Author: Njabulo S Ndebele
Publication date: 2007/09
Format: Trade paperback
“A turning point in my life occurred when I discovered a treasure trove of banned books in my father’s garage” (9), is how Njabulo Ndebele’s latest essay collection (1987-2006) begins. This is a keynote comment, since the impetus for the entire collection is to some extent the undertaking to keep on digging for those values and insights that will show our difficult, confusing or discouraging South African realities in their true light. Ndebele does not provide "solutions", like some quack doctor, as he ponders various aspects of our evolving society that engage his interest. His technique is to lead the way towards the appropriate starting point for anyone perplexed by a seemingly intractable difficulty: initiating the inquiry to try and establish the exact nature of the problem and to suggest the appropriate technologies to measure its circumference. Ndebele exemplifies the function of a public intellectual in a society such as ours: public, because his method of raising a question and then going beyond it and still further in asking more and more difficult, deeper-lying questions, is not that of an isolated, superior commentator, but that of a thinker addressing (or rather, attending to) a social issue affecting himself as deeply as anyone else around him. In this sense he understands that the role of an intellectual in this society requires arduous and wide-ranging thinking about situations in which one is actually implicated, in contrast with the situation of an expert demonstrating established knowledge – it requires that process of thinking or rethinking a situation for oneself while inviting or even compelling others to think along, rather than answering the questions that evolve, or proposing ready solutions for complex problems. Partisan positions and "group attitudes" are foreign to him.
The Ndebele voice is sober, wide-ranging, morally engaging and rigorous, frequently challenging as well as self-challenging. He reminds us constantly of our ever-present past as a society while alerting us to present and future dangers and possibilities. Would-be (and even some quite famous!) intellectuals often emerge as either bullies or toadies in their writing. Ndebele is ever courteous, though often bracingly astringent: his authority is quiet and not arrogantly assertive. His compelling skills of articulation are signposted in the very well chosen titles of the pieces collected here, most of them “occasional” in the sense of having been composed for particular events. Clearly, Ndebele takes his immediate audience seriously on these occasions, while recognising each of his platforms as providing an opportunity and requiring a responsibility larger than the original event offers him. This is why the essays are collectible and it explains how they come to function as a mini-South African history (at one or two removes) of the past two decades. I insert the bracketed qualification because mere immersion in, or reporting of, an event or a problem is not what these essays do – they are, instead, patient but probing considerations: elegant but trenchant; organically shaped. In his own words, describing the maturity and balance that he strives to achieve in his writing, Ndebele puts it as follows: “In the best writing, I have come to understand, there is nothing to condemn or elevate without a concomitant sense of doubt” (10). What he hopes to evoke, he says, is “an activist understanding” by providing “an antidote to orthodoxy and the comfort zones of populism” (11).
Like those short story collections that seem to constitute a novel in episodes, Ndebele’s essays make it possible to trace accumulating thoughts unfolding along broadly historical lines: we see how the writer’s ideas develop in conjunction with events without being determined by them. Ndebele is the type of social commentator who holds us to account, taking on different factors and segments of society each in its turn, particularly those who, because of different kinds of power and influence, are in his eyes accountable without perhaps having had their role held up to scrutiny. In 1987 he writes that “while apartheid insisted that the oppressed would develop better alone, liberals insisted they would develop better within the prescriptions of European standards”, and at the same time he identifies “the mass” as “the crowning achievement of South African capitalism” (15). To write like this is to look further than the part played by the more obvious oppressors and racists. Many of Ndebele’s comments also anticipate debates that are still continuing; his sage remarks, if heeded, could cool an overheated atmosphere. Hence he says, in a 1997 speech at the then University of the North, that “our agenda right now is to doggedly affirm the equality of all languages while ensuring that a language that enables all of us to participate fully in the economic life of our country, at this juncture, is made more accessible” (75). I would link this comment with Ndebele’s incidental reference, in a 1998 essay on “The triumph of narrative” in the TRC hearings, to the fact that at this time many intelligent Afrikaners still clamour for a volkstaat or for language rights that they already have, as if nothing significant has happened in our country in the past few years. They are unable to link the failures of the past to the need for a new moral vision that includes others. They have yet to accept such a vision as a basis on which to reassess the past more fundamentally.
