The law, like the suburban American house, is designed to order a particular pattern of relationships, many of them oriented around the heterosexual nuclear family. For real people in contemporary circumstances to inhabit the house the law built, one has to find side doors and discreet corners, while the dominant space changes little and the façade remains unaltered. The two big L.G.B.T.-rights Supreme Court victories that came before Bostock—Windsor and Obergefell—did exactly that: they carved out a place for monogamous same-sex couples who want to marry (statistically, these are more apt to be white middle-class people like the plaintiffs) in the house of the American nuclear family.
The response to the Eric Miyeni debacle has been depressing, to say the least. Predictably, all kinds of claims and counter-claims have been made, often dividing along racial lines with some defending the racial generalisations of Miyeni (either directly or indirectly), while others saw this as an opportunity to express their prejudices about black South Africans. It is as if the Miyeni debacle has become a Rorschach test of people’s prejudices and obsessions.
How can we understand this phenomenon?
The French philosopher and literary theorist Jean Francois Lyotard first suggested back in 1979 that one way to understand the world around us is to identify the often invisible or unquestioned “grand narratives” which are produced by specific cultures or societies to make sense of the world. In a modernist world, Lyotard argued, such narratives operate as great structuring (metaphysical) stories that are supposed to give meaning and make us understand all other events and interpretations around us.
These “grand narratives” are grand, large-scale theories and philosophies of the world, such as the progress of history, the knowability of everything by science, and the possibility of absolute freedom. Lyotard – writing from a late twentieth century Western perspective — argued that in the so called postmodern Western world people have ceased to believe that narratives of this kind are adequate to represent and contain us all. They have become alert to difference, diversity, the incompatibility of our aspirations, beliefs and desires, and for that reason postmodernity is characterised by an abundance of micro-narratives.
But it seems to me that it is still rather handy for those of us living in the so called post-colonial global South to think about the way knowledge gets produced and ordered with reference to grand narratives. Because it is impossible to make sense of all the available information we are exposed to by focusing on each event and each piece of information afresh, we tend to deal with this information overload by discarding some facts and ideas and by fitting other facts and ideas into existing grand narratives. Although many of us might not even be aware of the existence of these grand narratives, we are slaves to them, because these narratives help shape our understanding of the world and the people and events in it.
One can argue about the mechanisms through which such grand narratives are produced. One may also quibble about whether such grand narratives are actually necessary tools to help us understand the world or rather a handy mechanism through which the powerful and dominant groups in society maintain their hegemonic position and achieve the subjugation of other cultures and societies.
But it seems to me that much of the disagreements in South Africa — disagreements about race and redress, about corruption, about the origins of injustice and the ways to deal with it, about the ways in which we talk about criticism of black politicians — stem from an adherence to different grand narratives by those, on the one hand, who punt Western, liberal, race-blind, free market values and those, on the other hand, who punt a kind of race-based nationalism and the importance of redress and/or revenge.
Those of us trying to find a radical middle way between these two extremes — usually by punting the struggle for social democracy and concerns for justice, economic equality and an anti-corruption stance, married to demands for the protection of individual rights to free speech and the right to be different — have a difficult time being heard and especially listened to because our ideas cannot rely on the support of strong grand narratives.
In South Africa there are two particularly dominant but fundamentally clashing grand narratives that vie for overall dominance.
On the one hand, there is the narrative influenced by a long history of colonial domination of Africa, a narrative of “darkest Africa” and “venal natives” who “cannot be trusted”, a narrative informed by the deeply ingrained fears which have been instilled at mothers knee with dark whispers of the Mau Mau and Dingaan, a narrative that has been informed by the insecurity experienced by the once dominant colonial minority.
This is a narrative that suggests that Africa is a basket case and that most Africans are corrupt, untrustworthy and lazy. When Julius Malema is reported by City Press to have taken bribes to secure tenders, this information can easily be slotted into this grand narrative. The news merely affirms what we are all supposed to know already — even if those who embrace this narrative are now often politically too savvy actually to speak of their beliefs in such a crude manner. Instead, sophisticated adherents to this grand narrative now often speak about their fears and prejudices in code — by bemoaning “dropping standards”, by wailing about “rampant crime”, or by complaining about how corruption hampers service delivery.
Miyeni probably got irritated by this response which he saw in the exposure of Malema’s alleged corruption, but instead of writing an intelligent expose of this attitude, he veered over into hate speech and a seeming condonation of corruption.
