This address was delivered to the Strategic Dialogue Group on 23 June 2023…
What I would like to talk about today, are the lessons of three allegories – the allegory of the cave, the allegory of metamorphosis and the allegory of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I have chosen these three allegories because I believe they have valuable lessons and in many ways, can help both the Strategic Dialogue Group and all us in our different organisations as we try to reset the values and morals that are critical for the deepening and strengthening our democracy, helping to ensure that in reality, it is meaningful and relevant, especially to the poor and the marginalised of our society; as well as trying to understand and navigatethe current complex and complicated global relations.
First, the Allegory of the Cave by the Greek philosopher, Plato. The allegory is presented by Plato in his work Republic and is written as a dialogue between Plato’s brother, Glaucon and his mentor Socrates. In the allegory, Plato describes a group of people – prisoners –who have lived chained inside a cave all their lives, facing a blank wall, which is like a mirror. They are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them perpetually to gaze at the wall in front of them.
Behind the prisoners, there is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners, is a raised passage with a low narrow path, where people walk carrying objects. These people walk in a manner that their bodies do not cast shadows for the prisoners to see, but the objects they carry can be seen as shadows by the prisoners. On the wall, the prisoners watch projected shadows of theobjects passing in front of a fire behind them. The sounds of the people talking, echo off the walls and the prisoners believe these sounds come from the shadows. They then give names to these shadows of the objects. For the prisoners, the shadows of the objects shielding people carrying them are a reality because they have never seen anything else. But since they have been in this dungeon all their lives, their eyes are used to the darkness of the cave, the illuminating fire behind them (not the direct fire) and the shadows.
Then, after a long time, some prisoners are releasedfrom the cave. They would then turn around to look direct at the fire. The direct light will hurt their eyes and make it difficult to see the people carrying the objects that have been casting shadows on their wall. They are then told that they are now seeing reality instead of the mirror image of that reality to which they were accustomed – and that is the real fire and the real people carrying the objects that were casting shadows. To add to their disorientation and bemusement, they now see the natural sunlight, something to which their eyes are not accustomed.
So, there are three bewilderments: the direct fire, actual people carrying the objects (rather than the shadows of the objects) and the sun. Both the direct fire and the sun are now hurting their eyes; and the people who are carrying the objects they have always seen as shadows adds to their utter befuddlement. In pain and confusion, these freed prisoners refuse to adjust to their new reality. Instead, they turn away and run back to what they are used to – into the cave where they see the shadows of the carried objects and the reflected fire.
But Socrates says, maybe some people may drag some prisoners out of the cave, by force up the rough ascent, the steep way up until they face the light of sun. Initially, the prisoners may be angry and in pain, on account of the light of the sun which is unfamiliar, but slowly the eyes would adjust to the sun and then see shadows for what they really are. Having been freed from the cave, in time the former prisoners will be able to see and appreciate the stars, the moon and indeed the daylight sun. Only then, would the freed prisoners appreciate that the world outside the cave was better and superior. They would then attempt to help those prisoners remaining in the cave
In the dialogue, Socrates explains that the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall are actually not the real objects, they are fake. However, the inmates of the cave do not even want to leave their prison because they know no better live.
Naturally, we may ask some questions, especially the fact that some of the prisoners still refuse to leave the cave despite being chained and made to look one way, something that must be excruciatingly harmful. Who are we in this allegory? Where do we belong? In the cave or those liberated from the cave? Where are we, together with our communities – in the cave or outside the cave? Have we really, all of us been released from our apartheid cave? Do we see real things or are we still accustomed to the shadows of objects, without even seeing those who hold the objects? What are these objects that cast shadows on us such that we believe them to be a reality? Why are those holding the objects shielding themselves in a manner that they can’t be seen, but we must see the shadows of their objects?
The Allegory of the Cave represents the superficial reality that people who are trapped in a false state of consciousness believe. In our case, one can analogise this allegory in quite striking terms. The Allegory of the Cave points to a situation whereby people believe in many things that those who control the means of persuasion consistently and deliberately feed them. Therefore, not only would it take an exacting effort to get them to transit from this location distortive of their sense of the real world, but this transitioning stage would be cumbersome if not forbidding for them as they have to contend with the blinding glare of new information to which they are not used, even if that information and knowledge would liberate their minds.
