Death and Denial

Lecture delivered to the South African Association of Analytic Psychology  on 20 September 2016

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The opening picture depicts the scene of the weighing of the heart from the Egyptian Book of the Dead. You can see the deceased is being led by Anubis, the guardian and protector of the dead, into the chamber of Osiris, to be judged. Anubis then weighs the heart of the deceased against a feather – that is the feather of Ma’at – while Thoth, the scribe god, records the result. Ma’at is the all-encompassing concept of truth, justice, order and harmony against which the heart or spirit of the deceased is measured.

The symbolism of the image is powerful. Ammit, the devourer (part lion, hippopotamus and crocodile) waits to eat the heart if it is judged not worthy. And to be found righteous, the heart must weigh lighter than the feather of truth.

So our question here this evening is what is that feather of truth when it comes to dying? Indeed, psychologically-speaking, what does it mean to die? And why is so difficult to stare into the face of death? Why is it the we struggle so in our attempts to find meaning in death? I am sure I do not need to convince you that the most common response to the reality of death is denial, and when we cannot help but be confronted by death, overwhelming anxiety follows. Why is this and what can we do to get to the point where we are able to leave this mortal existence one day with hearts that are as light as feather?

This question is posed beautifully in this video clip of Stephen Jenkinson, founder of the Orphan Wisdom School in Canada.

I am sure we have all witnessed or felt this “wretched anxiety” that Jenkinson speaks of. I remember very clearly when I was confronted by this monster. I was helping to care for my father-in-law as he lay on his deathbed, dying of cancer. As we all became adept at the caring routine and began to accept the reality of his impending death, I felt completely calm and in control. Consciously I thought to myself I had this death thing all figured out and under control.

Then, two nights before he passed away, I had a dream, a nightmare. I was in my very first bedroom that I slept in till the age of about 12. I was in bed, it was pitch dark and I was alone. I sensed a malevolent force outside the bedroom door so I jumped up out of bed and ran to slam the door closed. But this invisible monster wedged the door open. After pushing the door open completely it grabbed me and started flinging me around the room like a rag doll; against the ceiling, against the walls, and on to the floor. I woke up shaking and drenched in sweat.

It was immediately clear to me that this force was death itself showing me that I did not have it figured out or under control!

While my father-in-law did pass away peacefully two days later and we held a beautiful service celebrating his life out of the same little country church he had been baptised in (and that I was privileged to lead) that dream is still fresh in my memory. And during the time I worked at St Luke’s dealing daily with death, I never for a moment allowed myself to take the enormity of death for granted.

The denial of death is an almost universal phenomenon. In a book with that title, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize, Ernest Becker makes a powerful argument that this denial is an inevitable result of humanity’s basic narcissism.

In other words, as self-conscious beings – that is animals that are conscious of being conscious – we cannot help but be hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. We are the most real reality to ourselves and it seems simply inconceivable that this consciousness will one day be extinguished. That is why a soldier will go into battle feeling sorry for the fellow next to him who will probably die because in his heart he doesn’t feel that he will die.

While St Augustine argued that this self-centeredness was, at root, mankind’s sinful nature, his corruptio totalis, Becker argues it is simply the evolution of an organism that has to protect its integrity. He writes:

If you took a blind and dumb organism and gave it self-consciousness and a name, if you made it stand out of nature and know consciously that it was unique, then you would have narcissism. In man, physio-chemical identity and the sense of power and activity have become conscious.

Moreover, to have a sense of self-worth and agency, to find purpose and meaning in one’s life, one has to be the hero of one’s own story – as Joseph Campbell taught so well. But few actively plan for the final act of their hero’s journey. For the very idea that the journey will end is too much to bear.

So, as self-conscious narcissists, we are stuck with an existential dilemma. On the one hand we feel we are, as the Psalmist wrote, a little lower than angels, crowned with glory and honour, and made rulers over the works of God’s hands. Indeed, that we are imbued with divinity itself, made in the image of God, inheriting God’s immortality too.