Former President Thabo Mbeki had a very special knack at identifying and exposing this specific and seemingly dominant grand narrative which he believed most (if not all) white South Africa had engraved in their DNA. This he often did to good effect to show how those in the thralls of this narrative always seemed to manage to fit every small bit of information about South Africa’s black population into a larger story about Africa’s supposed hopelessness and the alleged venality of Africans. He was less successful in pushing back against this narrative because he was far too thin skinned and defensive, so he often abused his insights in an attempt to discredit or deflect valid criticism of himself or his government.
That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Mbeki is still so revered by many South Africans despite him wanting to cling to power and despite his almost tragic displays of self-hate and insecurity. Although he often correctly pointed out that many South Africans (who are mostly but not exclusively white) still discard good news stories about their country and the continent and grabbed onto the negative stories to fit them into their own grand narrative, he often went too far by using this insight to try and deflect attention from uncomfortable facts.
For example, there is no crime problem in South Africa, he famously said, suggesting that those who complain about crime did so because they were racists. Given the fact that poor and black South Africans are more severely affected by violent crime than most middle class white South Africans protected by private security firms and their wealth, this move went too far and discredited his analysis to some extent.
A second grand narrative, which I have often written about and relied upon — at least partially — is the one informed by a specific understanding of our apartheid past. This narrative focuses on the injustice of the apartheid past and the dehumanising effects of the system of racial oppression which denied black South Africans access to opportunities and robbed them of their dignity. According to this grand narrative we can understand much of what is happening in South Africa with reference to race and racism. It’s a narrative informed by the stories — at first whispered to avoid persecution by the apartheid state, now loudly proclaimed by even those who had no part in the struggle — of a heroic and noble anti-apartheid struggle led by the ANC against an evil apartheid regime.
This is the narrative that focuses on the past and turns away from the future. It is nurtured by a keen awareness of the past and ongoing injustice in our country. In its more extreme forms this narrative is fed by a (legitimate) grievance and the memory of past and ongoing racial prejudice and discrimination and evidence that there are pockets of fantastic wealth in the white community as well as evidence of the ease with which most white people seem to inhabit their skins and embrace their assumed privilege and superiority.
When City Press reports that Julius Malema has a secret trust fund into which corrupt businessmen pay large amounts of money in order to secure Malema’s assistance with tenders, when Afriforum then lays a charge of corruption with the police, when commentators then point out that these allegations — if true — constitute corruption and that if Malema does not sue the paper for defamation he is really admitting guilt, then those (like Miyeni) in the thralls of this second narrative often discard the possibility that Malema might be stealing from the poor. Instead they ask questions about the motives of those who exposed the alleged corruption and argue that it all forms part of a larger narrative to discredit black South Africans and to keep them under the white mans heel.
Those of us in South Africa (black and white) who think of ourselves as progressive — who believe in social justice and redress, in individual rights, in democracy, in freedom and equality, in trying to live ethical lives no matter how impossible that may seem — are perhaps trying to be postmodern in a modernist world. We want to punt many small micro-narratives and we are trying to get people to listen to and embrace the variety of stories about ourselves and our lives. We want to embrace complexity and nuance in a world that thrives on simplistic generalisations.
Like Jacob Dlamini did in his book Native Nostalgia, we want to tell stories that humanise our lives and particularise it without airbrushing away the past and ongoing injustice around us. We believe that every individual has his or her own unique story to tell and that we can learn something from listening and hearing that story. We also believe that every individual must be judged as an individual and not as a symbol or as a representative of a racial or language group. We believe that individuals have moral agency independent of their race or their other identity commitments.
We hear Judge President John Hlophe’s story and we do not see a black man being hounded by white people but a tragically flawed individual who should not have been appointed to the bench. We consider the story of Hansie Cronje and we do not see a tragic white hero who was tempted by the devil but rather a flawed and very human person who got caught by his own greed.
We view our country and its people in optimistic terms, but we also want to be hard-nosed about facts. We think that principles like honesty, truth and freedom are important. The problem is that our view is being drowned out by the other master narratives. The Eric Miyeni’s and the white racists – not morally equivalent but still two sides of a coin – hog the public debate and leave those of us who want to see the emergence of a more just South Africa – no matter whether this requires us to criticise or expose as corrupt either black or white leaders or demigods – high and dry, caught between two types of racial essentialism.
Does a respect for the human dignity of all and the possibility of moral agency (and the responsibility this entails) for every South African not require that we begin to question and expose and resist these master narratives whose proponents are leading us down a path of absolutes which rejects complexity and nuance in favour of easy but wrong answers? Maybe there is a radical middle after all and if there is, is it not time that those of us in the radical middle take back our country from the demagogues?BACK TO TOP