Master stories and their multiple virginities

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Stories are slippery things: Who tells the real story of South Africa? Is it politicians like President Zuma, whose people spread smears about contenders like Cyril Ramaphosa? Or a homeless man in Johannesburg, one of 30 million South Africans living in poverty?

NIGERIAN poet and novelist Ben Okri wasn’t referring specifically to South Africa when he wrote: “To poison a country, poison its stories… A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves.” But he might as well have been, if measured by the toxicity pervading our body politic today.

As the ANC’s December conference to elect a new president approaches, rumours are heard that powerful politicians fearful of losing control might create such chaos, it would be aborted. The “poisoners” of this nation propagate carefully-timed smears such as the supposed extra-marital affairs of presidential contender Cyril Ramaphosa, with objectives so obvious that a child could see through them: Can you trust a politician who has an affair (even if Ramaphosa has admitted to one several years ago)? Previous ominous smears have said opposition to the ANC is a western plot for “regime change” rather than democracy at work. Or that former public protector Thuli Madonsela who revealed the curse of state capture, was a CIA agent.

But politicians will be politicians. Okri also said: “The magician and the politician have much in common: they both have to draw our attention away from what they are really doing.” The next few months will be a roller-coaster of magician-like, dirty tricks as President Jacob Zuma fights Ramaphosa’s rising popularity.

Not only South Africa lives in almost surreal times; it is everywhere. No-one knows what to believe, as fake news goes viral through Twitter and Facebook. Historians fifty years down the line will try, with the benefit of hindsight, to penetrate the fog. But even historians always differ on the “real” story.

This week marked the sixteenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. A moving memorial and museum containing names of the 3000 people killed was created at Ground Zero. But that story is far from finished or understood. Will future historians call it the beginning of the Third World War? Or the West’s wakening to the scourge of terrorism from which even America was not immune, and the beginning of the fightback? Or the grossness of powerful politicians whose reactions created more hatred and chaos rather than less.

Stories are told differently as events recede. Barney Simon, icon of South African theatre and co-founder of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre, whose craft was story-telling, remarked: “A story has a thousand virginities.”

What does this mean? On the street, for example, immigrants to this country from Eastern Europe or elsewhere – such as Jews, Italians, Greeks and other communities, some of them refugees – often arrived in the late 1800s and early 1900s with nothing but a suitcase and a story. Many were unable to even speak the language. Forced to reinvent themselves, their families now tell stories of resourcefulness and success – within a generation many children of these people were educated professionals. The same can be said for many later immigrants from the Congo, Somalia, Nigeria and other African countries, many of whom have established businesses and enterprises small and large.

So, are the master stories South Africans are telling about themselves, healthy or poisoned? Is it still triumph over apartheid and inspirational attempts by blacks and whites on the ground to overcome racism? Or the epic of great reconciler Nelson Mandela which made us the darlings of the world – though some young people call him a “sellout” for negotiating with the apartheid government to avert a civil war? Or a tale of intense disappointment at the country’s decline to junk status economically, socially and politically so soon after the Mandela euphoria? Stats SA says one in two South Africans – about 30 million people – live under the poverty line, more than ever before. Is this fixable, and who can do it?

It is not clear whether this country will drown in its poisonous stories, or negotiate the current mess and thrive heroically in its healthy ones. Okri never gave us a crystal ball.

(GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email:  geoffs@icon.co.za )

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