And yet, we are trapped in these mortal bodies, brother Ass, as St Francis called his body. And the person who did the most in confronting us with this was that master of suspicion, Freud. The profound truth in his theory is not his sexual drive theory – which his first followers like Adler and Jung soon realized was overblown at best and a dogmatic fixation at worst – but rather the disgust and guilt, and concomitant repression, that we feel at our physicality. Becker describes it like this:

Freud never abandoned his views because they were correct in their elemental suggestiveness about the human condition—but not quite in the sense that he thought, or rather, not in the framework which he offered. Today we realize that all the talk about blood and excrement, sex and guilt, is true not because of urges to patricide and incest and fears of actual physical castration, but because all these things reflect man’s horror of his own basic animal condition, a condition that he cannot—especially as a child—understand and a condition that—as an adult—he cannot accept.

So the Oedipus complex is not so much a sexual obsession with the mother and guilty desire to kill the father, but rather a response to the ambivalence of our animal condition – to put it bluntly, our shitting, bleeding, fucking existence. Norman Brown put’s it like this:

The essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God … it plainly exhibits infantile narcissism perverted by the flight from death.

Our basic problem then, is that we are angels that shit. Or little gods that die.

***

So we devise strategies to fend off the awareness of our own mortality and suppress the related existential anxiety. We consciously identify with our divinity and repress our animal condition.

One could argue that these immortality projects are at the root of all human religious and cultural systems, going all the way back to the ancient Egyptians with their incredible preoccupation with death and the afterlife, or the Mayans and their sacrificial systems, or the Hindu Vedas that teach about the eternal cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

At their best, these cultural-religious systems should help us reconcile the opposites of life and death, immortal and mortal, divine and human, but unfortunately distorted or immature versions of these mythic systems often end up doing the opposite.

For example, it was Jung that pointed out a central problem with the symbol of the Christian cross. The horizontal beam of the cross creeps higher and higher towards the heavens, leaving behind what he called the chthonic spirit of our animal or subterranean nature. In other words, the true Christ symbol should be a cross that is completely symmetrical. If the mystery of Christ is that he was both completely divine and completely human – a union of the opposites – then his divinity cannot be raised above his humanity.

In practice, what this means is that many Christians become preoccupied with heaven, holiness, and all the purely spiritual things beyond and outside the messy reality of their actual, physical lives. They claim they do not fear death at all for it is simply the shedding of the pesky body. But when they are actually confronted with death, this edifice begins to crumble.

I remember a family I worked with, in which the 40-year old mother was dying of breast cancer. They were very religious, and when the reality of her disease became apparent they fervently starting praying for divine intervention and healing. When her body started giving in she became genuinely delusional refusing to accept that she was dying despite the obvious evidence. Her husband, meanwhile, seemed to realize the gravity of her illness. However, when she became pre-terminal, she finally accepted the reality that she was dying, and I encouraged her to speak directly to her husband to tell him that she now knew this. Up to that point they had been unable to speak openly to each other about what was happening.

When she told him she was dying, he refused to hear it and even got aggressive. And unfortunately, his need to deny to himself what was happening became so severe that shortly after her death he had a complete psychotic breakdown.

I blame the immature and death-denying nature of the faith they had been taught.

Even the violent nature of immature religion – in which I would include all forms of fundamentalism – can be explained by this denial of death. Otto Rank wrote:

The death fear of the ego is lessened by the killing, the sacrifice, of the other; through the death of the other, one buys oneself free from the penalty of dying, of being killed.

This truth is also at the heart of the mimetic theory of René Girard, which explains how the scapegoating of the other psychologically relieves the anxiety of chaos and disorder—which at its root is the fear of non-being and death.

But these immortality systems are not just found in organised religion. Becker powerfully argues that Freud himself tried to structure the psychoanalytic community as an immortality project. Hence his anxiety when Jung, amongst others, but especially Jung his anointed heir, broke from him.

