Why the middle will hold it together
CAN YOU still say out loud a sentence that begins “The other day when I met friends for roast duck and salmon lasagne”? Has doing lunch become too petty bourgeois, too middle-class, too privileged?
Somewhere between sipping my craft beer and appreciating the perfect scroll of napkins on my friend’s dining room table did I forget about the crisis still unfolding at our universities? Did I ignore that there are communities dying of thirst because of more failing service delivery?
Here’s the thing: I’m smack-bang in the South African middle and I do care. I care that Jacob Zuma is feeble but still in his position, I care that profits come before people and I care that integrity is up for negotiation.
I don’t apologise for being in the middle, I don’t feel guilty.
The middle may read Eat, Pray, Love, but it doesn’t mean it’s never heard of Frantz Fanon or that it dismisses the ideals of the Freedom Charter.
This is a middle that only seems silent because there are louder voices on Twitter and somehow hashtags have come to represent power, no matter how virtual.
At the same time I’m done with the middle that’s complacent in their comfortable centre. The middle is not buffered from the extremes of radicalised reactionaries burning universities, or dissociated from fat-cat elites who have the luxury of not giving a damn because they have a plan B, plan C or other cushions provided by excess.
The time has come for the middle to lead; time for the middle to realise it has more power than it realises and it needs to use it. The middle’s power lies first in knowing all parts of itself, its craft beer self. Also it’s tuned into the real world self – strengths and limitations.
Being in the middle is not sitting pretty on a fence, it’s standing firm on a wide-spanning bridge that has the power to connect two points far apart from each other.
Our world needs more linkages, more common ground especially as we remain desperate for vision, clarity, solutions and plans of actions. Neither our leaders nor the rebel radicals have come to the party. Models of education from early childhood development stage through to tertiary level need reforming. So does thinking that job creation is a bloated civil service or having six people operate a “stopgo” sign.
By contrast, the middle has honed a set of skills simply by navigating multiple realities. Ordinary middle realities like how do you balance a budget that needs to fill a petrol tank but also needs to do pizza night for kids who expect it? The middle understands trade-offs and compromise because it doesn’t have everything but it also has a lot to lose.
The middle doesn’t rely on geeing up a crowd on a loud-hailer, or the authority from a phony crown placed on its head. Its power comes from dealing with difficult people and lousy everyday situations with strong interpersonal skills sharpened through constant engagement, communication, listening.
The middle’s learnt flexibility from necessity. Toyi-toyiing in protest is not the middle, like being at court on November 2 supporting Pravin Gordhan won’t happen because the middle has jobs to get to. But neither is it an option for the middle to climb on to a private jet with bags of money to bank somewhere far from where the blood-tinged tide has been loosed.
But the centre does hold, it doesn’t fall apart because it’s learnt to be adaptive and resilient by facing flux. It’s learnt too that when resistance turns to friction, it burns. The middle understands personal responsibility and inclusivity because the middle understands consequence, accountability, also the relief of sharing the load.
Leading from the middle is leading that does not look to direct, to dictate. At the same time it’s also not futilely patient. The new middle arising has no room for those who sit on their hands or those who throw them up in the air like everything’s lost.
It’s doesn’t suffer from the blind spots of the leaders too ineffectual to call state capture by its name or the blind rage of the reactionaries who believe everything must fall instead of seeing that we have a nation to build.
The new middle may see a way through because when there are no obvious paths left to take, leading from the middle is about as good a starting point as any other.