Monday 12 June 2017

Seeking Reformers

Torture by Kevin (DJ) Ahzee
Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
Unity has a mixed reputation, in South Africa.  It was under apartheid that the motto ‘unity is strength’ became the tool of exclusion.  Yet even under our new constitutional democracy, with the motto ‘Working together we can do more’, unity became an illusion.
Today we find ourselves with different kinds of unity: political party unity, religious unity, and cultural unity. Yet rather than uniting us, these ‘unities’ exist in menacing tension, and instead of being united, we seem isolated. Furthermore, as the contours of these ‘unities’ have become more apparent, they have revealed parallel power structures in our society:
  Political party unity has promoted ‘party first’, and cadre deployment.
  Religious unity has served religious leaders, who have consorted with political power, and
  Cultural unity has divided society through tribalism.
Over time, each of these unities has polarised us into captives and captors, and united us in bondage. Our ‘unities’ have become what I shall call ‘civilised oppression’. The dynamic is simple, on the surface of it. The major tool which is used to secure our captivity is patronage. Patronage is the support, encouragement, privilege, or financial aid that an organisation or individual bestows on another. It indicates the power to grant favours – but also, importantly, the need to seek them.

Underlying this dynamic, at both extremes, is the cancer we call greed. This greed then becomes institutionalised, and oppression, in the words of Iris Marion Young, becomes ‘embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutions and rules, and the collective consequences of following those rules’. Chains and prison cells are a mere shadow of the chains and prison cells of mental oppression such as this. ‘The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor,’ wrote the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, ‘is the mind of the oppressed.’

Since greed is embedded in each of us, and this greed has become institutionalised, we cannot eliminate the attendant oppression by getting rid of rulers or by promulgating new laws – because oppressions are systematically reproduced in the major economic, political and cultural institutions. To make matters worse, in the words of the American social psychologist Morton Deutsch, ‘while specific privileged groups are the beneficiaries of the oppression of other groups, and thus have an interest in the continuation of the status quo, they do not typically understand themselves to be agents of oppression’. They, and we, are blind.

Contrast this now with the fact that we do, in fact, live in a constitutional democracy, with a bill of rights and the rule of law. People have lost the will and the desire to insist on law because they are cowed through the dynamics of patronage. Despondency has increased – or rather, our leaders have increased our despondency – as the dynamics of greed have gained the upper hand. Iris Marion Young describes our oppression ‘as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions that are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms’.

The cancer is within most of us. Now where do we look for restoration? Our greatest need is for Reformers who will press for merit systems, insist that lawmakers respect the law and find strategies to eliminate patronage. They will seek unity under one constitution, one bill of rights, one law. However, this cannot be done by Reformers who do not have the cure for the cancer. I believe that freedom will flourish, citizens will emancipate themselves from mental oppression, and patronage won’t be the big elephant in the room, as soon as we implement this cure.

It is time to turn our house into a home. Find a cure for the cancer. Seek knowledgeable and principled Reformers who won’t give society the cold shoulder when symptoms of the cancer are identified even in them. Now is the time to act on the diagnosis of the cancer, and take the medication that will cure us. Those who are controlled by the disease need to repent and find their way, instead of being sidetracked by patronage.

Also by Sifiso Mkhonto: Breaking the Myth of Equality.


docmartincohen said...

Well, I believe you are seeking to offer a path to a better society, Sifiso Mkhonto, but doesn't everyone in politics claim to be doing something similar? I read the references to rooting out a social cancer as a dangerous metaphor, one which quickly dehumanises poltical opponents and supresses contrary views. It's too quick to condemn 'greed' too - for greed is also a legitimate, indeed a fundamental, part of human experience- in other societies it is protected as the fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness... Even fighting against 'patronage' is a mixed crusade, for yes, rotten states everywhere spread by the corruption of appointments and the trampling of merit - but so too are states reformed. A good leader has to impose the new rules on a damaged system, it cannot mend itself.

But underneath these differences, perhaps we share many important things: the desire that polticial leaders act for their societies, not for their particular clique or faction, and that diversity and debate be allowed to produce wiser, more just outcomes.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I appreciate Sifiso's analysis of ... call it our 'unity of corruption'. The problem goes deeper than government. It is rooted in a total social dynamic, in which we are all involved. It lies in each one of us, and may be summed up as 'greed'.

While it may be dangerous to refer to a 'cancer', the post suggests that this cancer is found in all of us. This is the broadest kind of cynicism. At the same time, if everyone saw it this way, I think solutions would draw closer.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Dear Sifiso,

Contradiction is innate to human being, which offers this characteristic as an anthropological phenomena. I just wondered, whether this word, contradiction, would not hand a key to expose your thoughts.

Keith said...

As a general principle, it’s manifest that nations that abide by the ‘rule of law’ are a good thing. But as you point out, it’s often not enough. Many nations have constitutions that read impressively, ostensibly offering a noble array of individual freedoms — of speech, assembly, religion, the press, due process of law, petition of the government, and on and on. But truth is in the doing. For some nations, such seemingly honorable constitutions are travesties — deceptions, giving the appearance of liberal societies but that in reality are hollow. The exclusive, jealous power centers of such societies blithely disregard their constitutions and act capriciously, feeding the beast of chronic self-interest — in part, what you define as ‘greed’. However, powerful reformers — those with vision, articulateness, integrity, inspiration, leadership, trust, self-sacrifice, ability to capture the imagination of the public — are few. And are themselves usually flawed in ways — which makes them all the more relatable. Reformers are best if they rouse the public to petition and demand change of their institutions — leading to the liberal melding of, on the one hand, personal freedoms (human rights) and, on the other hand, the fair rule of law (justice). A dynamic tension, at its best, that can serve as the catalyst for sought reform. Alas, all we have to do is look around to see how seldom that’s achieved.

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Yes they do. Martin, we do share many important things. Just outcomes bring unity in a diverse society.

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

This is certainly a heart issue for each individual. As a collective, how should we practically deal with it? I agree fully with Martin that we need just outcomes. What would you propose Thomas Scarborough?

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

Hi Tessa, not as of yet however I would like to read on your assumptions of my thoughts.

Sifiso Mkhonto said...

A powerful reformer has the ability to self-destruct however as you have highlighted their values they give confidence to the despondent.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

I think we do not have good political literacy or good political education. More specifically, an indigenous political literacy. This would include such things as the two-sided dynamics of greed, which you highlight.

I remember a cartoon book which made an impression on me long ago, about liberation theology, although I do not much like liberation theology. It was printed in German, with red and black ink, and conveyed, fairly simply, the central concepts of this often complicated theology.

Where is our political education, apart from the noise and dust and confusion from day to day? Perhaps we need something like that cartoon book, to systematically teach 'the principles of social life' as Yves Simon called them.

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