It is probably incautious in these incendiary times to remind readers of an acclaimed poet from the mid-Victorian era. Danger acknowledged, Matthew Arnold’s elegiac composition, on the loss of faith and certainty, seems unusually modern and fits right in with the clamorous background noise that characterises SA in 2021.

Although Arnold had in mind the loss of religious faith in England, his concluding stanza could have been inked for troubled times at home.

“And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

The fires that ravaged so much of the priceless flora and fauna of the Table Mountain National Park in recent days were an earthly reminder of the power of nature (perhaps encouraged by arsonists) to wreak havoc on the most enduring intellectual institutions as well.

The flames engulfed the Jagger Reading Room at the University of Cape Town, putting to the torch works of scholarship that dated to before Arnold’s time.

Apropos of ignorant armies and being swept with confused alarms, it is worth remembering that in 2017 the most acclaimed photographic chronicler of the apartheid age, the late David Goldblatt, removed his irreplaceable canon of work from UCT entirely.

He did so in protest at a decision by UCT to remove or cover up much of the artwork on its campus because students complained it was offensive. Goldblatt famously would have none of this and removed his collection to Yale University, where it stands today.

He noted at the time: “I completely disagree with the policy at UCT and to have left my work in the collection there would have been tantamount to endorsing that policy.”

The destruction of our heritage – whether by fire or the carelessness of current policies – diminishes our knowledge base and expertise. But the “ignorant armies of the night” are in full cry right now on all fronts.

The recent imbroglio at the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) continues apace, leading the Africa editor of The Economist to warn this week that “one of the post-apartheid SA’s great triumphs is an independent and respected judiciary . [but] this is beginning to crack”.

Aided by Julius Malema – who presides at the JSC’s hearings – expect the crack to become a fissure. And no less a judicial rogue – recently judged as such by a JSC tribunal – than Western Cape judge president John Hlophe will assist in determining which new judges will sit on the province’s bench.

But it is worth dwelling on Malema as the perfect present-day commander of the ignorant armies of the night. For the leader of a party that has not won a single by-election out of the hundreds it has contested since 2013, he exercises outsize influence.

Perhaps his brand of incendiary populist pyrotechnics appeals because the ruling ANC offers no deep commitments of its own, beyond seeing public office and government as a self-enrichment pact for its insiders. Certainly, the “better life for all” once promised on its election posters is honoured only in the breach, in a sleazy pile of misgovernance and corrupt practices.

On the JSC, Malema’s interrogation of worthy candidates reduces each interview to a racial zero-sum game, or settling personal scores against his bêtes noires such as Pravin Gordhan. Interestingly, he is supported by some members of the ANC who serve on the JSC. They simply parrot the Jacob Zuma shtick about “judicial dictatorships” and other assaults on the backbone of independent adjudication.

I was recently told that while President Cyril Ramaphosa, who on occasion is roused to defend judicial integrity, might be under siege in his party, he does control its parliamentary caucus. But ANC MP China Dodovu attacked judicial candidate Dhaya Pillay during the JSC hearings in what Rebecca Davis in Daily Maverick called a “word-for-word crib” of the Zuma line on over-powerful judges. Pillay’s sin is a friendship with the incorruptible Gordhan, and she was not appointed to higher office.

Perhaps the most alarming of the “confused alarms” sounded on the struggle for a new democratic SA is the current eager uprooting of the settlement that resulted in the 1994 transition to democracy. The settlement’s chief precept, echoing the Freedom Charter, that “SA belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity”, has pretty well been asphyxiated on the pyre of ethnic nationalism that now dominates the national discourse.

And as for the key provision of the preamble to the constitution, which pledges every citizen equal protection by law, look no further than the recent JSC proceedings to know that it, too, is in the process of immolation.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.

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