our time and space — recommit to the idea thatthe entrenchment of a constitutional democratic state is an ideal they are willing to pursue and if need be give up their lives for?
Finally, I observed that there seems to be an emerging critical mass that is aggregating toward what can only be called a politics of conscience.
In this regard, ANC councillors who repeatedly defied party instructions would fit this description and so are Agang SA activists who have openly said what we all knew is wrong with and in our society.
Oddly, some in the Economic Freedom Fighters would also fit this description, especially when they match their word with deed.
I am also persuaded that every political party and formation has these women and men — often in frightening minorities — committed to a politics of conscience.
That said however, any attempt at understanding how the supposedly invisible hand keeps moving the giant chessmen that are people and their societies across what is the giant chessboard human civilisation(s) the past is indispensable; thus our incessant whining about the past.
Is all this friendly banter between friends?
Maybe, but no one has ever bet against history and won.
Not as yet.
● Dr Munene Mwaniki is a senior lecturer/researcher at the University of the Free State. You can follow him on Twitter @munenemwaniki.