30 April 2008

Hope must be learned…                                                                   by Murray Hofmeyr

Studietrust is an organisation with Hope inscribed in its motto: Today for Tomorrow. We had occasions enough over the past few months to reconsider the issue of hope. I was reminded of a lecture that my friend and philosophical mentor, Heinz Kimmerle, prepared for a conference we held in Cote d’Ivoire a few years ago. The question we considered was whether there was hope for Africa. Kimmerle reminded us of the great philosopher of hope, Ernst Bloch, who said that hope could and should be learned. Otherwise it will amount to wishful thinking and not be grounded expectation. Bloch distinguishes between three dimensions of learned hope.

In everyday consciousness hope originates in the power to say No. Every day we must determine whether we are satisfied with the way things are. If not, we have to decide how we want to change things.

Step one of learned hope is not to run away. To travel is wonderful and to live and work for some time in another country is a great opportunity (I will forever fondly remember my time in Tübingen, Germany, where Bloch spent the last years of his life and where his spirit could still be felt in the mid- 1980s). But to stay away for good is fatal for one’s culture and its problems.

It is my considered opinion that the lifestyle for which many South Africans and citizens of other African countries leave our continent is not sustainable. The dominant ideology of our time is about to reach its limits. Somewhere in the near future lies the hour of truth. Something different, something new will have to be conceived. It requires limitless creativity and boundless energy. If you have by then used up all your capacity for invention just to keep the alienation at bay, there in a foreign land, your chances to contribute to something bigger will be seriously curtailed. I read the Vice-Chancellor of the much troubled Free State University says making history is difficult, but someone has to make it. I am convinced that what we are dealing with here has a global relevance. We, who were always behind, are now the vanguard. We can no longer close our eyes in blissful ignorance and ignore injustice against human beings and the environment. The whole world has to change, and the best place to start and contribute is just there where you are.

Building Africa Ourselves
The second imperative is that we must do it ourselves. A few years ago I was involved, with my friend Christof Heyns and others, in establishing the Southern African Student Volunteers (SASVO). I read that Christof, referring to almost unmentionable recent events, now wants to revive this organisation to “get rid of this foul taste in my mouth. To revive my hope that we, in spite of all, can make something extra-ordinary of this country” (Beeld 6.3.08, p. 17). SASVO’s motto is “Building Africa Ourselves”. My contact with these students inspired me beyond measure. It is a matter of creating opportunities, and those with the means have a crucial role to play. But making use of the opportunities and expressing a new way of doing things is something our young people have to do themselves. Our Studietrust bursary students similarly feed my hope.
Studietrust embodies another principle that supports hope. We are service-driven and our books balance to the last cent (Jan Hofmeyr’s work). Our student fellows learn from experience that they can expect the best service at all times—but that we do not bend the rules. Our ex-bursary recipients who now excel in the business world still live by these principles of hard work and no shortcuts.

A New Spirit
We can speak of a new spirit that is stirring. Whether it will grow and become the dominant spirit is impossible to say. But to move from mere wishful thinking to grounded expectation, certain concrete steps are necessary now. Studietrust, with the support of our donors and the cooperation of our beneficiaries, is well-positioned to take some of these steps. Our work is aimed at nothing less than moral renewal.

That implies “the overturning of all circumstances in which humanity is a degraded, a subjugated, a forsaken, a contemptible being.” We have the hope that we are witnessing something of that in the way our alumni are endeavouring to keep alive a certain memory of community responsibility as an age-old value of Africa, combining it with the best values the West has to offer.

The second dimension of learned hope is the not-yet of concrete utopia. Daydreams are not to be disregarded, but must be linked to concrete action. Concrete visions of the “not-yet” must be based in historical experience. This is the place for the critical examination of traditional African values. They are even today, predominantly in rural areas, fulfilling their task of keeping communities together. The challenge is to transform them in  such  a   way  that   they   can   also  show direction to those who live in the “other world” made in the image of the dominant economic system.

An educational strategy aimed at all people at different levels is still the best strategy. Society must be transformed to make crime and violence less attractive options. And here, in our country, all people must be made to feel at home. How must our cities be transformed if we want to bring back values such as the brotherhood and sisterhood of all, and special care for the poor and vulnerable? This and similar questions are answered afresh if the community participating in the conversation is extended to include those who are presently excluded. If their perspective would more often be reflected in the media, for instance, we would see a different picture.

The source of hope
Thirdly, Bloch speaks of the place of hope in the darkness of the present moment. We never manage to get a grip on the now – it remains dark. There is a not-knowing that is deeper than all our knowing. And yet, our constant striving towards the improvement of our present conditions must be derived from some or other knowledge of the best possible conditions. Hope has its roots in the deepest levels of our consciousness. Our work to improve the living conditions of all is so much more powerful when guided by a vision of a realisable better world.

Bloch gained much inspiration from music. Music to Bloch is the audible world of hope. Music is the public voice of the incognito.

But it is in the great religious traditions that the atheist Bloch searches for the most complete fulfillment of our deepest longings and desires. He regards the Judaeo-Christian scriptures as the origin of the humanisation and social interpretation of the religious mystery. God becomes human, and he is incarnated in his kingdom, the kingdom of love. Here there is no place for lords and masters, as it is about the equality of those who love each other. The hope contained in this utopian vision, inspires human action in favour of a better future on this earth.

Bloch’s hope is optimistic and militant. The better conditions of life do not come automatically, but only when we struggle for them in the right manner. Since Bloch’s death much water has passed under the bridge. We might be excused for being somewhat less optimistic, less certain. We merely know that as long as there is a future, there is hope.

Hope for Africa
Does Africa have a future, this continent of discontinuities? was Kimmerle’s question in Abidjan. If yes, he answered, it will have to be an African future, one in which specific African traditions are continued. Otherwise Africa’s future will not be an African future. Africa’s history and the African way will only have a future if there is an equal place for Africa amongst the nations. In the global world there is no future outside of the community of nations.

Even the modest utopia sketched here will not become true if not realised. And it will only be realised if we who identify with Africa keep on struggling for it. We can only fight this fight if we are properly educated and trained. Government budgets a sizable amount for education, but it remains a challenge. Clearly there is space for partnerships in which citizens and members of the private sector can participate. The Studietrust experience demonstrates this, even if it is in a modest way.

Our community of donors constitute the crucial part of this partnership. When Jan and I go through the list of debit orders on a monthly basis, it takes longer than is strictly required. Jan has much to tell about all the different contributors. Some were there from the beginning. Others joined after auditing the books in a particular year. With the audit report came the first monthly contribution.

Our donor partners come from all socio-economic, community and race groups. They are all people who actively participate in the formation of the future of our country, by making available money, expertise, or time (or all three) to assist young people in becoming what they were supposed to be. The basis and the soul of Studietrust will always be the monthly contributions of people with open hearts.

In difficult times it is good to remember that hope can and must be learned. Studietrust derives its inspiration from learners and students who do not succumb to difficult circumstances. With their ideals and dreams concretely in their mind’s eye, they take the necessary steps en route to a new future. This is a future in which nobody will ever again have to feel, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “as something that the cat drug in.”

Thank you for the gifts of the past, and for the knowledge that you will still be there in the future as we resume our common struggle against poverty through creating educational opportunities for tomorrow’s leaders.