In contemporary post-religious society when people are not anaesthetising themselves with shopping, alcohol, Facebook, or prescription medicine, a common immortality system is the romantic ideal of love. That is, the idea that a total erotic union with the beloved will ensure an everlasting bond that can survive death, and therefore a measure of immortality.

And there is a partial truth here. Because the acceptance of the reality of death does lie in the union of opposites, or reuniting that which was split. But fusing yourself with someone else you think can ‘save’ you won’t do it. It is a different kind of unification we are talking about here.

***

The Franciscan priest and author, Fr Richard Rohr has written powerfully but simply about the four splits that necessarily occur as the child develops. This process of splitting and repressing – that is splitting off the bad or threatening from the good or comforting – is, I am sure, well-known to you all, especially from the writing of Melanie Klein and in Object Relations psychology. But I like the way Rohr applies it to our topic at hand.

He explains that the first split is the splitting of self from others as the infant becomes self-conscious. It is, of course, vital to the development of a healthy ego and a separate self-sense required for the conceptualisation of personal identity, but leads to what Rohr calls the masculine principle of competition and the feminine principle of envy.

The second split is splitting the mind from the body. As Freud describes so well, during the anal phase of sexual development, the child must learn to gain mental and physical control over its excretions, and this is facilitated by being inculcated with disgust towards bodily fluids and excrement. This eventually leads to an over-identification with, and over-evaluation of, the mind, and a denial of the animal body.

The third split is the separating of the good self from the bad self. As Donald Winnicott described, this leads to the development of an acceptable but false self. Or in Jungian terms, splitting and repressing the disavowed shadow from the self and the acceptable persona that is presented to the world.

And the fourth split, which in a certain sense encompasses them all, is splitting off death from life. Resulting in the myriad immortality systems I have described.

***

The overcoming of these splits, or the reintegration and union of these opposites, is what is ultimately required to overcome the denial of death. In other words, it is by fully confronting and accepting our nature as angels that shit, that we can learn to bear the anxiety of our finitude.

As I am able to let go of my ego identity and the illusion of separateness, I begin to realise not only am I connected to everything and everyone, I also contain within myself both the masculine and the feminine, the animus and the anima. In theological terms I can also say, I am, like Christ, both divine and human. It is in the tension of these opposites that my creative response to life and death lies. For as Hegel wrote, “contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality.”

Second, in realising that my true self is both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – or simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinner) as I was taught in good, reformed theology – that my disavowed shadow is as much ‘me’ as the persona I project to the world, I am able to become the unique contribution to the world that is this whole, but ephemeral ‘me’. This whole self is true to both my transcendent or divine nature, and my chthonic or animal nature. I believe this is central to what Jungians would call the process of individuation.

Third, I fully inhabit and own my body. I am my body, not just my mind. Indeed it is illness that forces most people to really become their bodies. If you ask those who work in palliative care they will tell you the biggest struggles are not just with pain, but with constipation! You spend your whole life learning to control it and keep it in, but when you are terminally ill the struggle is to let go! Psychologically-speaking I do not think that is a coincidence.

Lastly, we need to overcome the split between life and death. Death is part of life, and life is part of death. Throughout the ages, philosophers and sages have understood this. Socrates is reported to have said that, “the true philosopher practices death,” while Nietzsche wrote:

Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.

Rohr says that these splits are most often overcome or unified through either great suffering or great love. The spiritual practices of contemplative prayer or meditation certainly experientially prepare us for this too. But facing terminal illness – and this is the gift of the dying process – is often our last chance to do so.

In The Red Book Jung wrote:

The knowledge of death came to me that night, from the dying that engulfs the world. I saw how we live towards death, how the swaying golden wheat sinks together under the scythe of the reaper like a smooth wave on a sea beach. He who abides in common life becomes aware of death with fear. Thus the fear of death drives him toward singleness. He does not live there, but he becomes aware of life and is happy since in singleness he is one who becomes, and has overcome death.