In one of our many social media Platforms we once had a heated discussion about the newspaper Daily Sun, with one of own comrades giving it credit for its strategy that ensures that it remains afloat when other print media outlets are facing difficulties. And we all know what Daily Sun publishes – tokoloshes, people having sexual intercourse and being perpetually stuck to each other; and many other stories that the publisher, who is white, would not successfully promote among the white readership. In fact, these are stories that reinforce the racist stereotypical approaches of black people and their lives. The fact that we can even have people thinking that there are some positive aspects of the Daily Sun, means that we have some of us still stuck in Plato’s cave. That is the challenge facing the Strategic Dialogue Group.
This is not new. It follows a long deep-rooted assumed historiographical approach, which, many, including the celebrated Friedrich Hegel, asserted that: “Africa is not a historical continent; it shows neither change nor development, and the peoples were capable of neither development nor education. As we see them today, so have they always been.” Yes, the same Hegel of thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis! He was then followed by a 20th century Oxford professor who said: “Perhaps in the future, there will be some African history to teach. But at present there is none: there is only the history of the Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness …and darkness is not a subject of history. We cannot therefore afford to amuse ourselves with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe.”
Recently, we have seen how in Egypt there is a push back about the fact that the Egyptians of the great civilisation were black Africans, and the Arabs as we know came in the 7th century of the Christian era, long after that great civilisation. Without getting too much into that, this is consistent with what historian Basil Davidson observed about why it became necessary to contest the true nature of the Egyptians of the great civilisation. He argues that it was the 19th century racism of Europeans, like Hegel, who believed themselves to be superior beings and thus could not believe that blacks were capable of such a great civilisation which influenced the Greek civilisation. They then started a narrative asserting that Egyptians who created that great civilisation were not black Africans.
The reason I am raising these matters, which speaks directly to the message of the Allegory of the Cave, is that part of our challenges includes working hard to reverse these historical stereotypes on which Bob Marley rendered his rendition of redemption: emancipate yourself from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our mind. Steve Biko said the same thing. This is one aspect of the need to come out the cave. In doing this, we need to help one another to write and record our stories, to learn from those stories and ensure that we pass those stories and their lessons to our children. In that way, we would be helping ourselves to see things for what they are, not those reflected on the walls of today’s caves that tell tales of tokoloshesamong us. If they really exist, these tokoloshes must be racist, because they don’t bother white people.
Comrades, have you ever tried to discourage people from reading the demeaning publications about blacks, the ones that churn out stories after stories of tokoloshes – or the TV programmes that portray black people’s lives as those of endless fights, witchcraft, sorcery – whose dictionary meaning is black magic! These hark back to racist ideas which are still strongly prevalent today in our society and, thus, its owners deliberately produce papers and TV programmes based on a deep-rooted, assumed historical approach of a static past of black lives, that are still defined by some savage primitive existence in God-ordained socio-economic wretchedness which are then contrasted with civilised and developed white lives.
Of course, today we have a limited number of progressives willing and capable to venture into areas that must help us escape the intellectual and mental caves, even if they have to be negatively labelled by some of the strong forces that have occupied thosespaces. Many progressives have retreated from intellectual engagements, for various reasons, including perhaps that there are many strong forces that are capable of stringent and polarising polemic contests. Butthe challenges remain, which means we have to find ways and means to embark on this difficult and enduring work, to ensure full enlightenment or revolutionary consciousness among many of us. This would require, among others, that we must have deliberate campaigns to help us escape the cave and make the difficult transition of embracing critical consciousness, in terms of which are to interrogate given and presented narratives.
The second one is the Allegory of Metamorphosis. In 1915, Franz Kafta, wrote a short book of 70 pages called The Metamorphosis, (Die Verwandlung in German). The book relates the story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman and cloth merchant. Gregor works for a very cruel despotic employer, but he can’t quit his job because he is a breadwinner, and, among his fiduciary responsibilities is to pay off his father’s debts.
But one morning, something abnormally and frightfully monstrous happen to Gregor. He wakes up to find himself, inexplicably transformed into a giant dung beetle – which the writer describes in German: ungeheueres Ungeziefer, literally translated as ‘monstrous vermin’. Gregor, being an eternal optimist, told himself that this transformation was temporary and he was determined that soon he would go back to work, especially because of the highly impoverished and destitute conditions of his family. His immediate supervisor, indignant about Gregor’s unexplained absence, and who was not as devilish as the owner of the company, comes to check on him. But, to his and the family’s continued horror, Gregor speaks incomprehensibly in tongues. By now, Gregor, has grown into some huge ponderous, cumbersome and bulky vermin. Naturally, upon seeing the transformed Gregor, the supervisor runs faster than the bullet.