Ndebele calls this “a tragic failure of social conscience” and suggests that “the future of Afrikaner culture may lie in its rediscovery of social morality” (88). To write like this is not to indulge in “Boere bashing” any more than the following quotations indicate an “anti-WESSA” attitude on his part (the latter acronym formerly used to refer to white English-speakers in this country), for two pages further in the same essay, Ndebele cites “the archetypal image of the bleeding-heart, English-speaking liberal South African(s)”, who are “blissfully unaware that they should appear before the TRC”, being “convinced that it is only the Afrikaner who should do so”. He remarks: “with their condescending platitudes, they have massacred hundreds of thousands of souls” and put others into “the prison of [their] platitudes” (90). These may seem to be harsh generalisations, but they are clearly intended for those whom the shoe fits. The broad focus of the writing is characteristically inclusive and what I would term "invitational", as reflected in that expression Ndebele is so fond of: “our country” (emphasis added).
Almost startlingly topical in these Eskom-darkened days is Ndebele’s call (in another 1998 piece) for “the emergence of a professional state (is there such a thing?), driven by processes intended to make things work” so that “vision also becomes practical” (95). His focus is clearly shifting, along with the shifts in power that have occurred, as he outlines “the quest for a society that yields some desirable deliverables” (98) – clearly, on a broad front and not merely in the double and triple garages of the new elite. An especially poignant essay is Ndebele’s “Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists – caught in the process of becoming”, in which he addresses the awkward social and cultural adjustments required as the black elite begin to join the wealthy whites at that secular form of a retreat, the game lodge, a space (writes Ndebele) which “the [male] black tourist” experiences as “ontologically disturbing”, expected to be “knowledgeable about ‘white things’ at the same time as he is transformed into an informant about ‘black things’”, while having to negotiate other awkward class shifts and cultural links between himself and the black workers at such a lodge (102). “How is it,” Ndebele ends by asking, “that a simple quest for peace and restoration turned into an unexpectedly painful journey into the self? We think: there is no peace for those caught in the process of becoming” (105).
In a widely-read essay, Ndebele used the local folk tale of the wily rabbit outwitting the powerful lion to remind us that “there is a constant ebb and flow of shifting identities in South African history that subverts any tendency towards simplification” (109), particularly as we become more and more “interactive” (111). What is crucial, he underlines, is that “compromise is not seen as a manipulative gesture, but as an option that offers something substantial to the negotiating parties” (121).
In the 2000 essay titled “Iph’indlela? Finding a pathway through confusion” Ndebele addresses another point. “I am bothered,” he writes, “by the phenomenon of a black majority in power, seeming to reduce itself to the status of complainants as if they had a limited capacity to do anything more significant about the situation at hand than drawing attention to it” (131). A subsequent essay insists (and this is a linked idea) that “diversity should become a quality-assurance issue at a fundamental level rather than a posture signifying deracialisation”; “black students who qualify,” he writes, “should have the freedom to walk into any institution of higher learning in this country and feel at home” (142, emphasis added). To reorientate in this way is not merely locally corrective action, but rests on the recognition that “the networks of the future will be culturally diverse and global” (143).
But the need to develop a vital and vitally diverse yet both welcoming and inclusive local society is never far from Ndebele’s mind; in an essay on “The Ties that Bind – a search for common values” (2001) he concludes: “we do seem to have a set of factors in place that have the potential to define us. What we lack is a more compelling social experience of them. What does it take to bring this experience about?” (155).
Two of Ndebele’s essays focus strongly on aspects of President Mbeki’s governance; a strongly critical, earlier (2001) essay titled “Thabo Mbeki: comradeship, intrigue and betrayal” and subtitled “a vital leadership endgame”, takes us back to the time when Matthews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa were accused of having plotted against his leadership (with all kinds of dark innuendoes thrown in), an accusation to which Ndebele reacted with immediate skepticism, but which he sharply analyses by citing Mbeki’s own declaration: “'We need to create a space so that all competitors can compete openly’” and appending to it the sardonic question: “Or, is it possible that the issue may not only be that some people want to be the president of South Africa but also that there may be others who want to be the only president of South Africa within living memory?” (162; 163). The extent to which this issue came back to haunt Mbeki at Polokwane is well known now to us all.
