Wednesday, 4 February 2009

The elephant

All the political parties in South Africa are launching their election manifestos. They're putting out there their beliefs and plans and ideas. And it seems, for a change, that this time around there is enough uncertainty about who will win the vote, or at least about the size of the majority, that people are paying attention. People are paying enough attention that it makes complete sense for the SABC to move their election debate to prime time because people care that much. It's great to see. There is an energy, an intensity, as if the country is excited about the election and about their democracy.

But all the time this amazing national conversation (and the unfortunate spin-off violence in KZN) is going on, there is a great, big elephant slap-bang in the middle of the room. It is large and grey and definitely there that it is impossible for people to converse without leaning around it and walking around from one side of the room to the other. So people wander around and gather in little groups to have their conversations. But no-one mentions the elephant. It's just not done to talk about the very large elephant that's in the process of squashing the coffee table.

I suppose the equivalent would have been the US elections proceeding with no explicit mention of the economic crisis. It sounds terribly alarmist to use the analogy but the statistics very clearly suggest that we're there, that we've reached that level of crisis.

In South Africa we've used this approach before – and to good effect. By continuing to live ordinary lives amidst the horror of Apartheid, we were able to stall long enough to have a negotiated revolution instead of a terrible civil war. That was an amazing achievement. But it's a whole lot less likely to work against this particular enemy.

As the election draws closer and the issues are more and more hotly contested, it is somewhat terrifying to think that this massive grey elephant will just sit there being ignored. In the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to do with my life. I know that I don't want to work in this field but I am starting to become aware that there might be a place and a need for people who will be able and willing to come back and pick up the pieces once the crisis has passed. I'm not sure exactly what form that will take but every day that passes convinces me further that it will be necessary.

In the meantime I find myself increasingly uneasy as I watch South Africa's eloquent and well-practiced dance to ensure lively, fruitful debate about all the important issues with never the slightest mention of the elephant in the middle of the room.

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