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Pact of War

When the lockdowns started two years ago in South Africa we entered into what seemed to be a social compact for safety. Safety – a state best described in the context of what must be evidently absent. The absence of harm, or threats that pose a risk to wellbeing. To achieve safety we activate procedures and responses to prevent the risks from materializing. Our mechanisms for safety are premised on the elimination of threats to it. It’s no surprise that we often see the two words peace and safety together. We enact laws and regulations which we enforce to effect peace or to secure safety. On the face of it I wonder if we even have a language for peace and safety that exists divorced of war and harm. We fight for peace. We enforce regulations. A violent language in complete contradiction of that which we pronounce we want. Language is important. It is the essence of engagement and conveys meaning, intention and purpose.

We use language deliberately to convey certain messages, and reinforce these messages consistently. These constant replays become every day language and part of our story. We adopt some of these languages and stories without thought and question and ignore the subliminal undertones that we are conditioned to associate language with and are puzzled by the outcomes after extended use. While we have couched our response to the pandemic as a peace and safety effort, I wonder if we have consciously distinguished a language of engagement that underwrites peace humanization in the year 2022.

I am enamored by story and the power of storytelling and how we consciously and unconsciously craft and validate the stories of our time. I have been intuitively disconnected from the language we have adopted in our approach to human engagement with the pandemic. The inability to divorce and isolate peace and safety not in relation to something - but as a unique state that exists – underscores my first discomfort. That efforts to effect peace and safety use the same language mechanics and procedures that evidence violence, death, destruction, accentuate my second tier of discomfort .

In March 2020 we went to war. We called it a response to a pandemic and because of the absence of visible weapons we used words that we had become accustomed to that denote peace and safety and crafted stories using safe and peaceful words to suit our message. We shaped our intentions and actions in tones of peace and safety and made the war less frightening through language and what seemed like logic. For the last 2 years I have been observing with increasing concern the raging effects of a storyboard we are living out which I call the “Pact of War”.

We declared war and perhaps one of the most bizarre elements of this war, is that we used the words for peace to justify the war while insisting we were not at war. The fight against covid. Words of destruction and retaliation.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of this war was how we mobilised civilians. We called an entire nation to attention. For all intents and purposes we were conscripted and the only thing missing was the uniform and rations, and the training to prepare for the realities of war. Picture us on a field – all of us newly recruited soldiers gathered with self appointed generals taking us through some drills. Pause on the drill where the commander says “Attention”. Even if you’ve never been in the army you know what that means. You have that image in your mind. Mentally your right hand is at your brow and your left hand against your right thigh with your chin raised and tummy and butt cheeks tucked in. You are in abeyance- waiting for the next command. You are a soldier waiting for instruction and then after that, the next instruction coming in. For two years we have been at attention, listening to commands and waiting for the next instruction – on high alert.

The anomaly is that we are not soldiers called to war, but soldiers on standby. For 2 years we have operated like sleeper agents with no training for the life of espionage or personal handlers to check in on how we are doing or to call us off the field if we show signs that we are not fit for field duty. We have been consuming a “peace” language of casualties, and changing warfare tactics from the enemy, increasing frequency of strikes and devastation of what I can only relate to as successful guerilla tactics from the enemy. The enemy with no face or identity further entrenched by numerous anecdotes of what we have come to accept is the millenial tokoloshe who can even sneak in surreptitiously with the person that you love, and leave the equivalent of ricin letters but delivered to everybody with a postbox, and this millennial tokoloshe like the famous postman can knock twice or even thrice – actually there’s no upper limit.

In this 21st century experience of peace we have compacted on, we cede our rights for the greater good and are being asked to relinquish our rights to object. The word asked is a euphemism as the cession is not an option and we have accepted it as part of our safety and protection shield further enshrined in constitutional powers activated in a state of emergency that permit this – for safety sake and greater good of course. Because safety is a antithesis of threat, it stands to reason that Enemies are everywhere and in times of peace you need to pick sides. You are either for or against peace. This peace is developing an identity and a language. And the wheels of the bus are falling off.

When language and story contradict meaning and understanding and purpose and direction, you have confusion. Confusion that turns to frustration and without a means of articulating that confusion and frustration, collapse of the basic tenets of safety and peace – security.

In working with a number of teams in the last couple of years - what is emerging for me is a growing sense of insecurity. The known has become unknown, language has been manipulated out of context and has lost meaning. The sense of belonging and identity is on hold as we stay in a pattern that at once requires you to be at attention and on alert and at the same time operate as if everything is normal. There is nothing normal about this. We know it. We see it. We murmur. Quietly

From the lens of an African, storytelling as a social cultural means of engaging, creating meaning, bonding, belonging and identity has never had such a unique opportunity to weave a tapestry for connection, and formulating what is evidently missing which is a language for peace in a time of peace. In the beginning there was the word it is writ. The disruption we’ve experienced will either enshrine a storyboard that we will continue to adopt and which to date has us playing support roles with bad wigs and poor lighting, or stimulate us to deliberately tune into a our creative soul, spirit and syntax as we move forward and craft a powerful distinctly African thought leadership in execution on peace.

What is evident is that the current conditions and poor storylines are affecting our mental fabric. Not a week is going by without a suicide threat or experience and sense of hopelessness. Leaders cannot afford to be in the field like the rest of the population and need to take up clear roles of pathfinding and create templates or put up whiteboards for new storyboards. They need to understand and embrace that as storylines change they need to master the art of storytelling and use it impactfully to encourage an evolving and relevant language that facilitates the fundamentals of inclusive engagement, direction, purpose and safety. When the restrictions are lifted and the world reconnects, it will be stories that emerge as a curated outcome of harnessing the power of storytelling that will evidence when we can truly be free and say - at ease.

This piece was originally authored on 24 Feb 2022.

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Dear October 2022

He walked right up to me encroaching on my personal space. He told me to keep calm, pay attention to what he was saying and not to panic.


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