The old is dying and the young ones have just been born

Your role in the revolution will not save you. Your history of speech-making and sleeping in a cold detention cell will not save you. Not even back-breaking labour on Robben Island will spare you the scepticism of today’s champions of freedom.

Gramsci tells us “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” But in my country the young ones have been born. They have been born and they are just now beginning to walk. So this is an interregnum, one in which the new is emerging and there is bitter-sweet hope.

These young ones who have just been born do not respect authority simply because the rules say they should. The young ones simply have no fucks left to give. They do not care about preserving the credibility of those who assert themselves on the basis of what they have done in the past or who they once were. Only today matters because what has gone before has been so bitterly disappointing.

This is the price that must be paid for revolutions betrayed and for forgiveness squandered.

The young ones will laugh you out of town if you think that authority comes from speaking in an authoritative voice. They will call you out on your hypocrisy when you pull out your credentials. They will not be afraid to laugh at you simply because you once did things for which they should be grateful.

In my country, the sun is setting on today and yesterday’s kindness is dissipating.

In other countries too there are changes. In Burundi Nkurunziza attempted to seek a third term and the women said no. In Burkina the impossible happened: Sankara’s killer has fled and something new might be made. In Nigeria, Goodluck and Patience were sent packing. In Kenya Uhuru’s time will soon come. In South Africa a young man wags his finger in Zuma’s face in parliament and tells him that he has lost control of his country.

It is not a mistake that the young ones refuse to use the honorific of ‘President’ when these men have none of the authority that matters. Elections – even free and democratic ones – are no longer a reason for the young ones to respect the old. This is heresy I know but it must be said because the young ones are prowling the streets in search of demons to slay and cows to slaughter. They find them everywhere they look.

Not all protest is righteous of course. In North Africa change was superficial because the old forces were too strong and the new ones did not see that everything – not just the faces and the fists – had to become new. In Bujumbura today there is gunfire and so we shall see.

These aborted revolutions come as no surprise: Changing a ruler without challenging the very basis of his authority is not good enough. The world itself is old enough now to have learned this and the young ones are born knowing it.

Some leaders are clad in frustration and anger. They speak a language that roars like a lion and they have gifts of eloquence and passion. In my country there is just such a young man. His name is Julius. They are dangerous because they seem as though they represent something new and just-born but in fact they will simply replace the old with their own version of the same. The young ones know that challenging those in power while still being impressed by that power will only take them back to the past.

The young ones who are impatient with the ways of yesterday and today have no time for equivocation. They are not interested in those who parse their words and calibrate and operate within the logics of inherited and inherent authority. Apartheid was sustained because ‘good’ men sought to reason with what was patently unreasonable and unequivocally wrong. Dictators stay in power because intellectuals find ways to justify their existence.  Heavy words like ‘power vacuum,’ justify the authority of those in power. The young ones know that this must stop.

The young ones have grown up under so-called democracies and so they know that the rules of this dispensation are subject to manipulation. Too few people vote, especially those who are angry. The better devil is the one you know and so your vote is already a compromise. Because, because, because of all of this, the young ones have no fucks left to give and democracy does not legitimise the old ones who have squandered the good will of the young.

The keepers of authority are not just politicians; they are also media mavens and captains of industry, academics and the heads of well-fed NGOs. Those with authority are almost always people with ‘long-standing records.’ They are introduced to rapt audiences as ‘having been around forever.’ They derive their authority from ‘experience.’ Not all of these people are bad and experience itself is not bad but experience is also not the only thing. It used to count for a lot and now we must ask what kind of experience is necessary as we navigate a moment that we will look back on perhaps as having been important. The days of automatic authority are ending.

In my country there is an interregnum and if we connect the dots perhaps we can see that there is one in yours as well. Perhaps for you too it is one in which the young are finding their feet and will soon hit their stride.

In South Africa, in the shadow of national debates about the place and status of John Cecil Rhodes, the old defenders of the status quo are fearful. If Rhodes – who has stood for a century – can be torn down, then what of their own mortal legacies? This fear is both in the hearts of black politicians whose pigs die starving on their farms and white scions of industry who exercise ‘social corporate responsibility’ while dodging their taxes. There are no free rides anymore.

Across class lines and across geographies, there is a fresh and bruising defiance brewing. In my country the young ones think the ruling party representatives who quell protests with promises are a joke. They think the main opposition which stands for ‘free enterprise,’ is a joke. They think that white liberals who question their intellect while pretending not to are a joke. The rich are a joke. Poverty is a joke. Everything is a joke and yet nothing is funny. It is all very serious. LOL.

Maybe in your country this is also happening. Maybe in your country too, old men stand comfortably in front of audiences wearing looks that say, ‘I belong here,’ when in truth they don’t anymore. Where I am from a new identity is coming into being and the old ones are being told to their faces that it is time they stepped aside.

Radical departures from the status quo are never easy. They are always simultaneously symbolic and visceral. But they open up new possibilities for questioning what was once unquestioned and unquestionable.  Something new and clean and wondrous is taking flight. It doesn’t need permission: it is its own authority.

Sisonke Msimang

Sisonke Msimang is a writer who probably tweets too much.

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