Desmond Tutu claimed we were a Rainbow Nation. Thabo Mbeki described two South African nations. Jacob Zuma isn’t sure how many there are — there’s sort of one-and-a-half, a unified and happy country that is deeply unequal and, therefore, miserable. But also happy. But also challenged. But also unified. But in need of being more unified. Eh. Heh heh…
Of course, all three are wrong. There are dozens of nations in South Africa. Rich, poor, female, male, young, old, urban, rural, modern, traditional, religious, atheist, intelligent, stupid, on Twitter, not on Twitter, unemployed, self-employed, retired: all inhabit their own country, unrecognisably different from all the others. And, it seems, hell-bent on slagging off the other lot.
Recently, a white woman from a particularly frightened and stupid nation claimed that black people were “monkeys”, while the president of the ANC Youth League nation (a tiny, fractious country prone to verbosity and heartburn) used the same word to describe the citizens of the Revolutionary Republic of the EFF.
Both were rightly condemned. “Monkey” is a word dripping with racist poison, and should be considered an illegal weapon the free-for-all of public debate, much as dum-dum bullets are banned in warfare. The recent history of Rwanda has also given us ample warning about what happens when people start calling each other dehumanising names.
Compared to the major crimes committed by racists and mass-murderers, the sin of co-opting language seems quite mild. But still, I think it is a pity that they have turned “monkey” and “ape” into curse words, just as I think it‘s sad that we have turned “dog”, “shark” and “snake” into insults. Because the more we associate the names of our animal cousins with the rhetoric of bigots or the characters of villains, the less likely we will be to think of ourselves as animals. And that, I think, robs us of a valuable opportunity: to step away from our human vanity; to observe ourselves, like David Attenborough eavesdropping on a gang of lemurs; and in so doing, to discover that we‘re not as complicated — or fractured — as we think.
For starters, we‘d see that many of our most prized “human” systems are just posh words for things animals have been doing for millions of years. For example, when apes obey the largest and noisiest males that have collected the most grubs, we call it competition. When we obey the largest and noisiest males who have collected the most grubbiness, we call it politics.
living in a group is confusing, but it is better than going it alone
If we managed to look beyond the familiar constructs — the political factions, the social cliques, the cultural enclaves — we might finally see a single species, brash and frightened and stupid and brilliant. We‘d see that it endlessly hurts itself and makes the wrong choices. But we would also see one important — and ultimately reassuring behaviour. We would see that despite all the shrieking and chest-thumping, ours is a species that constantly strives to fit in, to accommodate, to defuse conflict; to work (however unconsciously) for the good of the group.
If we allow ourselves to embrace our animal-ness, then we might finally appreciate the gift our ancestors left us: a set of extraordinary, subtle behaviours that allow us to live — and thrive — in large groups. We might understand the value of being social animals; that, while living in a group is noisy, stressful, sometimes violent and always confusing, it is better than going it alone.
Which brings me back to the State of the Many Nations. Paradoxically, the president‘s speech will fracture us by presenting a unifying narrative. Millions won‘t believe a word of it. It will fuel their sense that everything is rotten and falling apart, and encourage them to withdraw deeper into their small nations. Many of us will feel renewed anxiety that nobody except the few members of our own tiny nation know what they‘re doing; that we need to haul up the drawbridge and get ready to wait out some lean, dangerous years.
It is good to be suspicious, to hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Our ability to plan for various outcomes is a gift we don‘t share with our animal relatives. But I also think it might be helpful, as the think-pieces fall thick and fast and the big intellects get to work on us, to remember our ancient animal selves.
We got here by working together, constantly, in small ways we don‘t even notice any more. Living on top of each other, with each other, despite each other, is one of the things we are genuinely good at.
So let us be at peace in our federation of nations, recognising difference without fearing it. Let‘s ignore the politicians: they never loved us anyway. And let‘s count on the only thing we’ve really ever been able to count on: each other.
First published in The Times