The challenge of really re-imagining

Our op-ed columns are replete with commentary about how to fix SA’s problems, whether about our public schools and the rife inequality therein, our universities and how to decolonize their curricula, or the ubiquitous narrative about graft and its effects on the public purse (when EVER did the budget get so much air time?).

What these columns share is that they all fall into the trap so hard to avoid as critical voices… they fail to escape zero-sum thinking or the pressing urgency of the in-your-face crisis. But these are the shackles we must break if we are to make our critical scholarship play its full public role.

Let me not fall prey to my own critique: each of the articles I have in mind is informative, and accurate in as far as they go. Rather, I’m raising the flag that being critical (which is necessary and indispensable) often requires working in the negative.

Quite rightly so: back-slapping which only emphasises success is not how we grow and learn… we must be able to engage in robust, honest and sometimes extremely difficult conversations.

But we don’t move past the critique. Which means we fail to imagine a positive alternative. To quote Naomi Klein, “‘No!’ is not enough.” We need something else to say ‘yes’ to as a viable, if ambitious, alternative to how things are. The tiny minority who hold power, both in SA and at the global scale, have built their empires on the panic generated by crises, and the confusion the general public experiences in such moments.

Desperate times shorten our horizons of thinking, making us prone to quick short-term fixes which are, in the longer run, not in our interests. We need to have a compass to guide our decision making when we address the immediate issues we face. That compass is an imagination of our collective future.

In my own sphere of scholarship, namely education policy for public schools, this tension manifests primarily in slippages between logics of equity, equality and adequacy. Zero-sum critiques quite rightly call for redistribution and redress between the haves and have-nots, to try and undo some of the damage done (and ongoing) from our deeply inequitable past, damage perpetuated intergenerationally by the status quo.

But these narratives fail to address the idea of a positive ideal of adequacy. When one person’s gain must come at the expense of another person’s loss, the result is a descent into mudslinging and superficial identity politics, drawing battle lines with poor proxy labels and erasing the complexity which is each child’s experience in the system. Such narratives also, ironically, perpetuate exactly what they critique: the hegemony of the tiny fraction of privileged schools in the system who garner our disproportionate attention.

Zero-sum narratives of who-must-lose-for-others-to-gain focus on the individual as the unit of analysis, eclipsing the collective good. Such a mindset precludes the ability for those who have access to privileges to see that holding slightly less as an individual is not a loss, but a gain at a different level: an investment towards building a collective society which is beneficial to all. We all benefit from reducing inequality; we all benefit from good health care; we all benefit from availing high quality public education to every child. To sketch the decisions to be made as “ex-White schools must lose in order for disadvantaged schools to win” completely ignores that ex-White schools win too if disadvantaged schools are capacitated to deliver their mandate. It’s not loss: it’s a different logic about what winning means.

Another example: decolonising university curricula. It is hard to reconcile calls for pluralism alongside thinly veiled ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with us. Pluralism is the exact opposite of this: it’s making space for difference of opinion while still managing to exercise what Margaret Archer has called “judgemental rationality”. I myself have been guilty in the past of mistaking the idea for the person… and it’s a struggle I continue with.

But if we cannot find mechanisms of critiquing that do not involve putting another person down, we will forever be stuck in these cycles of criticism and counter-criticism, taking pot shots at each other through the pages of weekly papers and online articles without actually daring to build a vision about what the society we want might look like. The task of the day is to somehow make the incommensurate commensurable .

A third example: our current almost OCD obsession with the state capture narrative. Again, for fear of being misunderstood, let me reiterate… paying attention to the graft that has gutted our young democracy is good! And necessary.

That’s not my point. Rather, if we lose sight of the bigger picture—namely how graft of this nature finds fertile soil in: particular political economic arrangements that promote individual self-interest; excessive consumption and; the acquisition and accumulation of hoards of capital as right and ethical and legal—we are missing the nature of the disease through our obsession with the symptom.

Arundhati Roy wrote about the very beguiling dead-end of ‘important, adult, real-politik’ that comes with whistleblowing in her essay “What shall we love?”, describing her Moscow meeting with Edward Snowden. All this focus on State Capture seems important. We feel very informed when we Mokgoro Commission this, and Bosasa that. But it has all the trappings of good reality TV, and at times seems more about the circus of bringing out the ‘guilty’ and trying them in public than about asking the harder questions about what brought us to this point, and what would our preferred alternative society look like. It has become, to be honest, a form of socially legitimized pearl-clutching-for-‘progressives’ when we would struggle, when pushed, to provide a positive definition of real progress.

The opposite unfortunately is also true: NGOs and other piecemeal reform initiatives that refuse to admit a negative word in edgeways. Only positive stories please, we want solutions, not problems. This Pollyanna-ism is not the opposite of the constant critic, but in fact his raison d’etre.

Just as Andile Mngxitama and Steve Hofmeyr profess in public to hate each other, they actually need each other to justify their own position. They are each others’ mirror image, and without the other, each would fail to have grounds for their polemic. The can-do NGOism and the ‘it’s all wrong’ of the critical sceptic are the same logic, in different guises. We need to be able to hold the positive and the negative in focus simultaneously.

We can construct arguments about why these issues matter to our future imagined society (why a struggling single parent in the Eastern Cape ‘should care’ about ex-white schools, decolonised university curricular or the Zondo Commission), but we regularly fail to place these symptoms into the broader picture and ask ourselves Roy’s question: “what shall we love?”… and how shall we love it? What does that ‘love’ look like? We are failing to be bold enough to imagine a different society for ourselves beyond GDP, ratings downgrades or the latest education flavor du jour, and we are failing to map the systemic steps we need to get there.

Critical scholars have such an important role to play in raising the alarm about social ills. We are obliged, and mandated, to use our precious privilege of time to read, write and think about these concerns for the public good: we must recognise this as a privilege, since our fellow citizens don’t get the luxury of naval gazing, busy as they are trying to just get to work and put food on the table for the family. We neglect our duty if all we can muster is diagnoses of symptoms, meanwhile failing to excite imaginings of what a humane alternative might look like.

As John Berger so rightly noticed, we don’t dream about utopias because they are achievable. We dream utopias to keep us walking forward.