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People are talking without speaking, listening without hearing in South Africa

The urgent need for South Africa’s rehabilitation may only begin with a united voice of the people that speaks and acts on behalf of all who live in the country and gives the highest priority to the elimination of a political regime that has gone rogue. As former minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, said, “We did during apartheid, we can do it again”.

Just the other day a childhood friend sent me a video recording of Simon and Garfunkel’s famous 1960s chart buster and an all-time great, the ‘Sound of Silence’. Just imagine the joy and nostalgia that I experienced from listening to this masterpiece. After viewing the video a few times, I sat back and reminisced about the decade when the song was released. I was in the prime of my life and it was an era when major disruptions were occurring, both in South Africa and globally.

I remembered about the dark days of apartheid. It was at the beginning of this decade that the country witnessed the Sharpeville Massacre and it came to symbolise the struggle against one of the most abhorrent social engineering systems of our time. ANC president Albert Luthuli received the Nobel Peace Prize and Nelson Mandela and eight others were sentenced to life in prison in the Rivonia trial during this decade. The South African state was in ferment. Local political activists educated young and old about the pernicious apartheid system and why it was important to agitate for our liberty. Detractors of the struggle for freedom were identified and marginalised from the mainstream of community life. Collective conversations were sincere and people from all walks of life spoke frankly about social, economic and political problems.

Towards the end of that decade I also recalled how my childhood friends and I sat hurdled around a transistor radio listening to the moon landing. It turned out to be the most significant event of the century.  It was also in that epoch that Dr Chris Barnard performed the world's first human to human heart transplant. It was the era of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Muhammed Ali and when President Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.  

I ruminated about the richness of community life in the multiracial neighbourhood of my birth. Despite the racial, religious, cultural and other differences, humanity was palpable. People were benevolently linked by birth, friends, empathy and just being neighbours. An individual’s problem became the community’s problem. I was a child of my community and nobody dared violate my rights or cause harm to me. Equally, when I was being mischievous or out of order, the elders of my community had every right to chide me. Elders were respected and regarded as ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’. They were our mentors. Conversations were sincere and people from all walks of life spoke frankly about social, economic and political problems.

People acted with conviction. Intrinsic values such as good and evil were clearly pronounced. A spirit of neighbourliness was all too prevalent and poverty was shared. Crime against person or property was a rarity and perpetrators were severely chastised by the community. Ask anyone who lived in Durban’s Greyville and Casbah areas and they will corroborate this testimony of life as it was. These were the days of our lives – full of compassion, rich, meaningful and full of hope. Indeed this was a period of major disruption – the good, the bad and the ugly.

As soon as I returned to terra firma after a spell reminiscing in the clouds, I reflected on the song and what in particular appealed to my senses, especially in terms of the contemporary political and economic malaise that pervades our beautiful country.  It was the third verse of the song which really brought me back to reality.

“Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence”

The “Sound of Silence” suggests that there is reluctance on the part of ordinary people to speak out against contemporary social maladies within our society.  Secondly, the verse alludes to the fact that a myriad people are “...talking but not speaking” referencing the fact that people are happy to live life as it is, without acting or attempting to change those critical issues that negatively affect their lives the most. It is as if people are “... hearing without listening” which could be construed as people are unintentionally censoring something that goes against their conscience or intrinsic beliefs. It could also mean that people are assimilating information without critically processing it. It is as if people are living in a happy state of consciousness in the belief that all is well and dare not challenge this false premise for fear that their ‘personal spaces’ will be violated and as a result they dare not defy the eerie ‘silence’ of myopic righteousness.

Or, it could mean that people are traumatised by violence and crime against person and property to such an extent that they are psychologically too numb to articulate any view or feeling about their state of being. Their inner ‘silence’ and ‘external noise’ says it all.

The deep significance of Simon and Garfunkel’s song can easily be grasped when we relate it to the socio-political and economic crisis that pervades contemporary South Africa. In almost all social circles people chatter and whisper about how their dreams of a rainbow nation have been shattered, the sorry state of our economy, corruption, state capture, patronage politics, and the grief experienced by those who have become victims of violent crime. It would seem that as much as people rant within their siloed personal spaces, the power of the ‘real voice’ of the people is seriously lacking – the kind of collective voices which a few decades ago not only brought down the might of the apartheid regime, but also the kind of conversations that provided insight, inspired thinking and sparked action that went beyond the parochial self.

Where for example is the collective voice of the people that speaks about how we as a nation are going to restore faith in a country that has been brutalised by poor governance, lack of inclusive development and poor leadership? How often do we speak on behalf of the poorest and most disenfranchised in order to give the highest priority to the elimination of extreme deprivation?

Only by breaking the ‘sound of silence’ and acting collectively as a social movement of conviction can people demand for social justice, an end to corruption, predatory leadership,  crimes against  humanity, inclusive economic growth, sustainable development, peace and  a fairer sharing of the country’s wealth and resources. Such collective power of voice and action is likely to unify all citizens on a common platform, one that recognises the need for the true spirit of democracy to prevail.

The urgent need for South Africa’s rehabilitation may only begin with a united voice of the people that speaks and acts on behalf of all who live in the country and gives the highest priority to the elimination of a political regime that has gone rogue. As former minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, said, “We did during apartheid, we can do it again”. Our conscience must guide us.

Based on such an appeal to our common humanity and compassion, the greatest hope for the future in South Africa is a popular civil society movement that demands a socially just, corruption and crime free sustainable democratic nation as its all-embracing cause. The rising voices of the people globally, i.e. from Tahrir Square (Egypt) to the Puerta del Sol (Spain), Wall Street (New York), Sao Paulo (Brazil) and St Paul's Cathedral (England) and the sudden awakening of the ‘real voices’ of global civil society should be a positive reminder that we will not be alone. We have to reclaim our country and our streets for the future of our nation and its children. We owe it to our struggle heroes of the Madiba kind to restore their legacies.

In traversing this path of harnessing the true might of the voices and actions of the people we will be entering into unchartered territory with a bouquet of possibilities. The political will and imagination of ordinary people will be given authorisation to propose radical alternatives to existing socio-political arrangements and economic structures. It will not be the first time in South Africa’s history that ordinary people, and not political leadership or government, will be declaring their justifiable needs and pointing the way to a more just, and hopeful future.

This exhortation of disrupting the ‘sound of silence’ may sound like utopian thinking in the present context of the breakdown of the country’s political economy, but it also assumes that the precondition of a defined need for a curative change in South Africa is in the capable hands of ordinary citizens – you and I. It assumes nothing more than redirecting public attention towards immediate human need, which is far from an attempt to satisfy some idealistic theory of a revolution.  

For those people who are ‘talking but not speaking’ and ‘listening without hearing’, I urge you to pay attention to Walter Whitman’s famous quote: “There is no week nor day nor hour when tyranny may not enter upon this country, if the people lose their roughness and spirit of defiance”.  All tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.

* PROFESSOR DHIRU SONI is Director for Research and Innovation at REGENT Business School and writes in his personal capacity.



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