And lastly, James Hillman:

…working at the death problem is both a dying from the world with its illusory sustaining hope that there is no death, not really, and a dying into life, as a fresh and vital concern with essentials. Because living and dying in this sense imply each other, any act which holds off death prevents life. ‘How’ to die means nothing less than ‘how’ to live.

***

When we can truly and experientially hold and unify these opposites, we can let go of our immortality systems. We are no longer compelled to frantically search for the hidden meaning in death. Rather, through the acceptance of death as a natural part of life, we realise that it is, indeed, death that gives life to life. Whether your symbolic representation for expressing this is self-sacrificial death and resurrection, karmic death and rebirth, or simply that you become food for worms that stimulate new, organic growth; they all express something of this free, creative and loving giving of the self to both life and death, and thus also giving meaning to our lives and our deaths.

A White Afternoon in Africa

Take me back, way, way back
To sunny summer afternoons
Riding my bike back from Groombridge Primary
And getting caught in a thunderous downpour

Before it starts everything gets quiet
Even the birds become still
And the dark column of cloud rolls over
You can feel the air getting excited with electricity

First a muted, bass drumroll of thunder
Then a deafening crack of blinding lightening
And the big, wet drops start falling
Laughing and speeding through the warm air

The shortcut through the vlei means a spray of mud up the back!
Like the time I took the corner too sharp
And got completely covered in it
Laughing all the way

And then it ends as quickly as it started
The sun bursts through again
And the earth smells warm and wet
As my shirt dries on my back

Getting home I strip off wet school clothes and jump in the pool
Filled right to the top from the heavy rain
Floating on my back looking up at the big avo tree
And then lying face down on the bricks watching the puddles dry

Chandipa leans on his spade and smiles his crooked smile
(because the police dog bit him when he walked past the burgled house)
Mai Flora hangs out the washing again
Shouting a conversation with the maid next door

Lunch on the stoep, doorstop sandwiches and Mazoe orange juice
Listening to My Gypsy Girl on Radio Three
Resting safe in the lazy and self-confident security
Of a white afternoon in Africa

Global Food Security and Climate Change

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change has just released a summary report entitled Achieving food security in the face of climate change. The following chart makes for sobering reading.

Notice that there are 0.9 billion undernourished people in the world and 1.5 billion people who are overweight! And the last figure, 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted or thrown away on an annual basis amounts to a third of all food produced.

So the next time someone argues that the problem with world hunger is over-population and that there are just too many people in the world to feed, you know what to say! The real problem is that there are more people over-consuming than there are people who are starving. And I would hazard a guess that the ones doing the over-consuming are also the ones throwing away those billions of tonnes of food (“it’s a little off, dear”).

What is also very clear from the stats is that far too much agricultural land is used for animal husbandry – 3.7 out of 4.9 billion hectares (that’s 75%!). As income increases people eat more meat so with economic growth it will only get worse. The amount of water required to rear livestock is also vastly more than for grains, vegetables or fruit. It takes 15500 litres of water to produce a kg of beef compared to 900 litres for a kg of maize or 70 litres for one apple (waterfootprint.org).

The comprehensive report details the extent of the problem and what needs to be done to address it and this is something that requires urgent attention at international and national levels:

The global community must operate within three limits: the quantity of food that can be produced under a given climate; the quantity needed by a growing and changing population; and the effect of food production on the climate. At present we operate outside that safe space, as witnessed by the enormous number of people who are undernourished. If current trends in population growth, diets, crop yields and climate change continue, the world will still be outside this ‘safe operating space’ in 2050. The situation then will be unsustainable and there will be very little room to maneuver. There are various changes we can make to either enlarge the safe space or move ourselves into the safe space. For instance, the global demand for food will increase with population growth, but the amount of food per person that needs to be produced can be brought down by eliminating waste in supply chains, ensuring more equitable access to food and moving to more resource-efficient (and healthier) vegetable-rich diets. Agricultural innovation, including genetic improvements and careful matching of crops to environments, can help adapt food systems to climate change, but not if the world warms excessively. In a much warmer world it will be impossible to even produce current levels of food. Mitigating emissions of greenhouse gases from activities related to agriculture will allow people to be fed while helping keep the global climate within a tolerable range.

