This most famous line in John Donne's 1624 oeuvre, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, best sum up what may have been an ideal following the transition to democracy in South Africa in 1994.He wrote the prose below from which the famous line has been used, in a moment of pain and suffering, as was the case with South Africa's own painful transition.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friends were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
Almost two and a half decades later, the shine of ubuntu, the rainbow nation, my brother's/sister's keeper and reconciliation is fading. South Africans are more on edge, more brittle and more sensitive to the legacy of the past.
Tumi Morake, a popular comedian, actress and Jacaranda FM morning show host, set off a torrent of emotions when she was heard bantering with her co-host, Martin Bester, about post-apartheid South Africa. She amplified her point with the following analogy, "white people were the bullies on the playground that stole bicycles from black people, but instead of being punished for it, the bikes had to be shared all together".
The listenership of the station -- almost two million, with more than 50 percent being white, Afrikaans-speaking folk drawn mainly from Gauteng, North West, Mpumalanga and Limpopo Provinces -- were up in arms and demanded that station management fire Tumi with immediate effect. Additionally, threats of litigation, boycotts and withdrawal of advertising revenue followed, as were complaints lodged with the Broadcasting Complaints Commission [BCCSA].
The issue set up a far from new debate about the impact of apartheid, redress, acknowledgement of hurt and pain, and crucially, that of retribution [which perhaps has a more punitive connotation than restitution does]. The racialised response to Tumi Morake's views was sadly unsurprising because it set black and white people so starkly up against each other with racial invectives traded all around.
Both sides retreated from engaging their discomfort with honesty and compassion and reduced a vital debate in South Africa to a war of words with no winners.
The incident and responses to it offer crucial lessons for a nation grabbling with a deeply divided past, a fragmenting present and an uncertain future. The combination of these forces is clearly taking its toll and the expectation of a "normalising" society where the values of the Constitution will bear fruit seem to be replaced by thickening cords of despair.
The pain and fear of expectations unmet and unfulfilled is corrosive and evident, not least by the Tumi Morake incident, which clearly struck a deep chord in the hearts and minds of the listenership of Jacaranda FM, as well as the defenders of Tumi Morake. Both sides retreated from engaging their discomfort with honesty and compassion and reduced a vital debate in South Africa to a war of words with no winners.
Is there hope for a time to come when John Donne's words will ring meaningfully in South Africa? I believe so. South Africans pulled back from the abyss when we moved toward a democratic transition in 1994. The current crisis too, has coalesced forces across the race, class and other dividing lines to assert what we do not want.
Perhaps, for now, it may be sufficient to reflect and act on what we do not want to be or turn into. The corollary requires time and harder work.
Ms Zohra Dawood: Director, Centre for Unity in Diversity