I walk away slightly amused. I remember how some time ago we watched on the evening news in South Africa as the butter-tongued Minister of Finance set fire to a mound of tekkies. Famous name brands, Nike and Reebok- or rather clones of them- threw a sticky blackness into the blue sky. Below this canopy of darkness the Minister beamed into the television cameras. The manufacturers were unhappy, the story goes. And so the shoes went up in flames. And Mamadou trades unhassled here in New York, under the gaze of those who control the intellectual property rights of the things he sells. And shoes, in the land where plenty do not have shoes, go up in smoke.
it seems that some leaders who want to create the Thing elsewhere, and who want to please the Big Leaders, often do more than what is expected of them. That sometimes in order to impress the Big Leaders, the Small Leaders jump higher than they are expected to.
This is one of those poetic peculiarities I have glimpsed as one of the few allowed into ‘the belly of beast’, as my friends call it. We are told by the United States’ advisors, and emissaries, the World Bank and IMF, that protectionism is not a good thing. That we are playing the game called Free Trade in bad faith. But of course, when countries in the South want to peddle their wears here, there are rows of hurdles and a medley of moats to get across. So you tend to get exhausted and give up. Some fall out the sky. Some are swallowed by the oceans. Some get through. Like those with the tenacity of Mamadou. The ‘Insurgents of the South’, I muse to myself, will not be stopped.
That ‘we know what is best for the world, but don’t peek into our backyard’ disposition was of course most blatantly, yet unblushingly, revealed in the soap-operatic elections which featured all the range of players we have been told only inhabit the theaters of power in the ‘third world’ : father’s friends helping sons, brothers helping brothers, electoral ‘irregularities’, jobs for pals, military rulers. ( Did you know that the US customs has the highest record of corruption in the world?) And there we were watching democracy unfold. Bold it certainly was. Beautiful I’m not so sure about. In the end the public secret came out, and a new Big Emperor had to be appointed by the Men (and a woman) in Black.
Those who govern the United States, whether they fiddle with cigars, or wear Stetsons, are taken very seriously by the leaders of most countries. Often inspite of themselves. One reason is of course is that whoever makes his way into the Oval office gets to fondle some sensitive triggers. And George W. certainly has an itchy finger. Another is that they get to hand out some good candy. South African leaders have developed quite a sweet tooth for the leaders of the United States and their friends. And so when the friends say they don’t like the idea of these shoes walking around with family names that they have claimed, like illegitimate children wanting their father’s name, then those shoes go up in smoke, to much fanfare. And they were eager to prove that they had annihilated them too, in that ‘ we were not lying- it really happened- you saw it on TV didn’t you?’ kind of way.
Another curious truism one smells up close, seems to be that when something is transposed, moved from one place to another, the replication seems sometimes to out-represent that which it is a representation of. In other words, sometimes the replicated Thing ends up being more like the Thing than the Thing itself. (Well not always, since it turns out my CD covers don’t have the lyrics to the songs, Santana has become Samtana, and the CD’s are minus a few tracks found on the originals). A friend here makes this observation as we talk about the unfolding tragedy that is misleadingly called the Arab-Israeli conflict. When will we learn to call an Occupation by its name? I tell him of my shock at the level of support for the state of Israel here, and the silence in the face of its acts of aggression so blatantly outside of any accepted rules in the world of how people are supposed to kill each other. I relate to him how a sweet looking, in that apple pie way, young American girl walked over to a group of serene pro-Palestinean students quietly protesting the killings, and spat at them. In an instant, I confide to him, I was taken back to listening to whites defend the arbitrary violence of the South African state during the 1980’s. And to feeling that same puzzlement that led me to doubt this thing we call Reason, and its bedfellow, Logic. Yes, he sympathizes with me, and tells me that the Zionism here is far more steadfast than most forms of it that you might bump into in Jerusalem, or more likely, that might bump into you.
In a similar kind of way, it seems that some leaders who want to create the Thing elsewhere, and who want to please the Big Leaders, often do more than what is expected of them. That sometimes in order to impress the Big Leaders, the Small Leaders jump higher than they are expected to. You know that saying about converts don’t you?
Take Educational Reform in South Africa. For the most part, at least at the tertiary level, it is about how to make the education relevant to the redefined needs of the society. This is the most generous description of its aim. An aim that is unquestionably laudable, given that you had an education system that made explicit its desire to act as a conduit for social control. And that took the notion of ‘relevant education’ to mean that black people should not be bothered with unnecessarily wieldy subjects like “Mathematics”, but should rather learn “Agriculture”, as they were apparently primordially disposed toward eternally being ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. The thorns of the new plan reveal themselves however when we are told by the powers that be, the New Government, who are Reasonable people, who have been told by other Reasonable people, like the cigar-puffing Big Leaders and his friends in their Stetsons, that we need to give people an education that will allow them to play a part in the wonderful export-led growth strategy they have worked out, that will lead us into the sunset of an African valhalla. ‘Yah-well-no-fine’ as they say back home in the face of calamity. And so that is what ‘relevant to the needs of society’ has come to mean. A whole lot of very bright people have since applied their minds to this and we have wonderful ‘programmes’ and so on, packaged to offer the ‘client’ (not the old-fashioned ‘student’) a relevant education, one you can get a job with. Bracket the little detail that the jobs are not forthcoming for the moment. In their restructuring efforts, University administrators are, for the most part, jumping to make the government leaders happy, who in turn are reaching for the stars to make the Big Leaders over here happy. They have therefore decided that those old dusty things that higher education emphasised- Humanities, Arts and most of the Social Sciences- are not really relevant to the needs of the ‘Society’ (now pronounced ‘e-Con-No-Me’).
Who needs philosophy? “Homer? ‘Isn’t he the dude in the Simpson’s ?”, our new graduates are likely to answer. And proud we should be because they are so up to date with Relevant information. This is not a eulogy lamenting that we need to keep the canon of the Dead White Men. And leave aside the debate over whether the Greeks got their ideas from Africans. That spat hasn’t taken place. And we didn’t even discuss whether to replace the Dead White Men with Men and Women more relevant, more colourful, and maybe closer to home. No, the canon is being thrown out with the canonballs. Are we , I wonder, jumping higher and further than we are being asked to? Are we confusing the smoke with the mirrors?
The bizarreness is that while we are throwing out things with haste, because those are the things we are being told to throw out to make the ship lighter, more agile and more competive on the rough and tumble high seas of global trade, the Big Leaders, in there own Empires, are doing something very different. They are not throwing out all these things. The Arts and Humanities in the US, for example, seem very strongly endowed with funding. I say this ‘comparatively speaking’ of course, and without intending to gloss over the problems here. Students at Ivy League campuses like Columbia for example, are compelled to take humanities courses. There is a strong sense of the necessity of a grounding in some kind of knowledge of this kind. So you find freshman wading, grumpily maybe at first, but in most cases appreciatively at the end, through the texts and authors and kinds of subjects we are quickly abandoning in our attempts to jump to make the powerful people happy. But our leaders are so eager to please the Big Leaders that they are allowing every thing to be thrown out. They don’t seem to want to see that the Big Leader speaks with a forked-tongue, that he is saying one thing, but doing another. In the end, the Big Leader would have produced an army of citizens who have been taught how to make a fire with or without matches. The Little Leader will produce an army that has been taught only how to make a fire with matches, but to boot are given no matches. If this continues unchallenged, who do you think will win this Survivor contest?