But for the average person on the street the message is quite simple:

Eat less, especially meat, and don’t buy more than you can eat before it goes off!

Malema, Transitional Justice and Motivating the Redistribution of Wealth

This year South Africa has seen renewed and robust debate on questions of inequality, economic liberation, nationalization and land reform and how this relates to white guilt. An academic paper written by Samantha Vice, “How do I live in this strange place”, argues that whites in South Africa still carry a burden of guilt and shame over the apartheid past and should be slow to speak in the public sphere, especially in criticizing the current government. This sparked such a furore in the Mail and Guardian newspaper that there is now an entire section devoted to the issue called ‘The Whiteness Debate’.

Julius Malema has been less nuanced in his pronouncements and has made it clear that in economic terms land and wealth is still largely in the hands of whites and must be forcibly redistributed through nationalizing mines and taking farms without compensation. Leaving aside his motives and methods for a moment, what is clear is that he has placed economic transformation as a question of justice in post-apartheid South Africa squarely back on the table.

In light of Malema’s suspension from the ANC Max du Preez has written a balanced and helpful article:

I believe we might one day look back and say we owe Malema some gratitude because he forcefully put what he calls economic liberation of the unliberated majority on top of the national agenda.

He argues that it is self-evident that the business elite and the white middle class will need to make some sacrifices to make this economic liberation for the poor majority possible, but this will not happen if framed either as a threat from the likes of Malema or even a legislated wealth tax as politely proposed by Bishop Tutu. It is a matter of psychological common sense that people react defensively and aggressively when threatened or forced. du Preez gives evidence of this from research done shortly after 1994 in which whites were asked if they were willing to pay more for water to subsidize blacks because they had benefited from apartheid. Predictably the response was overwhelmingly negative. Later the same people were asked if they would be willing to pay more for water to help make it more affordable for poor people and the response was positive.

Appealing to people’s better nature rather than pointing out their complicity and guilt just works better. Even though it is not fair. True justice would demand some kind of acknowledgement of guilt and a change of heart (contrition and confession in religious terms). But in practice transitional justice does not have that luxury. du Preez gives the example of Mandela as a master of this pragmatic approach to achieving the goals of reconciliation, even to the point of flattering his opponents to get what he wanted.

It occurred to me there is another, theological, reason that justifies an approach that appeals to the perpetrator or beneficiaries’ better nature rather than naming and shaming them – even if this does not immediately satisfy all the emotional needs of the victims. Conventional Christian wisdom is that you need to confront people with their sin and when they become overwhelmed by their guilt they will break down, confess and turn to God. In practice this rarely works (how many people do you know that had a genuine change of heart – metanoia – after a hellfire and damnation sermon?) and it was generally not the modus operandi of Jesus himself. What Jesus often did was to show grace and acceptance to sinners first and then invite personal reflection and honesty (classic examples being the woman at the well who had been married five times, the lame man dropped through the roof and the adulteress about to be stoned: “your sins are forgiven, now go and sin no more”).

The psychology of this is that our defenses (and self-deception) are not easily breached under attack. Rather when we are surprised by grace and acceptance we are disarmed and the cognitive and emotional dissonance creates a space where we can let down our defenses and for a moment become honest with ourselves. Especially if it is our enemy or victim that is showing us the grace. If they can accept us – or at least treat us as humanely – despite our guilt, then maybe we can accept ourselves?

What this could mean in reconciliatory terms in South Africa is that as the rich and the white (mostly overlapping categories, but not necessarily) are encouraged to share what they have out of care and concern for the poor, and not just from a distance but up close and personal, they will begin to ask the question: why am I rich and they poor? And with little effort it will begin to dawn on us: I am rich because they are poor and that makes us both less human. Then reconciliation as the restoration of justice can begin.