Although deprived of financial stability, Gregor’s family could not run away like the supervisor. They keptGregor locked in his room and he also began to accept his new identity, his perilous circumstances and try to adapt as best he could to his new body. One by one, friends deserted him, spoke of him in hushed tones and the atrocious-minded ones doing so with some mocking smiles. His sister, Greta, was the only one willing to bring food while the poor fellow spent time crawling about on the floor and like a true insect, also climbed the walls and ceiling. Upon, discovering Gregor’s new pastime, Greta and the mother decided to remove his furniture to give him more space, emptying the room except for the sofa under which Gregor hid himself whenever anyone came in, especially those who had made trade out of being scuttlebutts.
The second challenge of getting out of the cave and indeed ensure that we don’t metamorphose into insects like Gregor, is in the area of working together for economic emancipation. A year back, Jantjie Xaba wrote a very important article entitled: Social capital and economic empowerment: Lessons for black South Africa from the Afrikaners of Vanderbiljlpark. The article traced how in 1940, the Afrikaners in the Iscor-dominated town of Vanderbijlpark developed networks and trusts to overcome poverty, joblessness and skills shortage. The Borederbond and companies such as Sanlam as well as the Dutch Reformed Church played ciritcal roles
Referring to what he calls the Afrikaner Economic Empowerment, Xaba says that there was a conscious effort to uplift white Afrikaners through protected employment, skill development and welfare services. While the apartheid government, especially after 1948, played a hugely critical role, there were also community and social groups that helped to accelerate the process of Afrikaner Economic Empowerment. Some of the organisations that played important roles were groups like the Helpmekaar Vereeniging (Mutual Support Society), volkskapitalisme (people’s capitalism) and others.
In other words, the Afrikaners combined their efforts to release those of their own who were still stuck in Plato’s cave and ensured that none among them are so marginalised and demoralised that they may have ended into Gregor’s metamorphosis, turning into utterly hopeless vermin. Indeed, this was given more momentum in 1948 when the National Party came into power, accelerating the Afrikaner Economic Empowerment through focussed and deliberate policies and actions that included Job Reservation and others.
We know comrades that so far, since 1994, what we have tried in terms of economic transformations have brought poor harvests for the majority of the people. Can any one of us be detached from the realities of people in Nongoma, Matateile, Sekhukhune and in the many other villages and townships where black people live? Have we accepted that options for better economic realities for the majority are permanently foreclosed; boundaries irreversibly drawn – the rich will continue to get richer and the poor poorer – inter-generationally – and thus we have stiffened our backbones to that eventuality and reality!
Like in the Allegory of metamorphosis, how do we respond to our Gregors? What exactly are we doing that our own people are not unexpectactly transformed into huge insects? The issue of economic freedom cannot be dismissed as belonging to ‘peace-time revolutionaries’. It is a real challenge for all South Africans. More than a decade ago, Hein Marais wrote: “A wealthy country by continental standards, South Africa is also one of the most unequal societies on Earth. It has more luxury-car dealers than any country outside the industrialised north, yet almost half of its population lives in poverty and more than one third cannot find waged work. An average assistant manager punching the clock in the service sector would need to work more than 102 years to earn the average annual salary of a corporate CEO and 520 years to match the take-home salary and bonuses that the top-paid banking-industry executive earned in 2009.”
I am pleading that this important conclave must lead us in areas similar to those that helped the poor Afrikaners out of poverty and destitute. It may well be that you are already doing it. If so, accelerate that process. Because, in reality, you cannot and should not merely be a discussion forum, important as that may be. You may have heard about some Stokvels-Cooperatives – some are sectoral like those of doctors, others are of those of emerging farmers and so on. But I sincerely believe that, with your skills, expertise and exposure, you can be the necessary catalysts that can and should lead us out of the debilitating socio-economic caves and the oppressive negative media-induced caves and thus help Gregor and his friends from being metamorphosing into economic and psychological giant insects.
This is the youth month. It has been so declared because of those youths of 1976, many of them, who initially, were apolitical, yet, they were never timorous. But were bravely able to face the might of the well-armed apartheid forces with nothing but stones. Indeed, they poked power in the eye and dared the monster to do its damnedest. Have we, especially those among us, who are a little better-off, pondered where are these people, some of whom skipping the country to take up arms, many others continuing to face the wrath of the atrocious apartheid regime?