In a 2002 essay on AIDS in South Africa, however, Ndebele mounts a remarkably eloquent and carefully argued defence of Mbeki’s controversial stance on the syndrome and its treatment, crediting him with having “an ecological mind” (188), confirming that Ndebele’s stance is predictably unpredictable on most social issues.
As far as comments on the wider world are concerned, Ndebele warns US imperialists of the danger of “provoking global insurrection” (191), noting the horror of a time when “war as national glory is over”, since this has been “replaced by war as technological self-indulgence” (202). Here one might remind Ndebele of the technologies of earlier periods, as reflected in the Victorian rhymester Hillaire Belloc’s notorious quatrain about British colonial conquests: “Whatever happens,/ we have got/ the Maxim gun/ and they have not”.
The final group of essays in this recent collection include Ndebele’s wonderful appreciation of Brenda Fassie, titled “Thinking of Brenda: the desire to be” (first published in 1996; slightly updated and republished in 2004), in which the most memorable line is the simple statement: “Her fix, not really a fix because it is who she primarily is, is her innocence” (216) – which is as surprising and as surprisingly right a conclusion as one could hope for, even from Ndebele.
Another (2004) piece has the subtitle “learning to give up certitudes”, informing us that we need to experience and acknowledge vulnerability - for this is a matter of acquiring “the capacity to abandon certitudes acquired through habit” and the recognition that it is possible to “reconstitute identity” (221).
If only our politicians would learn to change their tunes occasionally in the way Ndebele here advocates! The most eloquent expression of this particular point occurs in a paragraph from the 2004 essay “Acts of Transgression – on entertaining difference and managing vulnerabilities”. I cite most of this paragraph: "I want to say, there is a danger here that mutual expectations of uncritical solidarity in our new society may diminish the quality of decisions and actions to be taken. I want to say, let’s stop complaining about racism: let’s rule. I want to say, let’s not make promises to the poor that we cannot fulfil. I want to say, we must be resolute against public displays of stupidity that pass as revolutionary talk. We must be resolute against fraudsters who, it now turns out, fooled us into thinking highly of them during heroic, less thoughtful times" (225).
Yet this is balanced by the caution that “publicly humiliating dissenting individuals is not a creative way of resolving internal differences” (228). In 2006 Ndebele warns (in his essay titled “Jacob Zuma and the Family”) against “the unsustainability of the family ethos in the transaction of state business. In a constitutional democracy of increasing complexity, it can have devastating consequences.” Clearly, it is the political and not the nuclear or the extended family Ndebele is addressing when he concludes: “The family ethos must transform in the direction of a robust public and professional culture” (232).
But he reminds us, too, that in South Africa, as in many other societies, “we are most probably not just dealing with corrupt people but, perhaps more tellingly, with corruptive conditions” (247). Where we are now, Ndebele writes, “an environment of new conceptual challenges … cries out for a new language” (250).
It would be to overcrowd this review to write a description of Ndebele’s final and finely nuanced piece titled “The Year of the Dog”, but perhaps its quite recent appearance in Mail & Guardian in September 2006 means that many readers will still remember it. Suffice to say that it is as quirky, incisive and topical a piece of writing as one could wish for from a commentator on the local social scene who has the urbanity of a citizen of the world but whose umbilical cord is buried in the local earth.
The "appreciation" by Sam Radithlalo (the editor of the collection and Ndebele’s former UCT colleague) is as graceful and appropriate a tribute as the collection deserves.
It is the generosity of Ndebele’s mind, shown throughout these pieces, that recall for me one of my favourite Bessie Head quotations, from her essay “God and the underdog: thoughts on the rise of Africa”: “For largeness of heart is what we need for a civilisation and big, big eyes, wide enough to drink in all the knowledge of the heavens and earth” (A Woman Alone, 50).
Ndebele’s writings convey something of this spirit.