Debt and anarchy: the roots of Occupy Wall Street

There is a great article in Bloomberg Businessweek about the anarchist anthropologist, David Graeber, who is a behind-the-scenes (anti)leader of the OWS protest movement. It really helps to explain the genesis and method of the protest movement. I found the following part of the article particularly interesting, which explains Graeber’s argument regarding the problem of money and debt, and why it is not human greed (what I would call the ‘total depravity’ hypothesis about capitalism) that is the root cause of inequality in capitalist societies, but how and why money emerged as a medium of exchange and distorted more ‘natural’ and egalitarian human, economic relationships.

Graeber’s problem with debt is not just that having too much of it is bad. More fundamental, he writes in his book, is debt’s perversion of the natural instinct for humans to help each other. Economics textbooks tell a story in which money and markets arise out of the human tendency to “truck and barter,” as Adam Smith put it. Before there was money, Smith argued, people would trade seven chickens for a goat, or a bag of grain for a pair of sandals. Then some enterprising merchant realized it would be easier to just price all of them in a common medium of exchange, like silver or wampum. The problem with this story, anthropologists have been arguing for decades, is that it doesn’t seem ever to have happened. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” writes anthropologist Caroline Humphrey, in a passage Graeber quotes.

People in societies without money don’t barter, not unless they’re dealing with a total stranger or an enemy. Instead they give things to each other, sometimes as a form of tribute, sometimes to get something later in return, and sometimes as an outright gift. Money, therefore, wasn’t created by traders trying to make it easier to barter, it was created by states like ancient Egypt or massive temple bureaucracies in Sumer so that people had a more efficient way of paying taxes, or simply to measure property holdings. In the process, they introduced the concept of price and of an impersonal market, and that ate away at all those organic webs of mutual support that had existed before.

That’s ancient history, literally. So why does it matter? Because money, Graeber argues, turns obligations and responsibilities, which are social things, into debt, which is purely financial. The sense we have that it’s important to repay debts corrupts the impulse to take care of each other: Debts are not sacred, human relationships are.

Gaddafi and Mugabe: lessons in leadership and accountability

Looking at the events in North Africa and the Middle East one inevitably wonders whether the Arab Spring is going to migrate across the Sahara and inspire sub-Saharan Africans to rise up against the yoke of the many dictators that still exploit and brutalize their populations. David Smith writes in the Guardian that this is unlikely to happen, especially in Zimbabwe.

Eddie Cross, member of parliament for the MDC in Zimbabwe, and an old family friend, also addresses the question in a recent letter. He does not so much answer the question as argue that Mugabe and the many sub-Saharan dictators deserve a similar treatment. I have taken the liberty of pasting Eddie’s letter in its entirety below.

 

 

Leadership and Accountability

Recently we have had a spate of incidents where countries have removed incumbent leaders in often violent circumstances. The Ivory Coast, Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya; the images are graphic, leaders in cages being judged by the Courts, leaders being dragged out of their hiding places and manhandled by troops and citizens and finally the graphic images coming out of Libya.

I do not think that this is the way to change governing authorities but one has to sympathise with the people of these countries who have lived under repressive and authoritarian regimes for many decades. Perhaps, many would say, they had little alternative, they had tried persuasion, appeals and campaigns to no avail. There is little doubt that the Libyan authorities would have used brutal force to hang onto power had they not faced overwhelming military opposition.

But it is not just the manner of them going that is at issue here, it is the legacies they left behind. Broken, divided, impoverished countries with weak institutions and little or no systems to hold leadership of any sort accountable. Do not for one minute imagine it is going to be easy to replace these repressive regimes with new, more accountable and democratic ones.

But it goes beyond just the broader issues of governance; it also involves financial questions, often on a scale that is almost unimaginable. Mobutu in the Congo used the Reserve Bank as his private bank and siphoned off from his desperately poor and broken country (up to 10 million people have died in the Congo over the past decade from conflict, hunger, poverty and
preventable diseases) an estimated $5 000 000 000 into bank accounts around the world. It was a sum that was equal to the National Debt of the Congo and only $350 million has been discovered and recovered.

