The challenge of ending life support for an ugly legacy.
A picture comes to mind of a group of bereaving family members surrounding a hospital bed and struggling to come to terms with the diagnosis that the patient is brain dead.
We’ve seen the scene many times before, mainly in those infernal TV hospital shows. Usually only one of the family elders is prepared to whisper “perhaps we should pull the plug!” The rest of the scene is mostly left for the next cheesy episode.
There are many, and not only of my generation, pigmentation and gender, who have felt for some time that the plug should have been pulled on the Apartheid legacy patient at least a decade ago.
By now you have probably seen or heard the dubious report posted on the social media blaming the previous regime for a local water shortage because they built the dams too big. It’s most likely a bit of April fool’s day satire that I am using only as a reflection of an issue that has become surreal on both sides. The questionable extent to which “the legacy” is blamed for most of our socio-economic malfunctions, and the hypocrisy that it covers, is nothing short of April fool’s folly.
There’s little point in old hacks like me shouting “pull the plug!” at the TV screen. But when one of the family elders hints at it, then it is time to listen. When a very senior ANC veteran, of the ilk of Trevor Manuel comes close to considering that prognosis then it should cause more than a stir amongst more than a few.
Perhaps I have read far too much into Manuel’s speech. Perhaps he did not mean to say much more than that civil service family members must stop obsessing about the patient and leave the hospital bed to get on with their work. But even that arguably comes close to being “insensitive” to emotions that have so overwhelmed his family. It is simply not the done thing, even for stalwart detractors amongst outsiders. And it is a big ask, especially when the family is stuck in and driven by two of the five stages of grief – anger and bargaining. In turn those stages hide far less noble causes – such as greed, power mongering, ineptitude, lack of accountability, false promises, political expediency, fuelling unrealistic expectations and hypocrisy.
The key question is whether Manuel’s lament will influence the writers of the next episode in our metaphorical hospital series. Will they come close to pulling the plug on a patient whose mere existence has given them so much material for episode after episode? Or maybe just reviewing the treatment? Or will Manuel himself become a sacrifice to keep the life support going, especially since the head of the family, Jacob Zuma, amongst others has come close to chastising him publicly?
The story seems to be getting “more legs” with the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation adding its voice for termination. It certainly deserves more “robust debate”, despite its hysterical sensitivity.
The question is whether the family will listen to objective physicians about how or indeed whether the patient should be treated from now on. The “legacy” argument has become a great inhibitor to rational thinking, and even respected academics and experts often skew information to argue against withdrawing life support for that patient, deflecting discourse from the real issues.
To take the medical metaphor a bit further: it’s been said that a very large part of medical treatment today is treating the side effects of other treatment. Sometimes the treatment can be worse than the disease. The debilitating side effects of treating the Apartheid legacy are becoming distressingly apparent. Only one of them is Manuel’s complaint of a large degree of dysfunction in government service at all levels. Other traces can be found in the “failure of Black Economic empowerment”, (to use the words of Moeletsi Mbeki); corruption, crime, cronyism, inequality, and worst of all growing racial distrust.
Whether valid or not, blaming others is always the simplest way of defending our own shortcomings. It is also the most counterproductive, obvious and disingenuous. As long as we blame the past for our own defects we will be trapped in inertia and self-destruction. The status of victim is seldom a noble one – especially when it is self-defined. Self-accountability and taking charge of our own lives is being eroded at an alarming rate. We can perish in blame, or prosper in self-accountability
Justice is best defined as love without emotion and attachment. It’s been said that it is at the highest order of human values because justice has to be informed by the others such as integrity, honesty, fairness, compassion, generosity and love. Justice is seldom fully achieved through a haggle such as Codesa, where the parties approach it for gain rather than contribution. Such a process may reach consensus, but seldom justice. The subsequent TRC also could not achieve justice, only a measure of fragile reconciliation. If justice is not achieved in the moment it can create an incubator for growing resentment and polarisation and ultimately a worse state than before. Then the only option is to move to the final stage of grief which is acceptance.
Of course we cannot go back and we have to recognise the need for creating a more equitable society taking into account the lingering effects of history pre and post 1948. But maintaining in perpetuity a balance sheet of assets and liabilities between races is clearly divisive and counterproductive. That balance sheet too needs re-auditing to recognise that people of all colours paid a high price to maintain the previous lamentable state The only way forward is to agree on a common vision which all approach in a spirit of giving rather than getting – and also not in the spirit of “you first”.
Letting go of the past is one of the most basic of life skills, applicable as much to a nation as to an individual.
For us it means taking a very malevolent brain dead patient off life support.