TRANSFORMATION has been without question one of South Africa’s most overworked words in the media and public discourse since national liberation. Like every word it has a precise dictionary definition, yet it is a frequent example of meaningless abstraction and often forms part of broader empty rhetoric.

That South Africa needs transformation is incontrovertible. The nation has yet to be moved to a higher plane of ethics from the blighted conditions of colonialism and apartheid. Violence, patriarchy and intolerance stalk every corner of the land, part of a way of life that is simply taken for granted by most people of all communities. The concept of the Rainbow Nation was always a dangerous illusion and certainly not one of Desmond Tutu’s better inspirations. Is there, in fact, a coherent nation to transform?

Transformation is also a classic case of a word used as a weapon. The reason why there is so much uncertainty about exactly what it means in South African political debate is that its ill-definition suits so many people. It is one of a number of terms – decolonisation being another – that reveals not a genuine desire for progressive change, but manipulation and dominance of debate. How can this, or negotiations, take place when definitions are either so hazy or change so frequently and radically? In such circumstances there is reason to suspect other motives and processes such a grab for power by individuals who masquerade as representatives of group interests.

Go back to the first Umkhonto we Sizwe camps in Tanzania fifty years and more ago: military commanders demanded absolute obedience and enforced harsh discipline claiming they were the true and sole representatives of ‘the will of the people’. (If that sounds uncomfortably like current authoritarian populism in the Western world, it is no coincidence.) This was entirely self-appointed and without any mandate, but it contributed to a culture of meaningless, high-sounding phrasing. Such habits easily become institutionalised: listen to any speech by President Jacob Zuma for plentiful examples.

The problem about words and phrases with empty meanings is that they are ready receptacles for dangerous concepts. Transformation and decolonisation are now often code words for a crude anti-white and anti-Indian racism gaining traction in South Africa. It is clear that one of the many strands behind the fees-must-fall movement is the removal from university campuses of ‘settlers’ and the educational methods with which they are associated. Exactly what replaces the latter has not been clearly articulated by any reputable educational authority.

Empty words and phrases paraded to suggest that they represent some form of salvation for supposedly homogeneous groups of people are supremely dangerous. By emphasising entitlement they devalue and even remove the burden of individual responsibility and application. The necessary and just socio-political transformation is provision by the State of equal opportunity through high-quality services such as health and education. There is no magic wand to be waved in the name of transformation that will suddenly change lives en masse. Such a belief simply creates more frustration and turmoil.

There is something eerily and disturbingly Verwoerdian about Africanist demagogues who shout about transformation and decolonisation. The most obvious commonality is that they do so as the self-appointed spokespersons of vast legions of unique human beings whom they treat as homogeneous. For Verwoerd, the ‘bantu’ were an undifferentiated mass ascribed certain group characteristics. Nothing much has changed. Violent protest and intimidation is justified in the name of all black African students, most of whom simply want to get on with their education and many of whom will make a great success of their lives, against the odds but assisted by a culture of civil rights. This is what capable, honest and decent people do in a democracy without the need for arson and intimidation.

There was a quiet revolution in South Africa in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The two main nationalist forces decided to negotiate a democratic future for the country around an agreed agenda using precise terminology. Exactly how to achieve that agenda was the subject of fierce contention; but there was a common understanding of the broad parameters between people of integrity. The outcome was the Constitution, which held much promise subsequently squandered by a corrupt ANC. So many of today’s problems, of which the crisis in higher education is a prime example, have no settled agenda and lack agreed language. This is both tactical and strategic, and deeply dishonest, on the part of the system’s opponents.

The strategy of no education before liberation was long ago derided and discarded, so demands for cancellation of year-end examinations and closure of universities (one or two have effectively done that) are both antiquated and pointless. But, as so often when irrationality appears to hold sway, look more broadly for explanation; in this case outside education.

The behaviour of the demagogue varies with political culture from country to country, but there are factors in common. One is to appropriate words and either strip them of meaning or fill them with new content, often obscure. Another is to lie about the past, reconstruct history and denigrate present political systems. The ultimate prize is power to effect radical change – all in the name of ‘the people’ of course. This sets up another sort of revolution, a far cry from South Africa’s of twenty-five years ago. And, intriguingly, for once South Africa appears to be in some sort of step with global trends.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 49, 24 November 2016