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When Societies Unravel

Coen van Wyk

Posted on March 29, 2019 12:38

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Chinua Achebe wrote his famous novel, Things Fall Apart, about the disintegration of the delicate structure of the traditional culture of Iboland when confronted with British Colonization and religion. Our modern society is also falling apart in many ways, with accepted rules and structures being challenged, often by violence and a return to the law of the jungle.

About 3000 years ago a man went visiting a community in what is now South Tyrol. He had previously traded even further south, but this time something went wrong. An argument, a dispute, a fight broke out, and Ötzi escaped up the mountains, but was cut down by an arrow and disappeared into the snows, only to be found in 1991.

Ötzi. South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology.


European politics has evolved somewhat, but too often people resort again to the use of violence.

An election is always a testing time, and the run-up to South Africa’s 8 May elections is already promising to be one such time. Slogans identifying enemies, struggles, and opposition seek to divide people.

ZAPIRO. Good as usual.

Taxpayers watch electoral promises with a wry smile, and remember the litany of corruption cases coming out of a series of Commissions of Enquiry, and remark that nobody has been sent to jail yet.

An Apartheid Minister, an affable fellow, once asked me about the black people I worked with. Despite my junior standing I was bold enough to point out that these people, having lost all touch with traditional political systems, had nowhere to voice their aspirations, discuss their problems and influence their futures. He replied, “That is true, but we cannot accommodate them in our political system. We have too little in common.”

Of course the present South African constitution was built on the belief that we do, in fact, have a common approach to values, beliefs and ethics. Yet at the moment there are people who wonder if indeed, that will hold for South Africa’s future.

But it is not just our problem. Looking at the range of emotions playing off in the UK around Brexit, I wonder if the social identity that was the United Kingdom still can hold together the Union. And can the concept of a European Union, that had ushered in the longest period of peace in Europe, hold against nationalist tendencies?

European political strain. AFP


The Christchurch shooting brought home brutally the dangers when a person or group, feeling that they have concerns that are not being addressed by society, take the law into their own hands and resort to blind violence. This tends to happen when one group sees their own rights and prospects as more important than those of the rest of society.

Photo AP


Political scientists talk of a social contract. Any community has, at its root, a common sense of purpose, of structure, of what is right and wrong. But when that common fabric begins to tear, to unravel, then things begin to fall apart.

All people have things in common. Also threats: the environmental battle ahead will take all we have. Can we unite to save ourselves?

Coen van Wyk

Posted on March 29, 2019 12:38

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