On Apathy

In class on a Monday afternoon the lecturer suggests we write about something beyond our immediate preoccupations. Write about what’s happening out there, he says, waving his hand in the vague direction of the window and politics.

But what do we know of civic duty and public activism? What do we know of politics?

Tuesday night and everyone is standing in the small kitchen. The lounge is empty. It’s inexcusable not to protest on Friday, someone says, stirring their cocktail with a long finger and leaning against the granite counter top. We disagree. Where were you during the president’s rape trial, we ask, or after the miners were killed? Did you protest then too? They pause, take a sip. Where were you? They say by way of reply. We were sleeping.

Our apathy is not unlike chronic fatigue. Which is to say it’s chronic.

The country is falling apart, our parents tell us. But we fail to understand the depth of their pessimism. We stopped reading the newspaper long ago, and now only flip to the back page to see our horoscopes and do the crossword. A lack of worry or interest, six letters down. The obstacles in your path are not as daunting as they first appear.

Sometimes, when we start our cars or climb into an idling taxi, the radios tune to unfamiliar stations. And then we might hear, for a few moments, the dirge of the news, and a list of names that no longer sound familiar.

Our lives exist in a triangle marked by three points; our home, our campus and the local grocery store. The news and its politics exist somewhere else. Out there, past the park and our childhood homes, beyond our greener suburbs and the seaside. Politics, like bad fortune, happens to other people.

– of people are expected to take to the streets in the country’s major centers of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town and Durban to call for President Jacob Zuma to step down. This and more headlines at midday on SAfm, 104 to 107. And now a brief –

We have nothing to say on the subject of politics. We are silent, but not silenced. It is simply not our turn to speak. And just as well, for our opinions are only half-formed and indistinct. We dot our language with tics of uncertainty. With maybe and perhaps and a questioning lilt at the ends of our sentences. Our vocabulary is benign. Slow to offend and largely inadequate.

Your rhetoric of voicelessness only reveals your political ignorance, a friend tells us at another party the following evening. We agree, of course. We listen to him with solemn concentration because he has a rare certainty about these matters. Some people are right for the wrong reasons, he continues, quoting Arthur Koestler, but this fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of a lack of self-confidence.

Our parents think the country is falling apart, we tell him. Sometimes I do too, he replies.

And then, I don’t think apathy is the word you’re looking for.

We spend Friday afternoon lying on our unmade beds and listening to the protestors outside parliament. Their voices carry in the wind, distorted by loudhailers and obscured by cheering. It’s too hot to sleep, too humid.

We tell one another that we are the conscientious objectors of political opinion. Some of us believe we are post-political, but others among us believe inaction is itself a political act. A handful of us contend that sleep is heresy in a capitalist society, a rare pleasure that costs nothing and adds value to no object. Sleep is our defiance, and not, as has been insinuated, an indulgent waste of time.

We are often reminded of a poem by Solmaz Sharif that begins:

Every poem is an action.

Every action is political.

Every poem is political.

Sleep is an action too. Or perhaps it is poetry. At any rate, it is political. Of this we are sure.

Inertia, we text our friend three days later. Perhaps the word we’re looking for is inertia.

Opinions belong to our parents’ generation. To a time when things were right and wrong and good and evil. Before politics became a game of compromise and inadequacy. And when voting was more than a matter of picking the best of a bad lot.

A recent study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), we read online, has pointed to worrying political apathy among the South Africa’s youth, with 29% of those polled in the 16-to-24 age group indicating they were uninterested in politics.

Monday again and in class: This country has become so dystopian that the work of apocalyptic writers is already done. This from a somber classmate, bent over his laptop and under his fatalism.

We collect quotes on silence, trying to understand our position. Quotes by important people, quotes by the likes of Ché Guevara and Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King. Silence is an argument carried out by other means, says the one. Your silence gives consent, says the another. And then, Anyone who says they are not interested in politics is like a drowning man who insists he is not interested in water.

Have we mentioned the drought?

Sitting around tables on suburban summer evenings, eating salads of imported cheese and organic lettuce dressed in a balsamic reduction bought from a wine farm beyond the city limits, we listen to our families mourn the decline of the country. Hear them divine the future, each headline an augury of economic collapse, each anecdote an omen of things to come. And then we excuse ourselves to go lie down upstairs.

Apathy comes from the Greek word ‘apatheia’, to be without pathos, without suffering.

A few weeks ago several of us came across a quote by Wittgenstein on a mutual friend’s fridge. It was handwritten on an index card and held in place with a pink magnet that said my friend went to Hawaii and all she got me was this lousy magnet. We all agreed it held a deep significance, yet we couldn’t quite explain why. Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. We began repeating it to one another, and repeat it still. A supplication to our silence.

For we cannot speak of suffering.

I think the word you are looking for, our mothers tell us, sitting at the ends of our beds, is effete.

Occasionally, and suddenly anxious, we look up from our books, out café windows and library doors. Out from our comfortable middle class lives. We look to see if anything has changed, if the faces of passing people betray anything other than indifference. We look to see some sign of the troubles we have been warned about. And seeing nothing, we lose ourselves again, in our studies and our parties. In our privilege.

It’s getting harder and harder to sleep during the day. The weather is unseasonably warm. The last gasp of summer and almost May. We lie awake now, the shades drawn. The afternoon is endless, soporific and insomniac.

Politics, another friend says, lighting a cigarette on the Sea Point promenade, is largely meaningless. The sun is setting and it’s Sunday. Together we walk towards the pavilion, the sea on our right, pausing only to look out across the dark water to the lights blinking on the Island.