The Debating Society

It was a tweet by Jonathan Jansen the other day that dragged the phrase to the surface of my mind, from where it had skulked like a prehistoric coelacanth in the deep-sea trenches of mordant recollection.

That’s it, I thought. We are, in essence, a debating society. ‘We’ being South Africa.

Jonathan is one of South Africa’s public intellectuals, one of the few on the left who was willing to cast aside the rose-tinted spectacles through which we viewed the world in 1994, at the dawn of democracy. The uproar he caused, amongst the virtuous and righteous, at the publication of his influential article critiquing the education reform policies of the new ANC-led government as ‘symbolic policy,’ meaning policy that was about the political optics of change, not change that actually made a difference to the lives of real people, resonates still. If anything, the gulf between rhetoric and reality has grown only larger as the years have worn on, and the rainbow has dimmed, and the promises have corroded, and the rats and mice have come out of the woodwork to gnaw on the very fabric of post-apartheid society.

The tweet in question was innocuous enough, mild by Jonathan’s standards, touching on the touchy subject of the Covid-19 vaccination. For context, as you may or may not know, the South African government has been heartily assailed, from both ends of the political spectrum, for its dithering and dilatory attempts to acquire and then roll out the vaccines to a population that has been hard hit, to put it mildly, by the pandemic. To say that at the beginning of May we had vaccinated fewer of our citizens than Kenya or Ghana, or Senegal or – god help us – Zimbabwe, is to overlook the fact that, as of this moment, we don’t even know what the plan is to give everyone their jab. Oh, we know that the jab will come, in different phases for different age groups, but that is like saying that the sun will rise. Beyond these lofty assertions, all we know is that today, the first day of the second phase of the promised roll-out, targeting those over 60 (us!) there are only 87 functioning vaccination sites across the entire country, and a backlog of 700,000 healthcare workers who have to be vaccinated first. Around 4300 of the elderly, we are told, out of about 5 million, will get their first jabs today.

The country has had six months to prepare for this. So what is going on?

Here’s what Jonathan said – pithy, as always:

“Only in Mzansi. A vaccine awareness campaign without vaccines.”

To which I tweeted back, in a tweet Jonathan liked:

“Plans without implementation, policies without execution, promises without satisfaction, the list goes on….”

In the time-honoured phrase, all this would be funny, if it weren’t so awful. As I read Jonathan’s tweet, and browsed through the news stories about the roll-out that isn’t, my days with an anti-apartheid NGO in the 1980s rose unbidden, the past as prophecy. There are a hundred incidents or stories to choose from, but for some reason the task of ordering chairs for our educational venture came into focus. Picture the situation. Chairs need to be ordered, for our students, and so a staff meeting is called, and the issue tabled (no pun intended). In no time at all, the meeting has devolved into a heated debate about power and authority, capitalist relations, and who had the right to place an order, with whom at what price, and so on. When the meeting finally ended, some three hours later, with an agreement to meet again to pursue the matter further, somehow everyone seemed happy. Points had been made, rights had been exercised, democracy had, if not exactly prevailed, been publicly vindicated, politics and ideology had been aired, like exotic underwear, and in the end, while no-one had won, exactly, no-one had lost, either, and the all-important political purity of our college had been legitimated. I’m sure our students were delighted, though I can’t remember what they sat on.

I am reminded, too, of many – not all – of the officials I have known and worked with, over nearly three decades – people whose political astuteness and ideological nimbleness, whose smooth development-speak and adopted managerialism would fly quick-fingered over the melodious black-and-white keys of a non-racial and progressive administrative piano, but whose words left little behind other than diminishing echoes, before fading to silence.

So much talking, and to what end, with what outcome?

We are not, as some fantasists and storm-troopers of the proto-fascist-left would have us believe, a ‘revolutionary’ society; nor are we what one might call ‘progressive,’ despite an enlightened Constitution; we are neither egalitarian nor ‘transformed,’ nor are we as a nation (if that term still holds) especially caring or law-abiding, industrious or innovative, proactive or pragmatic. We are lots of things, certainly, and most things hold true for at least some of us some of the time. But if you have to settle on just one phrase that captures the essence of our dilemma as a nation, as a polity, it is this: we are, when there is work to be done, and there are hard choices and real changes to be made, nothing much more than a debating society.

I can’t tell you how hacked off I will be, if something happens to Rob, or to me, before our jabs are administered.

I will keep you posted.

Let me know what you think - comments and feedback are always welcome!

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