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Liberation, ethics and eschatology

6 April 2016

Many of us in South Africa have been saddened by the degeneration of the government of the country, and its failure to realise what we hoped for when we voted in the first non-racial and democratic elections in 1994. This was confirmed when the Constitutional Court found that the president did not uphold the constitution.

The disappointment felt by many has been very well expressed in an article by Professor Raymond Suttner Liberation and Ethics. Is there a connection?:

It is no exaggeration to suggest that the legitimacy not only of President Jacob Zuma and the ANC, but also the notion of the liberation struggle itself is in shreds. For some of us, it was unthinkable that such an alliance of forces could degenerate into a moneymaking, lawless and violent operation represented by people who were prepared to trample on the values that we understood the movement to embody. Certainly, this did not happen overnight. The process leading to the present state of affairs has been long in the making.

In this context, many people like myself are forced to reflect on the choices we made some decades back and what it is that we were seeking then, what we saw to be required of us. Did we have an adequate perspective, and if we find we were right in what we did and believed then, was this shared by others or were we naive?

In his article Professor Suttner reflects on comradeship in the liberation struggle. My memories are somewhat different, perhaps because we moved in different circles. Yes, there was comradeship, but there was also (in my circles, not necessarily in his) the suspicion that some of one’s “comrades” were police spies. Pimps were everywhere, and such was the atmosphere of the apartheid Zeitgeist of suspicion that one could suspect even one’s close friends of being spies. So for some of us it was not “unthinkable that such an alliance of forces could degenerate into a moneymaking, lawless and violent operation represented by people who were prepared to trample on the values that we understood the movement to embody”. It was quite thinkable, and we thought about it a lot. The police informers, izimpimpi. were already moneymaking and lawless. Perhaps they were not yet violent, but their paymasters were.

Maybe I see it somewhat differently because I was a liberal and Professor Suttner was a communist. I’m not trying to sound smug or superior here, just to point out that there are different glasses through which one interprets events. It was a liberal historian, Lord Acton, who said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Liberation movements that are fighting oppressors and are themselves oppressed and persecuted tend to be kept honest because they have nothing to gain when they are powerless. The moment they come to power, the temptation to corruption is there at once.

So in a way, we are disappointed that South Africa has become normal. We were a bit abnormal because our freedom struggle was still within living memory. We can remember people like Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, and think that they were not like this, because we remember them from a time when they were relatively powerless. In other countries with a long tradition of democracy, behaviour like that of many of our politicians has come to be accepted as normal and expected.

In 1995 I visited Kenya. It was just over a year after our first democratic elections and for me the euphoria of new-found freedom had not yet worn off. I was puzzled and a bit disappointed that no one in Kenya wanted to know about that. The only thing about South Africa that interested them was the Mandela divorce and who would get the money. I realised then that they were judging South Africa by the standards of their own politics; they expected politicians to be corrupt and assumed that ours must be as corrupt as theirs.

Fr Albert Nolan, OP

Fr Albert Nolan, OP

But even more surprising than the Kenyans was the response of Albert Nolan, a Dominican priest I once knew.

At around the time of the first democratic elections, I read somewhere that he had said that this would be different from every other revolution in history; others may descend into nepotism and corruption, but ours would not. I forget where I saw it, it may have been a newspaper article or an interview or a letter to the paper. I recall thinking at the time that it was a very strange thing to say, and I wonder what he would say today.

It struck me as strange because it goes against Christian eschatology, and Dominicans have a more thorough theological training than most.

One of the Christian objections to Marxist Communism is that it claims that the kingdom of God (or something like it, a condition of justice, peace and the absence of oppression) is attainable in this world. It is an entirely secular eschatology. And it goes against that secular eschatology to say that things are not perfect, or at least well on their way to becoming so. That is why Soviet dissenters often ended up in lunatic asylums: to deny the present perfection of Soviet society showed that one was out of touch with reality and was suffering from delusions.

Christian eschatology is not secular. It does not claim that perfection is attainable in this age, but only in the age to come. Even the best that we can achieve in this age is but a foretaste of the life of the age to come. Jesus healed many sick people, but eventually they died. Even Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead, is not still walking around among us. He died and was buried. From this point of view, 1994 was a Lazarus moment for South Africa, and those of us who experienced it will never forget it. But only the very naive among us could think that it would last for ever.

Back in 1972, at the height of apartheid, when the power of the National Party had probably reached its zenith, there was a song that we used to sing, Let there be light in the land:

Yesterday’s dream didn’t quite come true
We fought for our freedom
and what did it do?
Now no one can see where they stand.

Let there be light in the land!
Let there be light in the people!
Let there be God in our lives
from now on.

And that seemed to sum it up.

In our case, it wasn’t yesterday’s dream, but today’s and tomorrow’s dream. We didn’t actually expect to see it come true in our lifetime, not back in 1972. But if it did, we knew that it wouldn’t last. So Albert Nolan’s prediction that it would last forever seemed a bit daft.

We live in a fallen world. We may win temporary victories over evil, but we will never eliminate evil entirely, and thinking that we can eliminate it entirely is the most dangerous thought of all, because then we cannot acknowledge that evil has crept back into the world that we have created, and so we erect Gulags for those who deny the reality of our present perfection.

As G.K. Chesterton said:

Perhaps it might be put thus: that we need watchfulness even in Utopia, lest we fall from Utopia as we fell from Eden. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is — the Fall.

and again

A Christian may consistently say, “I respect that man’s rank, although he takes bribes.” But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, “a man of that rank would not take bribes.” For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man “in that position” would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.







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