Let’s hear all of South Africa’s stories


Let’s hear all of South Africa’s stories

We may not like them or agree with them, but the more versions of ‘history' we have access to, the greater our chance of learning from it, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN


I RECENTLY started working on a manuscript. There is a long road ahead. The first line of the manuscript relays what a couple of publishers told me a few years ago, before I sat down to write what would become a memoir/social criticism/commentary. The following are the first two sentences of the new manuscript: “Show, don’t tell. Let me tell you a story.”

This turn to “telling” and not merely “showing” is not so much my usual skop-teen-die-kar of orthodoxy as an insistence that the act or the art of storytelling cannot be allowed to be mixed into a potjie of objectivity, distance, and a belief and insistence that the telling of stories cannot accurately narrate the present or the past. My immediate response is that it assumes that we, humans, are not part of the world in which we live. It overlooks the fact that our social or cultural origins are simultaneously diverse, that they are shaped by history and by ideas that rise in prominence then collapse in irrelevance, obsolescence and, very often, in intellectual embarrassment.

I always associate all of that “objectivity” stuff with the belief among rationalists (especially orthodox economists and market fundamentalists) that the social world somehow functions on the basis of a single set of laws, “like physics”, and that all of it can and should be computed algorithmically.

Indulge me with the next couple of paragraphs; they are relevant. I believe quite firmly that for most of the past six or seven decades, across the era when African and many Asian countries became independent, there has been an insistence among global public policy makers, dominated as they are by Europeans and offshoots of “the European world”, that the rules of the world should remain in the image of Europe. Part of this is that diverse “other” cultures and narratives are dismissed, pejoratively, as “mere folklore”. In this respect, “folklore” was “superseded”, dismissed as backward, and therefore belonged to “lesser civilisations”.

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It often starts at the top. In the 1950s, the “language” and “logic” of economism prevailed globally. It took firm root when the world was stamped with the imprimatur of European enlightenment beliefs, especially Cartesian thinking, and was heavily influenced by “Cold War rationalism” and “American enlightenment”. To get a sense of the trajectory and resistance to the project of normalising rationalism and “reason”, the interested reader may want to read some of the relevant texts starting with documents that emanated from the African Study Meeting on Copyright (1963), which addressed protection and promotion of folklore, and the Stockholm Conference for the Revision of the Berne Convention (1967), which specifically addressed protecting “the rights of authors and their literary and artistic works”. More recent and relevant were the “Model Provisions for National Laws for the Protection of Folklore Against Illicit Exploitation and Other Prejudicial Actions” set out by the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Let’s return to the act of storytelling, never mind insistence on objectivity or keeping a distance from our own lives.

Personal storytelling matters

As unreliable as memory may be as a guide to what actually happened, as opposed to what we think or recall happened, we can and should tell our stories. Are we then not subjects of our lives and the tellers of our stories and all that is right and wrong with them? The act of writing, or at least what comes from writing, is always a social (political and historical) act in the sense that for better or for worse, readers respond to what they read. The reader becomes emotionally involved in the story. The storyteller — the narrator or the writer — may think she is simply telling a story, but that story says a lot about the narrator, the writer and the past. Surely we talk and write about things that have happened. Bear in mind, here, that “the past” is different from history. One of the most fascinating things about our recollections of the past is how we have changed, how conditions have changed and how we respond to those changes. Our telling of our own stories becomes infinitely better, selective as it might be, than someone else telling our stories.

I read, for instance, Roelf Meyer’s accounts of the past three decades of democracy last weekend and was fascinated by the things he said. He was generally positive about developments, without being naive or selective in his recollections and morality. I contrasted what Meyer said, as reported in the weekend papers, with the Meyer I got to know (and write about) almost four decades ago. At the time, when he was in the law and order ministry, Meyer said, in response to youth protests, that no self-respecting government would have children dictating to it. In some ways he was right, in other ways he was wrong.

Young people petitioned for change, necessary change, for most of the late 1970s and 1980s. Part of Meyer’s role, at the time, was to represent resistance to that change — to the extent that he could. While the children on the street told a story, so to speak, Meyer also told a story. My response, as a writer (and regular oped writer on Sowetan), was that he was “FW de Klerk’s Machiavellian understudy”. There is probably no greater insult in politics than being described as Machiavellian. I was wrong and I was right. Whatever may be thought about the acts of the time, the stories are important and need to be told over and again, even if they are contentious. Whatever we may now think of that — we both made it through those turbulent times, he seems in better shape — we can, now, reflect on the past. It may seem that Meyer has changed (have we not all changed?) but perhaps he was simply playing the role he was meant to play. Anyway, the point is that Meyer’s story is as important as any of the stories of millions of people.

