When going slowly is no longer an option

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet with several student activists, student pastors, and NGO workers seeking to encourage each other in the face of the recent student protests and general unrest in our beloved country. At once point an analogy of a race was used to describe the pursuit for justice, and in this context I realized two things that day.

Firstly, that there are many who are yet to start training for this race, and worse, even those who consider that there is race at hand is not theirs to run.

In her Man Booker Prize winner The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai tells the story of a retired judge, desperately trying to ignore the messiness of his country, therefore stubbornly ignoring the unrest and injustice around him. When it inevitably (and quite literally) lands on his porch, his response is detailed below:

The judge seemed suddenly to remember his personality, stiffened, and said nothing, set his mouth in a mask, would look neither left nor right, went back to his game of chess. In this life, he remembered again, you must stop your thoughts if you wished to remain intact, or guilt and pity would take everything from you, even yourself from yourself…

Now, typically, the mess had grown.

This was why he had retired. India was too messy for justice; it ended only in humiliation for the person in authority. He had done his duty as far as it was any citizen’s duty to report problems to the police, and it was no longer his responsibility.

 

India was too messy for injustice. South Africa is too messy for injustice. The judge’s response is one of the most dangerous to be made. Not so much an insouciant stance of denial, but choosing to farm the responsibility onto others. Privilege grants us this stance, where money is sufficient to give us supposed safety. And the response that the police and government must sort things out. Yesterday’s Constitutional Court ruling proves that is at best, a sketchy source to rely on.

Secondly, as our morning discussion introduced above continued, it was mentioned (I think by myself) that it didn’t really matter ‘how fast’ a person was running in the race, as long as they were in the race. One of the attendants, Siki, responded by asking the question ‘What is the goal of justice? If it’s to alleviate poverty and suffering, how can we afford to move slowly?”

Her words cut deep and I’m thankful for the rebuke. It’s a privilege to ‘move slowly’ when you’re not the one who is suffering. When you’re not the one who can’t afford to study, or earn enough to eat healthy, or don’t have a job. ‘Going slow’ compared with not entering the race may seem like the lesser of two evils, but remains an evil none the less.

Sai, one of the central characters in Desai’s novel, is a young girl struggling to understand the rebellious – and bordering on vigilante actions – of her boyfriend. The narrator captures this beautifully:

This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.

Our 22 year old nation is experiencing this tug of war, and it is messy.

I later added to the analogy, the thought that there are pace setters in any race. Those who carry flags with desired finish times. We should always be aiming to run faster – searching for pacesetters to assist and inspire us. (Here’s a great website to visit, and here’s a thought-provoking blog). If human suffering is at stake, ‘going slowly’ or farming responsibility to others.

South Africa is indeed too messy for justice. So it seems. I desperately wish I had the acuity to know how to respond to the situation. I have however been reminded that “taking it slowly” is not a privilege I’m willing to exercise. Nor do I want to be seen as quixotic, or indifferent.

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