But by all accounts, the leadership of Libya, a small country on the Mediterranean that is mostly desert with oil under its sands, accrued the astonishing sum of an estimated $100 000 000 000. I show the noughts because you only understand what sums we are talking about when you see them like this. Link this to the life styles of the elite in these regimes, the luxury homes, the aircraft, the cars and other symbols of power and influence. You get a glimpse into what life has been like for these tyrants over the past decades.

There are plenty of examples of regimes where such looting of State resources is continuing – in Angola it is estimated that the elite there steal a third of all oil revenues – amounting to several billion dollars a year. Recently the daughter of the State President of Angola came to Harare and was wined and dined. She controls a massive business empire built on the capital of these funds purloined at the expense of the people.

But the main thing that astounds me is the almost complete absence of any morality or accountability, even sense of public service, in these regimes. It is all about wealth and power and if they have to stamp on the rights and even the basic welfare of their people to get there, they will go to almost any extreme to maintain their positions. What good was all that accumulated wealth to the leadership in Libya last week? Stripped naked, shot and dragged through the streets, not a shred of dignity or respect and little prospect of anything beyond a hard pallet in a refrigerated container in the desert.

I am sure there was little sleep in certain quarters in Harare that night. The regime here started out with such promise and hope. They had fought a long war to get control of the State, finally it was theirs. The struggle totems had been many – I recall a reply by Ndabaningi Sithole to a question from an elderly pastor “What does a boy need to become the pilot of an aircraft?”, he replied with one word and it cut through that meeting like a sword “Mdara, Independence!” The struggle was for democratic values – “one man one vote”, for “Freedom”, “Equality”, “Justice”.

The young men and women who so willingly gave up their lives and education, even jobs and marriage, to enter the struggle were taught that theirs was a just fight against injustice. That the society they would build from the ashes of Rhodesia would be one characterised by a decent standard of life with real freedom and opportunity. No longer would they be simply vassals in the service of white masters. Black would be both beautiful and powerful and their sacrifices would transform the lives of millions.

The espoused ideologies were those of the socialist republics in the Northern Hemisphere. The horses of democracy and socialism were to be used to drag Africa towards a new world order. It was heady stuff.

32 years later, the dream is replaced by a nightmare. The regime brought to power in 1980 still hangs onto power and privilege, claiming they “deserve” it all because they sacrificed to bring change. The country is derelict, burnt by runaway wild fires that simply rage unrestrained, Orchards of fruit trees are dead and we import 70 per cent of the food we eat. Our savings from a century of hard work and investment and enterprise have been wiped out and our elderly are almost all destitute. Death rates are the highest in the world and our life expectancy one of the lowest.

But perhaps the saddest aspect for those who struggled to bring about Zimbabwe in 1980, is the almost total absence of any sense of accountability and morality in the leadership of the former ruling Party. Up to the end of their total control of the country in February 2009, they were stealing billions of dollars from the people of Zimbabwe each year. Through the Reserve Bank they were taking 35 per cent of all export proceeds, from NSSA they were taking millions subscribed by workers from their hard earnings. They were stealing from every State enterprise and especially those involved in trade like NOCZIM. The evidence of the wealth created by the corruption is everywhere. In a country where it was impossible to buy bread, we had a weekly flight by the National Airline to Dubai which was in essence a shopping trip for the elite.

Now we have Chiadzwa – a diamond discovery that is quite extraordinary. Millions of carats of diamonds are being mined and exported with nearly all the proceeds being siphoned off into private accounts and lavish lifestyles. A criminal mafia runs the field protected by the armed forces and for the benefit of political and military elites. The example next door of Botswana where massive diamond mines are operated transparently and accountably with 70 per cent of the total proceeds going  to the State coffers. Education and health services are free. Income tax is not levied and political leaders live modestly, is simply ignored.