Where are those who, from1983 onwards, faced the brutish brutal army of PW Botha to usher the rudimentary organs of power, constantly creating crisis after crisis and as the regime tried reforms to placate the masses, these youths using the small reform openings to ensure that the struggle gained more and more momentum until we attained our freedom? Where are they?
Some of them are the Gregors who, after 1994, may have gone to work for the very people that were chasing them with Hippos in the townships and villages; the same owners of Gregor’s multiple clothing shops and others, who perhaps are smiling despots, some of whom may, in the comforts of their like-minded fellows, use derogatory terms that are outlawed in the democratic order.
I have no doubt that many people can relate to Gregor’s catastrophe that leads to unimaginable meltdowns. These are multiple burdens that impose monumentaltolls on the shoulders of many poor people today – the cruel factory owner, the low wages paid to workers; the long hours of work and the many family responsibilities that make it difficult for breadwinners to properly plan for their own future; the debauched and decaying conditions occasioned by unemployment and deteriorated socio-economic circumstances.
Like Gregor’s friends, it is the reality of how we isolate fellow human beings, indeed, some of those with whom we walked a long difficult road to attain our freedom. But once some of us have been better able to adjust to the new conditions and in fact made good of the opportunities presented by a post-apartheid South Africa, we tend to insulate ourselves from our own who are poor, unemployed and marginalised. We shun manywho occupied difficult and treacherous trenches with us, merely because they occupy the lowest rung in our societal order. Yet, every time elections come, we remember them and want to remind them of their heroic and glorious sacrifices and how their cross next to our party makes them abiding perpetual patriots, regardless of their beggary existence.
The Gregor of today, in the townships and villages is unemployed. He is destitute. He has walked the streets of big and small towns looking for a job, with a placard: ‘I can do any job’, even when he has some trade or qualification. Indeed, he has grown tired to stand in streets where the detached, cold-hearted and callous gazes greeted him every single day. Now, he spends time hiding in his small room and sliding under the old sofa when he hears people coming. He is one of the many black unemployed people, whose only solace is the government grant. Over the weekends, he does not come out of his room, because we come in our numbers, not to engage in some job-creation programme, or extra classes for the young ones; but to show-off our new cars.
For those marginalised in our society, there is no such thing as solidarity in times of stress, anguish and dire straits. There is no such thing as solidarity, support and teamwork as forms of unity that mediate between an individual and community; no moral content. There are no ties that bind the community together which in turn inform moral obligations among members. Indeed, nothing of the sort that suggests some positive form of collective responsibility that creates and strengthens networks of accountability and closeness. These are what characterise many of our communities today. We really have to do something about this situation. We need Active Citizenry to deal with these matters so that we don’t have to produce and reproduce many metamorphosing citizens.
Gregor’s world is like the situation explained in Letters to Christina by Paulo Frere, where the structures of oppression are rooted in a real and material experience of concrete hunger that had no specific date of departure, although it had the date of arrival. Frere says: “…This hunger was of the type that arrives unannounced and unauthorised, making itself at home without an end in sight. A hunger, that, if it was not softened as ours was, would take over our bodies, moulding them into angular shapes, legs, arms, and fingers become skinny. Eye sockets become deeper, making the eyes almost disappear.”
Again, in a co-authored book, Ideology Matters, Paulo Frere believed that one cannot reduce the analysis of racism merely to social class and yet, one cannot understand racism fully without a class analysis, for to do one at the expense of the other is to fall prey into sectarian position, which is despicable as the racism that needs to be rejected. What is important here is to see oppression through a convergent theoretical framework where the object of oppression is cut across by such factors as race, class, gender, culture, language and ethnicity. Thus, there should not be a theoretical analysis that would collapse the multiplicity of factors into a monolithic entity.
Lastly, the Allegory of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Those of you who go to church, unlike me and others who are still committed agnostics, will knowthe Book of Revelation by St. John the Devine, Chapter 6 verses 1 to 8. John the Devine says: he saw the lamb opening the first seal of the seven and called him: “Come and see. And I saw, and behold a white horse, and he that sat on him hold a bow; and crown was given unto him and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
“And then he had opened the second seal. I heard the second beast say, Come and see. And there went out another horse that was red. And power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another; and there was given unto him a great sword.
“And then he opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and to lo a black horse. And he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, a measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny and see thou not the oil and the wine.
“And when he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say: come and see. And I looked and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death and hell followed him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth to kill with sword, and with hunger and with death and with the beasts of the earth”.
