South Africa: New Books - In, Against, Beyond Corona

book review

Opening with a poem by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, the Church Land Programme's response to the Covid-19 pandemic thinks deeply about how to resist and rebel to create a life-enhancing world.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from In, Against, Beyond Corona: What Does Living Through the Corona Crisis in South Africa Reveal To Us? (Church Land Programme (Pietermaritzburg) & Daraja Press (Ottawa), 2020) by the Church Land Programme, which is Mark Butler with Cindy Dennis, Phiwa Xulu, Zodwa Nsibande, David Ntseng, Graham Philpott, Zonke Sithole, Nomusa Sokhela, Skhumbuzo Zuma.

Dawn of Darkness

By Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

March 23, 2020

I know, I know,

It threatens the common gestures of human bonding

The handshake,

The hug

The shoulders we give each other to cry on

The neighbourliness we take for granted

So much that we often beat our breasts

Crowing about rugged individualism,

Disdaining nature, pissing poison on it even, while

Claiming that property has all the legal rights of personhood

Murmuring gratitude for our shares in the gods of capital.

Oh, how now I wish I could write poetry in English,

Or any and every language you speak

So, I can share with you, words that

Wanjikũ, my Gĩkũyũ mother, used to tell me:

Gũtirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa:

No night is so Dark that,

It will not end in Dawn,

Or simply put,

Every night ends with dawn.

Gũtirĩ ũtukũ ũtakĩa.

This darkness too will pass away

We shall meet again and again

And talk about Darkness and Dawn

Sing and laugh maybe even hug

Nature and nurture locked in a green embrace

Celebrating every pulsation of a common being

Rediscovered and cherished for real

In the light of the Darkness and the new Dawn.

In, against, beyond corona

Introduction

What does living through the corona crisis in South Africa reveal to us? That is the question that frames our thoughts here. We've been developing this as a kind of "document-in-progress" as our organisation carefully thinks through this time of Covid-19. We had some time to discuss important elements of this material together in Zoom reflections, in addition to writing, sharing, reading and commenting. But perhaps even in its "final" form, it will still be more a provocation for deeper reflection and debate.

Reflecting on what is revealed to us, it's important to see what is revealed as wrong and toxic - in ourselves, in our relations with others and in our relations with the rest of non-human nature. But it's also terribly important to listen for and to seek out what is revealed that is good and life-affirming. Both are vital. During the period we were developing this reflection, we were most likely only at the beginning of the catastrophe that is/was coming according to the most influential models predicting the course of the pandemic. So, we need to sustain ourselves through what is coming, and to recognise, expand and nurture all the good things for a future where we're working together, refusing to recreate what was wrong and toxic before.

One starting point for the reflections recorded here was a conversation about whether there might be value in thinking about the corona crisis through the lens of John Holloway's "in, against and beyond" arguments. Within our organisation, Holloway's thinking has been a central focus of our own reflections over the past years. In what follows, there may be echoes of this initial impetus but it is definitely not a systematic or exclusive "application" of that political frame - the process took its own direction which may not have anything to do with that imagined starting point. We can't imagine that Holloway himself would be impressed by some sort of mechanical or dogmatic "application" of his thought anyway!

Although the corona crisis is in continuity with much that preexisted it and that has characterised our capitalist, racist, (neo)colonial, (neo)liberal, eco-suicidal society for a long time, and although what it reveals starkly are, similarly, features that have long been present in contemporary society, nonetheless we must remain open to learning and thinking about the newness of corona too. We would be guilty of a real laziness of thought if we simply used the crisis as an opportunity to repeat what we've been saying all along, or to validate prior analyses and programmes of action without taking on board any new learnings. Aspects of its newness and of its potential scale of impacts mean that for some of us this has been a moment to pause before repeating old dogmas, critiques and assertions and before leaping to un- or superficially thought action. What we possibly confront at this time includes not only intensified rates of suffering and death, but greatly heightened levels of psycho-social anxiety and trauma. As such, this situation may call for a sense of being and presence, and not - or not only - doing and action. In reaction to flurried calls to act/do/organise/speak, many of the most useful responses have paused and reflected even while knowing also that acting/doing/organising/speaking is of course vital for our life, now and always.