It is no wonder that the people who suffer under such regimes take it out on the elite when the opportunity presents itself. In many ways they deserve everything that comes to them and perhaps it is a good thing that many in this sad, fallen country of ours, cannot sleep too well at night.

Eddie Cross

Harare, 23rd October 2011

Abahlali baseMjondolo: a test for the ANC and democracy in South Africa

“What began as a Durban road blockade in 2005 has become a shack-dwellers movement in South Africa. Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM, which means ‘those who live in the shacks’ in Zulu) now includes thousands of shack-dwellers from more than 30 informal settlements throughout the country. AbM has garnered international support and has won legal battles against the African National Congress’s (ANC) attempts at forced removal. While the ANC claims to be making efforts to clean up slums and provide the poor with adequate housing, AbM leadership claims intimidation and anti-democratic tactics are used against its members by the ruling party. AbM represents a true test of democratic governance for the ANC.”

That is the summary of a cable from the US consulate in Durban to the State Department in Washington, dated 8 Jan 2010, and published on Wikileaks on 24 Aug 2011. You can find the full text here.

Abahlali baseMjondolo, and the mushrooming movement called the ‘Poor People’s Alliance’ which includes the Rural Network (Kwazulu Natal), the Landless People’s Movement (Gauteng), and the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and Khayelitsha Struggles (Western Cape), is indeed a test of whether the ANC is in fact still a democratic people’s movement, or whether it has become so co-opted by the interests of career politics and business, that it has ceased to listen to or speak for the majority of poor South Africans.

The evidence suggests that the ANC government and the South African Police Service (SAPS) are responding with repressive and often illegal actions to shut down this people’s movement which has coalesced around issues of housing and basic services:

AbM members have endured harassment from the state in the form of unwarranted arrests, and repeated and severe police violence in people’s homes, in the streets and in detention, according to [AbM chairperson S’busiso] Zikode. On a number of occasions the police have used live ammunition, armored vehicles and helicopters in their attacks on unarmed shack dwellers, according to local media. AbM has filed numerous police brutality and wrongful arrest charges against the police, to no avail. To date, not one of the AbM members who was arrested has ever been convicted of an offence.

The best description of the crisis in the hundreds of informal settlements of South Africa is the recently published book Diepsloot by Anton Harber, where he describes the Diepsloot informal settlement west of Johannesburg as a microcosm of the challenges facing the poor and how local politics, dominated by dysfunctional ANC branches, is completely failing in meeting these challenges.

It is in the face of this failure that shack-dwellers and landless people have relatively spontaneously formed themselves into a movement that is posing a direct challenge to ANC control on the ground in informal settlements.

Zikode emphasizes that AbM is a ‘radical poor people’s movement that is democratic. Our movement is a homemade politics that everyone can understand and find a home in.’ The politics of AbM are conducted ‘by the poor, for the poor, and where the poor people live,’ said Zikode. AbM shuns top-down  ‘self-enriching,’ ‘professional’ politics and refuses representational roles, personal power, and financial reward. ‘Such a top-down system has terrorized our society. In fact, it is an insult to assume that poor people cannot think for themselves, that someone else must talk for them without their concern. Our demands are simple: land and homes in the cities where we live,’ said Zikode.

During the May 2011 Municipal elections the Poor People’s Alliance actively campaigned against voting at all, signifying the failure not just of the ANC, but of the democratic system of local government in South Africa. The question is whether this movement will mature into a political movement, whether in the form of a political party or a new coalition like the influential UDF (United Democratic Front) in the 1980s.

My own feeling is that the Poor People’s Alliance, and especially AbM, may just be the beginnings of a viable political alternative to the dominant and dominating ANC, where others like Bantu Holomisa’s UDM and Shilowa and Lekota’s COPE have failed because they could not legitimately speak for the poor majority and are really just personality driven breakaways from the ANC and the DA will always struggle to breakaway from the perception that it is a white, middle-class party.

On 31 August there will be a meeting between AbM and representatives of Christian faith communities and organizations in Khayelitsha, and I am very curious to see where this may lead. Watch this space…