For white South Africans, the danger is acquiescence

By

SITTING in our Johannesburg home the other day, my eight-year-old son and I were watching an inter-provincial cricket match on the television. As the match moved toward its climax, he turned to me and asked: ``Dad, whose side are we on?'' In that instant he was subjected to the persuasion of ``co-option'' (being pressured into taking sides) to which we are all prone. But in South Africa today, those forces of co-option are powerfully prevalent and insidious. The temptation first to acquiesce, then to be co-opted, and finally to collaborate is as subtle as the proverbial serpent.

It is of course emotionally preferable to be part of the in-group as opposed to being out there on your own. But it is also very difficult to anticipate precisely how acquiescence on one issue might compromise one's independence on much bigger and more important issues.

There is considerable temptation to believe that ``my'' membership in the in-group on an apparently unimportant issue cannot possibly make any real difference to the really big issues. However, an experiment recently conducted in an American secondary school - in which a feather was placed in the middle of the steel axle of a railway carriage and the bend caused by the feather actually measured - compels us to accept that the contribution which each one of us makes is relevant to the course of events.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

In South Africa, obvious examples of co-option, both to the left and the right, to the side of the government and the side of revolutionary forces, abound. One might, for example, take two weekly newspapers - the Sunday Times with a circulation of 516,064, and the Weekly Mail with a circulation of 16,000.

The lead story of the Sunday Times edition preceding the date set for the hanging of the Sharpeville Six deals with a young woman who artificially inseminated herself. The lead story of the same edition of the Weekly Mail deals with the Army's involvement in the abduction and assault of a black township resident.

The following week's edition of the Sunday Times (after the postponement of the hangings) dealt emotively and at length with the ``terrorist'' Grosskopff who was sought in connection with a bomb blast. Despite the fact that he had neither been arrested, charged, tried, or convicted, the paper neglected to insert the word ``alleged.'' The Weekly Mail dealt in its corresponding issue with the Sharpeville Six.

The comparison is startling, and can be followed week by week, despite the fact that both newspapers are written under the same censorship laws.

The subtlety of the co-option in this case is into accepting that the role of the media is to give the public what it wants - perhaps even to indulge its idiosyncrasies, thereby maximizing circulation and hopefully avoiding confrontation. It is not that there was any direct attempt to co-opt the media into acting as an effective spokesman for the maintenance of the status quo. Yet by succumbing to the influence of the one, complete effect is given to the other.

The co-option of the business community has been as complete and as effective as it has of the media. We are frequently asked, ``what can you, as South African businessmen, do to bring about a more just society?'' Conventional wisdom gives the answer as ``very little, if anything.'' Today that answer is probably correct - but only because we as a business community have over a period of time been co-opted to accept that the sole function of business is to maximize profit and avoid confrontation or involvement in the affairs of state.

I have little doubt that in the boardrooms of South Africa, the issues under debate today are the implications of the Minimum Tax on Companies and how the private sector will cope with sanctions, buy up divested United States subsidiaries, and participate in the government's privatization program and economic package.

The fact that we are in our 24th month of a continuous state of emergency, that we are at war with Angola, that the program of forced removals continues, that one rand is spent on the education of a black child for every eight rand spent on the education of a white child, and that a civil war is raging in Natal/KwaZulu is not on the agenda. And yet the implications of these issues are potentially of far greater significance than any change in the tax legislation or participation in an economic package.

The result is that the business community has as little capacity to influence the course of events in this country as the Sunday Times has capacity to do anything about the banning of the New Nation newspaper or about the release of its editor, Zwelakhi Sisulu, who has been in detention without trial for 15 months.

The fact is that for a long time the vast majority of us have been compromised into refraining from placing any feathers in the axle at all, with the result that it would be counterproductive to now place the bag of feathers that is actually needed.

The challenge is to avoid any co-option that compromises our independence or negates our capacity to influence the course of history toward a more just society. Many individuals in all sectors of our community have managed to do so, and they should be our role models.

Of course co-option in all its subtle forms will proceed apace. Large numbers of people have already been co-opted on to the side of the government or the side of the conservative church (if I may call it that) in accepting that certain church leaders are wrongly meddling in the affairs of state. While it is clearly correct that the churches have no direct interest in law and order, the very foundation of their existence and relevance in our society is justice and peace. The intersection between law and order and justice and peace ought to be substantial (if not total) and to the extent that it isn't, the church has a substantial and direct interest. While we appear to have a great deal of law and order in this country, there is distressingly little justice and peace.

In South Africa we are all consistently and persistently exposed to the temptation of co-option in many forms and on many issues. Co-option might take the form of a belief that a mother and housewife plays a meaningless role and can make no real contribution to the affairs of state; or the belief that the only way of securing our and our children's future is by emigrating and abandoning not only the wonderful people who live in this country, but also our ability, right, and duty to influence the course of events. It is almost certain to be the temptation of so-called profit maximization and of office and power, or it might be the persuasion that unless you are for ``us,'' the revolutionary forces, and subscribe to our view that the only future lies in the violent overthrow of the present system, you must be against ``us.''

But of course, the answer to my son was not that we are on the ``side'' of one provincial team or the other, but that we are on the side of cricket. The essence of life and of the challenge in most societies is the realization that everything we do is relevant and the consistent resistance to co-opting influences on to any ``side'' other than the advancement of the causes of justice, peace, and a better society - remembering also that peace isn't the absence of conflict, but the assertion of justice.

Bob Tucker is managing director of the S.A. Perm Building Society in Johannesburg. This article is based on a graduation address he delivered at the University of Witwatersrand.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...