And while it remains terribly important to sustain our critical vigilance at a time when powerful interests will use the crisis to leverage changes and reforms that suit them, a rigid adherence to singular explanations and reductionist analyses based on preexisting left-critiques will not serve the present moment well either. It is clear to some of us that this crisis may signal the need to revisit again any possible traditional left prioritisation of the social over the individual - but without degenerating into a liberal or libertarian fetish of the individual. It is clear both need to be taken seriously - with real sensitivity to the multiplicity of different needs within all realms. Similarly, the ways in which the corona crisis has emphatically foregrounded the fundamentally deep sense of the interconnectedness of all people, and of all people with the rest of the environment we're in, will validate for many a sense that any worthy understanding of moving beyond this point to something radically transformed will include reference to the "spiritual" dimension of our being and our being together.

Perhaps we have another opportunity to rethink "activism" too, and to recognise that for some people, a meaningful "role" is much more one of being rather than acting. Indeed, there have been times in crisis when it becomes clear that this invisible work can be the deepest resource for others to draw on in life, and perhaps especially when normal or taken-for-granted resources that people draw on are under stress or removed. Let us also acknowledge that non-action can sometimes be a result of being overwhelmed by, or simply not clear in, a situation (like now in a time of global crisis and unimaginable loss and death) - and that that's okay. In all though, let us at least recognise that doing is indeed vital but only where it is thought - and that, right now, means deep and serious reflective thought.

Interconnectedness of life and lives

A global viral pandemic emphatically foregrounds interconnectedness. Our thinking and doing in this time marks an important opportunity to learn and practise a deep understanding of that connection between all - between all people, and between people and the rest of the non-human world. It is an opportunity to see clearly the features of our current situation that are being revealed to us. It is a chance, in fact, to reclaim our doing and our relating from the morbid logics that brought us to this point of crisis, and a chance to reorient them around other life-affirming logics. The essential character of the pandemic reveals how the system has woven our individual and collective lives together across the globe, in ways that are obviously harmful to us all, to the world and to life itself. If we see and understand how we are made part of that deathly pattern of weaving, then we can also see that we have a choice to be, to do and to relate in ways that embrace and enhance life and love instead.

We apprehend that those ways of being, of doing, of relating are deeply human and are, and have always been, there in the daily rebellious refusals to conform to the world as it is, in the spaces of humanity that people defend against and beyond being stripped down to mere robots, profiteers and pen-pushers. In this way we can already look for the "beyond" in the now.

And if there is any meaningful way to talk now about "after" this crisis, then we should think about how we want to organise that part of human life described as "the economy" in a way where we refuse to split it off from the totality of human life. We need to organise the economic aspects of reproducing human life according to the same values and relations that we know now to be true and nurturing for all of our humanity. Indeed, perhaps especially those values made so abundantly clear now in this crisis - of our interconnectedness, and the deep value and dignity of everything and everyone, of compassion, of kindness, of gentleness, of sensitivity and humility in our ecological relations with the world. The separation of the economic aspect from the totality of our human life and lives, allows logics other than the best of our collective humanity to be imposed. And indeed, the same goes for those aspects called "the political". Continuing to think that we and our creative capacities are separate from "the economy", or indeed from "politics", allows our current deathly pattern of "normal" to continue on - but our refusal disrupts it.

This flows from an underlying approach that emphasises a consistent critique ad hominem, a critique that always reveals human agency and practice in the making of our context. So then, if the bad features emerge from our practice, and so too do the good, then it is in conscious attention to our doing (individual and collective) that we can turn away from the bad and toward the good. In that consciousness and turning, we recognise existing, as well as new, practices of everyday human and social (especially communitarian) life that defend and nurture life and its flourishing and reproduction. Here we find the real basis for going beyond in a deeply transformational and revolutionary way - the basis for a practice of doing that refuses the logic of money and power‑over, for a way of doing that is intrinsically life-enhancing, emancipatory and good.

These kinds of practices can be found in a variety of arenas, and especially in traditions of resistance and rebellion - some indigenous practices as well as some practices remembered from precapitalist pasts may embody such but, equally, they can be made new in current and novel experiments and interventions. In addition, there can be few spaces of human activity not impacted by the logic of capital around the world or that do not carry their own malignancies, pathologies and oppressions from earlier periods or parallel cultures of practice/s. (So we should be wary of any claims for a pure emancipatory subject or source!)

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