We can’t drown out the sirens, but we must stay the course

Sirens almost always spell trouble. For the Brits and Germans in World War 2, it meant bombs were about to rain down.

For the Americans in the Cold War 1960s, it meant an imminent from-Russiawith-love nuclear rocket was about to explode in your backyard and so children were taught to take cover under their desks – the theory possibly being that if you’re about to die, closed-eyed under the desk is a better way to go than staring out the window at the fast-approaching mushroom cloud.

Sirens have been with us for centuries. In Greek mythology, the hero Odysseus escaped certain shipwreck from the allure of the songs of the beautiful Sirens, by stuffing his crew’s ears with beeswax and tying himself to the mast, so that he could listen but not be swayed.

South Africa is no different. When listening to the sirens from those on the extremes of the left and the right, any normal citizen would surely sail their ship deliberately at the rocks, simply for the joy of peace and quiet.

In the case of Odysseus, the Sirens became so distraught by someone being able to endure their songs and not “lose it”, that they promptly threw themselves into the sea. It is a lesson all South Africans should hear. If we wish to build a prosperous nation we can’t drown out the sirens, but we must be resolute in not changing course. Or keep our beeswax handy.

If you take a sail through the dire straights of Facebook and Twitter, the sirens to the left and the right quickly hear your approach and turn up the volume on their boom boxes (an ancient portable music device).

These are some of the top hits you’re likely to hear: “Who’s your South African?”

On the extreme left, the song goes that every European needs to pack their bags and “tsek” back to Europe.

On the right, the Boere are an endangered African species and the United Nations needs to send a peacekeeping force pronto, before we have another Battle of Blood River.

Both views ignore that thing we call a constitution and which says South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

The next hit song of the sirens is “whose land is this really?”

Prompted by the parliamentary decision to review Section 25 of the constitution, the right maintain the (rotten) apartheid chestnut that this was “empty land” when the settlers arrived, and that the Xhosas, the Zulus, and the rest arrived after Jan put foot on Cape Town’s beaches.

On the left it’s clear – white settlers stole the land from black people; through guns and treachery this land was taken from black ancestors.

Again, both conveniently ignore that there can only be two claims when deciding who South Africa belongs to.

The archaeological and historical evidence is clear: other than the San, everyone else migrated to this southern tip of Africa – first the Khoekhoe, then the Bantu, then the Europeans and, most recently, other African (and global) citizens. So either it belongs to the San – if “who was here first” is the criteria – or South Africa belongs to everyone crazy enough to live in it.

Another song, similar to the inane piped music of lifts and shopping malls, is “which migrant brought the gift of civilisation?”

It’s one of the right’s favourites – us white okes brought clothes, writing and awesome technology like surfboards and the wheel (so you guys should actually be eternally grateful or you’d still be walking around barefoot and semi-naked). The more modern version of the song being “colonialism wasn’t all bad”.
The left sing about genocide, about germs, about how only the settlers came, saw, extracted the diamonds, enslaved the locals, created the evil of apartheid and now want to live in peace and harmony in their high security complexes while ordinary South Africans starve.

The uncomfortable truth is that the world of our ancestors was both a bloody and humane one, in which as often as might was right, sometimes people actually liked each other and just got on with life.

No-one is free of blood on their hands and it’s a trap of hindsight to divide the world up into neat “us” and “them” sides in which our side owns the moral high ground. The truth is fortunately more complex.

A very hip tune among the youth at the moment, if one listens to the fall-out from the recent documentary in which Mama Winnie supposedly exposes Stratcom operatives masquerading as journalists and the UDF is seen to abandon her, is a number called “eat ourselves”.

The extreme left have now Googled who was in the UDF at the time and, in McCarthy witch hunt mode, cry out for every name on that list to prove that they never had it in for Winnie.

Journalists and community leaders who were jailed for fighting apartheid now face having to prove their struggle credentials to young upstarts who were not there at the time.

The right, in turn, create an impervious boerevolk laager, in which the night of the long knives is upon us – white (Afrikaner) people are now subject to genocide and a systematic destruction of their culture, and any dissenting voices, any voice that dares suggest the emperor has no clothes, is immediately branded a traitor to their people and bullied or beaten into submission.

Both sirens conveniently ignore that people are human – they have capacity for good and bad; that diverse societies like ours are complex; that history always paints in broad brushes.

That truth is not owned by one person, or one party, but is an outcome of (authentic) dialogue in which everyone gets to share their hurt, their trauma and their hopes.

In the focus on the songs, the bit that’s often missed in the telling of how Odysseus silenced the Sirens is how the Sirens came to be locked into songs of destruction in the first place.

The legend has it that Hades (the god of the underworld and brother to Zeus) fell in love with Persephone (the daughter of Zeus: god of heavens/thunder, and Demeter: god of nature/harvest), but her mother, Demeter, wouldn’t have it.

So Hades abducted Persephone and the Sirens were meant to stop him/find her. They failed and were banished by Demeter to their islands, apparently taking revenge for their disgrace on passing sailors.

But long story short, Persephone (associated with Spring) is central to the Greek myth of seasonal birth and death: had she not been abducted, the cycle of life would not have been initiated.

The story of the Sirens is the story of South Africa in which the hope of democracy is our Persephone, and Hades is the harsh reality of the world post-apartheid.

It would appear that our democracy has been temporarily abducted (necessarily so). Our sirens who were complicit in its abduction by their inability to stop reality are now doomed to seek revenge on those who listen and stray.

The only way to end the song of the sirens (beeswax being but a temporary solution) is to listen to the sirens, but to tie ourselves to the mast so that we’re not distracted from our course.

Our “mast”? What else but our constitution and our common humanity?