In recent days, the world has taken on a smoke-tinted hue with the burning of rubber and trust. South Africa has reached the nadir of tension; erupting malignantly into a thousand pieces that nobody can clean. At this point, there is a pervasive tiredness as we watch the looting on TV. The senseless smack of stupidity, rendered more dumbfounding by those in the streets hurting only themselves for the fee of pilfered goods and the momentary warmth of the torchlit institutions they hate going up in flames. Those same institutions will be unable to feed us tomorrow.
I recall the nervous tension of Autumn 2020. We were confined to homes and expected to wait out some intangible threat. The skeleton-hand has long since paused over us, blotting out the sun and our own vision. We are in the throes of one crisis, and in an effort to feel good about ourselves, have manufactured many more in the last few days.
The actions of those on the TV are those of frightened animals. The temptation is to say that these looting masses are opportunists – creatures of greed with little regard for their fellow man and the financial survival of this country. With no small amount of pain reflected inwardly, I will not disagree with that opinion, but I wanted to write about its beating heart: the animal of fear. More specifically, how we are all animals of fear.
Crippling unemployment. Apathetic (at best) government responses to crisis. Ineffectual (at its most common) leadership. Disproportionate wealth. Disproportionate education. Those in want living next door to those who don’t understand need. Disparity and despair have been the social-biome of South Africa for the last three decades. Coupled with the pressures of the last year and a half, and any excuse would suffice for the eruption of violence we have seen on TV.
In the words of Werner Hertzog: but why?
The animal of fear that we all suppress is something that requires feeding for abatement. The division between order and unrest is a simple one: a few meals missed will bring out the true nature within you. Don’t lie to yourself now. You know it to be true. The moral, upright and protected will rend flesh from bone when hungry. All the private school education money can buy will end with the boy in glasses having his head cracked open on the rocks.
At this point, the simple resignation is this: we are truly brutes in the basest of ways. It is a hard reckoning to come to terms with. Even now, the looting has given way to panic-buying, yet another manifestation of the ease with which we ignore sense and indulge in our fear.
Though the sporadic reports of communities coming together offer some hope, they do not preclude the fact that we are forced to come together as a direct consequence of our own fractured actions.
Do not blame the government. Do not blame a race. Do not blame greed, or opportunity or hatred. Blame yourself. Even as you read this in your cloistered home with a cupboard full of food – very little of it you actually need – remember that your actions are still motivated by the same underlying fear as those who have been razing buildings.
Right now, people whose intelligence is painfully rare are analyzing the short and long-term effects of the recent riots. They are pointing at numbers, and making plans for investments to move off-shore, if possible. That is unavoidable, the wealthy will pull their trousers up and turn a final middle finger to the poor on account of their behavior. The poor will have little recourse to the wealthy on account of them keeping to themselves. Again the cycle will continue, one act of fear perpetuating another and another and another.
I am at an uncomfortable impasse in my life right now. I have decided, with no small amount of guilt, to leave this province and not look back. I have had conversations with family that have been deeply uncomfortable. I have said things – ugly and hateful things – because I have been unable to sleep the last four nights on account of my fear. I want to run away from it, stop its hold on me by putting distance between myself and the taste of ash in the Durban air.
I am afraid. That is hardly a unique confession. Yet as I sit at my desk, with the comfort of tea and a warm lamp, I cannot but think my fear is poorly-earned. Even in the lap of this comparative luxury, I am trying to find that inner spine that tells me everything will be alright. Somehow, I am no longer enough. The frightened animal in me is barking. I am to leave this place, take with me my money, my knowledge and my heart and put those I leave behind at a disadvantage. They will grow up without my help, and in doing so, they will continue the cycles of fear that started all of this in the first place.
Perhaps one day, on a foreign TV screen, I will watch South Africa burn properly. I won’t be able to look at the picture out of guilt. There, on the news, will be the people I left behind to their own fear.
But then a thought.
What if, I was scared but acted out of love? I am human, I can hold diametrically opposed thoughts in my head… ever heard of jumbo-shrimp? What if I allowed myself to be afraid but made some kind of stand against it spreading from me? What if I allowed my behavior to be one of extension as opposed to isolation? I could do that couldn’t I? I could resolve to stop my fear from guiding my course and putting others in a place where they would be fearful? It doesn’t have to be like this again. I can help rebuild. I can stay, put my mind at work to inoculate those who may not know better to guide themselves in a way we have failed to do so this week. What if I put this lesson to use? Preach some warped gospel about how fear takes us nowhere?
It doesn’t have to carry on with me.
I can be afraid, but I don’t have to be helpless.
Perhaps, if you feel up to it, neither do you?