The late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano was a master of the vignette, of capturing moments, tiny or grand, and drawing them together to mean something. Here are four sentences from Galeano, the entry for February 6 in his Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (2013):
The Wail / Bob Marley was poor and slept on the studio floor when he recorded his first songs. In a few short years he became rich and famous, sleeping on a feather bed, cuddling Miss World, adored far and wide. But he never forgot that he was more than himself. Through his voice sang the resonances of times long past, the fiesta and fury of warrior slaves who for two centuries drove their owners crazy in the mountains of Jamaica.
Words, the ideas in them, combine like droplets, eventually forming pools wide and deep enough for reflection.
The reader feels something of Galeano in the new book by Richard Pithouse, Writing the Decline: On the Struggle for South Africa’s Democracy. Written as more than 40 articles over a period of seven years, Writing the Decline is not astandard book-length work of nonfiction. Its ligaments are looser. Each piece rings against what Pithouse calls “the anvil of the present,” but in harmony with the rest. As the recorded moments collect, fluidly moving from the intensely local to the global, from the historical to the contemporary; as they become a catalogue, become a history, their shared logic coalesces.
In the emerging pools, grown wide enough for reflection, focal points appear. “There are moments,” writes Pithouse, in the book’s 10th piece, “when a society has to step back from the ordinary thrum of day-to-day life and ask itself how it has become what it has become. There are times when a society has to acknowledge that it cannot go on as it is and ask what must be done to set things on a new and better course” (p. 48). Writing the Decline provokes such a reflection.
The third decade of South African democracy has begun. It was a democratic birth heralded around the world, symbolized by Nelson Mandela walking free from his prison of almost three decades. However, democracy has not changed the fact that, for many South Africans, especially Black and poor South Africans, life is marked by exclusions. The democratic period lengthens, but, especially during Jacob Zuma’s presidency since 2009, theexclusions experienced by many South Africans because of race, class, gender, sexual orientation or place or birth grow more pronounced, often violent. Democracy is dwindling to a formal ostentation, a private preserve of jealous political power and, writes Pithouse, “crony capitalism greased with corruption, wrapped in an escalating conflationof both the nation and the state with the ruling party, and defended with growing authoritarianism.”
The contemporary South African society that Pithouse describes is bitter, yet startlingly normal:
Christmas in Durban is all glorious blue skies, litchis, mangoes, fish curry, white beaches and the shimmering ocean. But the ocean, beautiful and inviting as it is, is full of shit because hundreds of people are denied sanitation. And this Christmas two of the shack settlements up in the hills burnt because shackdwellers are denied electricity and decent housing. It’s the holidays, though, and there’s celebration everywhere, meat and beer everywhere, and down on the promenade along the beach, the city’s only really inclusive public space, it feels like we’re all in this together.
He writes with an austere horror at what is horrifying about the modern world, with a sincere appreciation for what is beautiful, and with political certainty that we must contest the former.
Another focal point surfaces. “To a significant degree, our future will be forged in the ferment happening outside liberal institutions and norms. It is imperative,” maintains Pithouse, “that this space, this radically diverse space, is engaged on the basis of evidence and reason.” From the first pages, Pithouse shows that those facing exclusion are important protagonists in this necessary contestation. Many of the pieces included in Writing the Decline are about shack settlements and community activists in Durban; people fighting daily to earn something and to live; people who are also fighting against illegal eviction by local government; violence, including assassination, from the police; and against both state and popular xenophobia — all a part of a project of narrowing the scope of legitimate South African society. Pithouse shows how, although they are repressed and decried as irrational and violent, the excluded poor nonetheless think, organize and act politically to assert their humanity and their place in society. It is a politics that “endures, fragile but alive.”
More than once, Pithouse reminds us that ideas move across the world in the hands of ordinary people. In the turn ofthe 19th century, sailors and slaves carried revolt from Haiti to the United States and South Africa. In 2014, Palestinian activists sent advice and support to protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Ideas about community organizing are sometimes shared between shack settlements within a single city. There are times when ideas in the hands ofordinary people are explosive, inspiring enormous changes in lived reality. But there are other times, no less important, when sharing means affirming the daily struggle to survive in the “exhausting limbo” of a world that does not care, and affirming those aspirations that exceed mere survival.
Writing the Decline is about more than South Africa. It assembles Crazy Horse, Chelsea Manning, Haitian revolutionaries, hunger strikers in Northern Ireland and Palestine, shack dwellers and students in South Africa: people whose actions held potential for a truer democracy than that extended by modern states, South Africa not alone. Writing the Decline deserves to be read outside of South Africa. It is an opportunity, like those Pithouse recounts, for sharing widely the experiences and ideas developed in the hands of ordinary people. Pithouse’s voice is clear, observant, critical, eloquent and yet unpretentious. His is one voice, linking many, singing the resonances of these times.