Briefly, the one man on the white horse represents conquest; one on the red horse represents war; on the black horse represents famine and on the pale one represents death.
Our history, especially after the Second World War, hasclearly shown who, in the eyes of the most powerful in the world are those riding the white horse of conquest. And once they had securely mounted this powerful hegemonic white horse of conquest through USA military-industrial complex and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), they divided the world into the red horse of war, meaning the Soviet Union (later Russia), China and others aligned to them. They then describedthe black horse of famine as meaning Africa and other developing countries; and then driven by islamophobia, apportioned the pale horse of death to those of the Muslim faith. Indeed, because the powerful in the world, who by the way control the cave of misinformation and the tools and industries that metamorphose people into giant insects, have divided the world according to the Allegory of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they treat each of those categorised global sections accordingly.
For decades, they have consistently and without fail, warned the world of the danger of the so-called, red horseman of war; war-mongering red communists, represented by the Soviet Union, China and others socialist countries. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the bogey of the Kremlin as the red horseman of war kept being told ad nauseam. Yet, historically, since the end of the second world war, there has never been any country that has engaged in conflicts and wars like the USA. This is because of their firm belief that they have to conquer the entire world – consistent with their brutal bloody badge of honour of being, the white horseman of conquest.
Franklin Spinney, who has worked in the USA Office of the Secretary of Defence for many years, believes that the military-industrial complex is responsible for the Russia-Ukraine conflict, because the pursuit of interests of the military-industrial complex and its lobbying activities have led to NATO’s repeated violations of the‘no more eastward expansion’ after the Cold War. In reality, the military-industrial complex determines that the US needs enemies, so it always has an incentive to search for new enemies around the world.
This is the white horseman of conquest. While this white horseman of conquest is making big fortune out of this crisis, it is a tragedy for the world. This is especially for these designated as the black horseman of famine, since the war has increased the costs of oil, of grain and others that should help, especially Africa to fight its perennial poverty.
But remember what the white horseman of conquesthas done in the past. He lied about the weapons of mass destruction and spread a false narrative that every person of the Muslim faith is the pale horseman of death, trying to create islamophobia throughout the globe because their sphere of influence, of conquest,was declining in the Muslim world. Today, in the war in Ukraine, the white horseman of conquest has singled out what he regards as the weakest link within the BRICS Countries, because he believes that this vulnerable link is riding a black horse of famine and thus would be susceptible to blackmails, bribes, intimidations, ransoms, coercions and threats. Accordingly, despite the fact that other BRICS countries have adopted a similar position to that of South Africa, the white horseman of conquest believes that the hungry black horseman who is ravaged by famine would buckle to its intimidations.
Of course, it reminds us that as South Africa and Africa, we have a historical duty to ensure that we work harder to ensure real and sustainable development, that we accelerate the process of regional integrations and together help that the objectives that drive the institutions and mechanisms of continental regeneration do not end up being the dreams deferred. In that way, the white horseman of conquest will stop making ushis poor and miserable lackeys – describing us as black horseman of famine.
Finally, comrades, as we deal with all these matters, we should remember that we have a historical responsibility to ensure that our country does not becomeShakespearean Comedy of Errors; or defined by Charles Dickens Hard Times or indeed degenerating into a state where it will be said it resembles Chuene Achebe’s Things Fall Apart!!
I thank you.
1. Plato: Allegory of the Cave, in the Republic; Translated 1888.
2. Mafolo, T.: African Odyssey Volume 2, 2019
3. Davidson, B.: African Civilisations Revisited, 1991
4. Kafta, F.: The Metamorphosis, 1915.
5. Xaba, J.: A Comparative Study of Afrikaner Economic Empowerment and the Black Economic Empowerment: A Case Study of a former South African Parastatal in Vanderbiljpark; Daily Maverick, 2022.
6. Marais, H.: South Africa Pushed to the Limit: The Political Economy of Change, 2011
7. Frere, P.: Letters to Christina – Reflections on My Life and Work; 1996.
8. Frere, P & Macedo, M. Ideology Matters, 1999
9. King James Version, The Holy Bible; “Book of Revelation” by St. John the Devine, Chapter 6 Verse 1-8
10. Tao, L.: US Military-Industrial Complex takes Advantage of Ukraine to make Huge Fortune; 2023
11. Shakespeare, W. Comedy of Errors; 1594
12. Dickens, C: Hard Times;1854
13. Achebe, C.: Things Fall Apart; 1958.