SINCE 2011, I have been spending eight or nine months of each year in the UK and three or four months here. An advantage of living this way, I like to think, is that one sometimes sees distinctively South African moments more clearly than one otherwise would.

Driving through the eastern Free State one evening last month, after a long period abroad, I listened to an hour of conversation between political analyst Somadoda Fikeni and Radio 2000 presenter Thami Ngubeni. Fikeni, acute and thoughtful as always, seemed to me to metamorphosise as the conversation progressed.

He began as a very smart analyst, interpreting the events of the day. But then, imperceptibly at first, he became something else. He started to speak in broad sweeps of the state of our country’s soul, of our continuing failure to confront old anger, of our propensity to rage. And then he began a cycle of exhortations, appealing to us to use common sense, to have courage, to rely less on the government and to cultivate practices of self-help.

It was powerful, not just for its content but for its cadence and its rhythm. And it was no longer political analysis. Fikeni was now more a secular preacher than an intellectual, his intent to stir his audience, rather than to inform it.

His soliloquy struck me so forcefully, I guess, because for the past six months I had listened every day to British radio. Nothing like that could possibly happen on British radio. Were a political analyst suddenly to begin exhorting the nation to change its ways, he would be ushered politely from the studio and not invited back. Radio in the UK has ring-fenced three minutes for exhortation each morning; a religious figure is wheeled into the Radio 4 studio to give a hurried sermon; it is time, the audience knows, to go to the bathroom or make tea.

What, then, is the difference? Why in one country would a political analyst who drifts into oratory seem foolish, while in another he stirs feelings of great seriousness?

It is in part because SA is far more religious that the UK. While Fikeni’s sermon was entirely secular, its power nonetheless fed off many generations of preaching.

This propensity for analysis to change into exhortation is, I think, an expression of a spirit that is perhaps our salvation. There is a deep predisposition among South Africans to assemble together in public, to create forums in which human beings speak and listen, forums that are sceptical of established power, of politicians, of government.

But something else was going on, too, something far more important.

This propensity for analysis to change into exhortation is, I think, an expression of a spirit that is perhaps our salvation. There is a deep predisposition among South Africans to assemble together in public, to create forums in which human beings speak and listen, forums that are sceptical of established power, of politicians, of government.

When an independent political analyst begins speaking like a preacher, he is appealing to no other authority than the force of his words. And when those listening are sufficiently moved to become his willing audience, they are — whether they consciously know it or not — becoming a check on established power.

There have been other societies like this before: the Protestant congregations of early modern Europe or the revivalist movement that swept through East Africa during the period of decolonisation. Here, people assembled in countless congregations that shunned established institutions and ignored those who wielded political power. Such people are hard to govern. When authority speaks to them, they often pretend to be deaf.

I think that SA possesses the same spirit. We do not notice it because we see the world through the prism of our dreads and our fears. Privileged South Africans are convinced that an authoritarian maniac will one day seduce the poor and drive them to commit terrible deeds. When President Jacob Zuma, wounded and out in the cold, toured the country in the mid-2000s singing Umshini Wami, many believed that the barbarians were at the gates.

And when Julius Malema spoke of his preparedness to kill, many feared the power he might come to exert over the poor.

The truth is that South Africans are a wary and conservative bunch.

Zuma’s moment as a populist insurgent already seems so foreign that it might have happened on another planet. And to the extent that Malema is popular now it is because he is seen as a check on the power of the ANC.

Every maniac our fears have conjured has soon been brought down to size. South Africans do not get carried away by maniacs. To the extent that we have a national culture, it is sceptical of power and leery of those who claim too much authority.

Perhaps I am being whimsical, reading so much into an hour of radio. Maybe I am being sentimental about home because I have been away. But I don’t think so. A country in which an academic can switch instantly into a public moralist, simply on the back of his own talent, is one in which power is dispersed. It is a country whose people have acquired the habit of listening to a diversity of voices.

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