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South African crisis: despair, hope and the prophetic – Part Two


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South African crisis: despair, hope and the prophetic – Part Two

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

17th October 2023

By: Raymond Suttner


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What does one do to improve our conditions? When one reads about the notion of hope, some of it is in dense theoretical books (as in Ernst Bloch’s massive theoretical treatise The Principle of Hope 3 vols, MIT Press 1995) and others more accessible. My understanding is that hope is not the same as optimism, or hope cannot be seen as the opposite of pessimism. (See Terry Eagleton, Hope without optimism, University of Virginia Press, 2015, Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark. Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, 3 ed. Haymarket Books Chicago, 2016).  

In the case of optimism or pessimism, one simply has a sense that things will get better or worse, without one doing anything. That's how it will be and one is or is not an optimist or a pessimist. Optimism/pessimism will perpetuate passivity. What people need is to find a role for themselves, to exercise their subjective agency.


Rebecca Solnit writes of why she wrote on hope, as “speaking directly to the inner life of the politics of the moment, to the emotions and perceptions that underlie our political positions and engagements. Amazed by the ravenous appetite for another way of telling who and where we were, I decided to write this… book”. (Solnit, p. xiii. My italics).

This is how Solnit conceives hope:


“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. ‘Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivete,’ the Bulgarian writer Maria Popova recently remarked. And Patrise Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, early on described the movement’s mission as to ‘Provide hope and inspiration for collective action to build collective power to achieve collective transformation, rooted in grief and rage but pointed towards visions and dreams.’ It’s a statement that grief and hope can coexist.” (At pp. xiii-xiv).

The sense of or recourse to hope is a different type of orientation from optimism or pessimism. It does not work on certainties or rely on conditions that point to future victories. “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes - you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand…” (Solnit, at p. xiv).

Shakespeare captures this sense of navigating uncertainty when Banquo, in Macbeth asks the Witches:

“If you can look into the seeds of time

And say which grain will grow and which will not,

Speak then to me…” (I. 3. 22-3)

The notion of hope draws on lessons of history that can inspire our actions today and understandings of or openings for action in the present. One looks at the present for signs or germs of what could grow into something fresh and new, that may lead to the retrieval of what we have lost in recent years.

In this case, in particular, we can look at the history of the liberation of South Africa, when in the 1960s, the idea of being a free and democratic state led by Nelson Mandela and the ANC was something that was hoped for by many. But there were very few signs of that future victory, although people were then already building for the long term even though many thought they would not live to see the free South Africa for which they worked.

But there were signs in the underground, and gradually more and more public opposition with the rise of the Black Consciousness movement and June 1976, from exile, and from a number of solidarity movements. These and other forms of resistance were all part of the building of an alternative to the apartheid regime.

Hope then, as I understand it, is based not on something that is available there and then to quickly provide one with the alternatives that one needs. But it is based on lessons of history, that it sometimes takes very, very long for the achievement of gains, and those gains have to be protected and built on and augmented over time. That has happened in South Africa, as well as there being setbacks. It is also based on how one understands the present and what is unfolding.

Even when we look at the present, in the midst of the mire of corruption, violence, and abuse, there are signs of goodwill on the part of organisations like the Gift of the Givers, (who are also present in Gaza and have been there for some years).

Not only the Gift of the Givers point towards the future, but there are also smaller efforts by a number of people to help others through soup kitchens, collecting clothes and food or providing some element of shelter for people whose buildings have collapsed or have been burnt down. Or for those who have been or who are homeless on an almost permanent basis, one often finds some organised or voluntary assistance from others.

These are the embryonic forms of a broader humanism that one may hope to see develop. These are people who are embracing a notion of a common humanity. And that notion of a common humanity may not be widely diffused, but it is there and that is what one builds hope on, even if that hope will not be realised soon or a time cannot be given for its achievement. It nevertheless represents a sense of what one may achieve for the future that we have to build.

The notion of the prophetic

I am not religious but I've come to learn from the notion of prophecy, how to analyse situations which may relate to the remedying of the crisis that we continue to face in this country. This is in order to build what enhances common wellbeing. The late Albert Nolan explains what prophecy means:

“Prophets are typically people who can foretell the future, not as fortune-tellers, but as people who have learned to read the signs of their times. It is by focusing their attention on, and becoming fully aware of the political, social, economic, military, and religious tendencies of their time that prophets are able to see where it is all heading.” (Albert Nolan, Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom, Cape Town, Double Story Books, 2006, pp.63-4).

This “reading the signs of the times” is what Marxists and possibly others would call understanding the “current conjuncture”.

One reads the signs of the time in order to recognise what can grow and what may well be signs that one needs to augment and build and increase and replicate in a number of areas of the country.

The notion of prophecy, of being a prophet is not something that belongs only to great and mighty figures. All of us need to understand the conjuncture or read the signs of the times or learn how to read the signs of the times from those who are doing it and making it available to us. We need to read the signs of the times without any attempt to reduce the difficulties in our interpretation.

We should do nothing that attempts to make it seem easier than the task is. That, in my view, is what some opposition parties do when they seek to portray themselves as being able to fairly easily resolve the problems of the country.

Remedying the problems of the country, even if the ANC were no longer the leading force in government or were right outside of government, is still going to take a long time to achieve.

We cannot underestimate that. And we cannot downplay the importance of small-scale, incremental improvements in the situation. In many cases, some people are alive today because of incremental small-scale interventions by charitable organisations or by healthcare workers, or by others who are trying to assist those who are in difficulty. We need to look at these situations, identify them and throw our weight behind them.

Not offering a comprehensive solution

What is small in one situation, when added together with other locations with similar small efforts may become bigger and sufficiently large scale to change the conditions in the country.

I do not pretend to be offering an alternative that is a viable programme for remedying the problems of the country at the moment.

What I am trying to do is to offer some glimmers of hope, a methodology for small-scale interventions that may become large scale, drawing on the history, the memory that we have or need to retrieve, of what we as ordinary human beings have been able to achieve in this country. What has been done in the past must be restored to our memory, demonstrating the power that we potentially have to turn around what is happening in our country.

That resource cannot simply be forgotten. It is a resource that we always drew on in the liberation Struggle when the ANC’s Radio Freedom would recite the heroes and heroines of the past who had resisted colonial aggression and conquest, because that was a sense of the power that the people had and the power they could again achieve.

We need to rebuild those resources in new conditions. Even if we start in a small way, we need to identify places where we can make an impact and involve as many people as possible in developing them.

NOTE: I do not pretend to be an expert on the concepts of hope or prophecy, especially the former. I have been urged to provide an answer to disillusionment beyond what I have written before. This is part of my response and I hope to build on it in future contributions.

Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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