Ray Hartle | People of South Africa must look back to go forward again

None of us can predict with any degree of certainty how our lives might turn out from one moment to another.

We choose actions every minute that might have immediate, long-term implications, while sinking into intractably circadian rhythms of chores and obligations, benefits even. At any moment our mortality might be brought into sharp relief.

Often we’re brought to a point of stocktaking our life – considering, changing, advancing, or not.

Almost two years ago, I suddenly found my life winding down, rapidly and inexorably, to what could soon be a silent, breathless, full stop. A weak heart muscle, which I had lived with for most of my life, was failing quickly, pumping at only 10% of capacity.

I was permanently admitted to a hospital ward. Waiting – to die, or for a donor heart to give me another chance at life.

With the help of medical professionals, I had to radically review my former life. To the extent that my heart illness was a result of poor lifestyle choices, I had to adopt better, life-affirming options. I was blessed to receive a donor heart – someone died that I might live. My body, restored, re-started.

In his book The God of Second Chances psychotherapist and Presbyterian minister Erik Kolbell uses the Latin prefix re- as in rebuild or reconnect or reiterate, to show how Christian faith often emphasises “going back”.

Restoration of humans – to God or just simply to one another, to their physical environment, to themselves – are at once acts of going back and commitments to moving forward, returning to a former state to envision a new one.

What holds for our personal, private selves is also true for our social, economic and political beings.

Community as living biological multi-cell, even as multi-organ human body, is well-rooted in social studies, philosophical discourse and religion.

Becoming acutely aware of my own physiology, enduring pain, coming to terms with near death, accepting life-changing treatments, I’ve increasingly come to appreciate the human body as a prism through which to view the body politic.

Restoration of South Africa in a post-Jacob Zuma era therefore cannot simply be about booting out Zuma and his state-capture cabal. Rebooting our country’s political system requires returning to a former state (pun intended) to envisage a wholly different order.

But how far back do we need to go and how much do we need to retrieve to enable us to re-imagine the future?

The manner in which we’ve got to this opportunity of rebooting is in itself significant. It involved many individuals and organisations who previously abdicated their progressive activist roles because a democratic government was installed. We retrieved our best selves from the 1980s, as liberation movements in exile and disparate groupings of people on South Africa’s streets.

We had lost that – after the ANC and PAC were unbanned, with Robben Islanders being released, when exiles started returning and even Nelson Mandela was finally and wholly free – simply gave up our rights and duties to be active citizens from below for what we wanted.

We simply accepted what was handed down to us from above by “the leaders”.

That was stupefying. Up to 1996, we prematurely and wrongly assumed that an elite assembly of leaders drawing up one of the best theoretical expositions of rights in the world was sufficient to bring about a shared set of values that reflects South African-ness in a post-apartheid era.

We need to have renewed conversations about what binds us at the southernmost part of Africa. Until then, activism was defined by non-racism, non-sexism, non-sectarianism, an openness to shared objectives despite class divides.

We need to re-discover a humanity which does not embody crass identity slurs.

Shortly after South Africa’s turn to democracy, a close friend suggested to me that it would take our country at least 30 years, equivalent to one generation, to re-create itself properly out of the social disaster that was apartheid.

At the time, I told her she was being unnecessarily pessimistic. I said it was quite simple, we knew what we had to do and we would turn things around in no time at all.

I argued for South Africa’s exceptionalism, that we could even skip a few of the torturous steps that other countries had perforce traversed in overcoming the effects of their own dark age.

She was certainly no Afropessimist, simply a realist. And, having endured unimaginable horrors during the racist pogrom unleashed by the Nazis when the Germans overran Poland at the start of World War 2, carried infinitely more understanding of brokenness and restoration in her pinky finger than I had in my whole being.

Four-fifths of a generation along democratic South Africa’s journey, it turns out my friend was partly right. We now know it will take much longer than 30 years.

Very few of us in 1994 may have foreseen the wrong turns South Africa’s body politic would take. But our paltry 24-year journey through democracy presents critically important, albeit painfully expensive lessons, if we really are committed to restoring our country.

I hope that our country looks back and grasps this second chance to re-imagine our future.