A great value of telling our stories is that, supposing there are 100 versions of the past, we have 100 potentially differing stories to make a more complete picture of the past, helping us make better judgments and decisions.

The trial of Donald Trump in the US tells the story of a man accused of (and for which there is evidence) profoundly questionable morals and offences. With the legal trial as story, we learn about Trump, his treatment of women, about the US presidency, society, and it all helps us get a better grip on a country that has always presented itself as the greatest place that the Judeo-Christian god has given the world. Just the way I wrote the last part of that sentence demonstrates how a narrative takes a position, as it were, and thereby paints a particular picture. Trump’s supporters would, of course, tell a different story.

A role that news reporters and columnists relish is criticising what others have said. I often take my cue from Giambattista Vico when I approach criticism of a writer or commentator. There are several principles that guide my writing but an important one has to be fierce opposition to the writer who imagines that the position they take (never mind the bollocks, we all frame our reportage) is the only one, and by dint of that it is a true reflection, based on ideas and beliefs that are eternally valid. The writer thereby makes herself the measure of all things. I have written about this issue in several ways, see here, here, here, here and here.

In our defence, we say that so and so is wrong because of this and that. Another strength is to simply write the story or describe and analyse the story the way you see it, and allow the reader to decide. It’s all political and it’s always better to have as many stories as possible.

Politics, economics and cultural moorings of storytelling

In February, I asked in this space whether I could produce an essay without drawing on the Eurocentric education I received. This was, of course, provocative, but it also rolled out ideas shaped by the return of storytelling by people from Asia, Latin America, Africa and indigenous people in North America and the antipodes. I actually don’t believe storytelling was in decline when Walter Benjamin suggested it was five or six decades ago. This takes nothing away from my adoration of Benjamin. Anyway, the February column was an insistence that I could and should attempt to write my own story unaffected by European influence and domination — as explained with the “global” perspective above and orthodoxy in general — and wondered out loud whether it is possible for someone as heavily influenced as I am by my European education to write from outside the European frame.

There is a veritable genre of post-colonial writing, and though I am not a post-colonialist (nor a post-modernist or a post-structuralist), there is enormous wonder and beauty in the literary works of writers, storytellers like Amitav Ghosh, Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Salman Rushdie, Mario Vargas Llosa, AS Byatt and early VS Naipaul. I have difficulty placing JM Coetzee in this genre, but he has been placed there.

These writers of storytelling as literature are a select few who have made it in print, so to speak. They have helped weave narratives with the skilful use of imagination, metaphor, description, history and imagery, and attempt from the first word to grab the reader’s attention, hold it and draw the reader into the story and towards its conclusion. These are indispensable to good storytelling. Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is probably the best introduction to early independence Nigeria. What remains to be said, or discussed, is the “economics” of it all.

Publishers are often unashamed to ask (of the best writers and possibly exceptional writing) whether it will sell, and part of this involves whether there is a “readership”. Let’s face it, for the independent writer (not funded by grants or backed by institutions) the decisive factor is almost always whether a book will sell. Apart from the danger, alluded to above, of deciding whose story and what story is more important, all the factors introduced above — ideas of objectivity, show don’t tell, prevailing expectations and orthodoxy — are decisive when considering the economics of it all. If, taking it from “the top”, the world is in a state, globally, where particular topics are considered to be more worthy than others (dismissed, as they have been, as “folklore” or “tradition”), and if, as a US journalist suggested many years ago (about Sowetan), we “fail the objectivity test”, presumably because we were positioned as an anti-apartheid newspaper, we reach a situation where single-story narratives are given prominence.

This single-story narrative is what politicians thrive on, propaganda in this case, and means we have to be extra-vigilant. We have to tell, write, read and reproduce the stories of our life and times, notably of the past 30 years of democracy in South Africa, and never suppress views that make us uncomfortable (there are others, to be sure, who may not share the discomfort), to help us make better decisions about the future. Storytelling has that power. Physicists, priests, philosophers and the postman all live and ply their craft through storytelling. Allow me a point of didacticism. When writing stories, always accept and acknowledge that you can be wrong, and when you make statements or claims, leave room for irrationalities and for things that are not visible through the senses.

♦ VWB ♦

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