The young woman at the clinic had just received unexpected and upsetting news: she was six months pregnant with a human baby.
The doctor gently asked her if she had noticed any changes in her body that might have revealed the living thing growing inside her. Yes, she said, of course she‘d noticed changes. She wasn’t stupid. She‘d just never considered the possibility that it might be a baby.
The doctor was confused. What had she thought it was? A magical frog, answered the young woman; probably put there by a witch paid off by someone who bore a grudge against her.
The doctor who told us the story had done enough community service in rural areas to know such things were complicated and not easily dismissed with a “she should know better”. But the man across the table from me was aghast. How could people still believe in magic in the 21st century? How could any country hope to move forward when people still held medieval beliefs?
It was a peculiar thing for him to say, mainly because he had made it clear that he was a proud Christian, which meant that his beliefs were also medieval. But, more importantly, it seemed odd for someone to dismiss one magical tradition while being an eager supporter of another, in his case a Middle Eastern one in which bushes talk, sticks turn into snakes, oceans part and people come back from the dead.
The religions imported from the Middle East have used extraordinary violence to rebrand themselves as non-magical, so it‘s understandable that believers would actively reject the idea of magic existing in the modern world. These days, though, you don‘t need to burn women for witchcraft to stamp out magic: you just need to let the routine of urban drudgery suck the fairy dust out of life.
These days, magic is seen as something for children and depressed illusionists lurking along rain-swept piers in the off-season. Which is an astonishing self-delusion, because almost every single one of us has a deep, unshakable belief in magic. No matter our faith, our traditions, our history or our education, almost everybody believes in the possibility of a single transformative moment — a flash of light, a blue fairy, a line of numbers on a Lotto ticket — that will turn bad into good, sadness into joy and a pile of straw into a heap of gold.
If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved
If we weren’t steeped in magical fantasies, the advertising industry wouldn’t exist. We know that advertisements are lies, and that we are being deceived by people who are paid to suppress our critical faculties. And yet the ad industry is worth $600-billion a year because under our fashionable cynicism, deep down, we nurture the possibility of magic. If only we smear snail goo on our face, we might be loved. If only we drive that car, we might be popular. If we just do that one thing, the spell will be spoken, the room will glow, and everything will be instantly all right.
It might seem incongruous to find that childlike hope permeating our political landscape, a place where parasites are willing to kill each other for a place at the artery. But those parasites are there precisely because we South Africans can‘t break free of our belief in magic.
We’ve been inhaling the fairy dust forever. If we make the castle walls high enough we won‘t ever need to have any dealings with the natives. If we just kill our cattle, the whites will be flung into the sea. If the National Party can just find a way to separate whites and blacks, the Republic will thrive. If we can only end apartheid, Uhuru will follow. If we can just recall Mbeki we‘ll finally have the country we deserve. If they find a way to remove Zuma, everything will eventually be okay. If only Helen Zille ran this province, she’d fix everything! If only everyone could see sense and vote EFF, President Commander Malema will create a land of milk and honey!
On and on, the same fantasy. And as we dream, the cynical realists get richer and more powerful because they understand magic better than we do: the magic of rhetoric, of how to play to our self-delusion, of preaching revolution and anti-capitalism while investing their cash in the cold, hard, non-magical market.
I don‘t think we‘re going to abandon magic any time soon, but if we can begin to accept that we have a pathological weakness when it comes to charismatic men promising us instant, permanent fixes, then we might have a chance to begin pulling this country back on a path towards something better.
It‘s time to break the spell. It‘s time to wake up.