Too few leaders willing to see change is not written in black and white - Businesslive

Oct 20, 2019
20 October 2019 - Too many political leaders and commentators have shown themselves unwilling to see that ideas for change don’t have a skin colour. If ever there was a damning status quo, this is it.

Michael Morris

In The Leopard, his great novel about the upending of Sicily’s social order, Giuseppe Tomasi — the Duke of Palma di Montechiaro and Prince of Lampedusa, no less — has a character utter the words: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

If this beguiling notion seems cynically paradoxical, it ought to resonate in SA. While most of us want to retain and nurture the freedoms delivered by post-1994 constitutionalism, we also want a wholesale alteration in our collective material conditions.

The damning status quo has to change if we are to preserve what we have. If we fail to overcome joblessness and poverty, economic exclusion and woefully poor education outcomes for most people, our freedoms and our constitutionalism will seem hollow and at risk of being discarded for their apparent hollowness.

I was reminded of the Tomasi character’s wry reflection while stuck in traffic a few years ago, watching a stand-off between a drunk man and a security guard. The drunk could barely lift himself on to his unsteady elbows, yet the security guard insisted with the toe of his boot that he try harder. The guard seemed languid, but not relaxed; he was embarrassed at his defeat by the stupefied obstinacy of the inebriate.

For all his kit, his truncheon and luminous lime bib, he was chronically restrained — and it was obvious it was the bond between himself and the rest of us, watching from our cars in the barely moving peak-hour traffic, that curtailed his options, perhaps even called his fitness for the job into question, but at any rate defined a limit of reasonable conduct.

I watched as words passed between the two, the frown of the guard suggesting the drunk had failed the simple test of intelligibility or persuasion. You could just imagine the slurring incoherence of his sincerity. And who can take a drunk man seriously? We in our cars were irritated by it too, some doubtless even willing to see the guard just get on with it and deliver that skop. Perhaps we anticipated a kick, but inaccurately. Because, even as we might have imagined the kicking impulse throbbing in the guard’s limber joints, our being there together — motorists, security guard and drunk — somehow guaranteed there would be no application of force.

When I wrote about this otherwise unremarkable episode at the time, I concluded: “It’s a small thing, not bruising a drunk who won’t move, who’s not meant to be there, sprawled on the grass of the traffic island — but it is something.”

What it is, I believe, is one of the essentials of a good society, that plainest good thing in human intercourse — regard for the next person, whoever he or she might be. Our own research shows it is likely the most common impulse of most South Africans, whoever they are. If this is one of the things we want to keep, whatever else we might change, it is also integral to the change we seek.

Yet just a cursory survey of the news of the past fortnight shows that in the argument about how we might change things sufficiently to keep things as they are — in the sense described earlier (which would revolutionise SA life for the better) — too many political leaders and commentators have shown themselves unwilling to see that ideas for change don’t have a skin colour. If ever there was a damning status quo, this is it.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

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