Let’s change the national conversation

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

If you're in the southern hemisphere at this time of year and have the opportunity to look up into the sky to the east just before dawn, you should be able to see the constellation Virgo just above the horizon.

And directly in a straight line between Virgo and the planet Mars, if you have a good pair of binoculars or a telescope, you should be able to see comet ISON making its way toward the sun.

It was barely a year ago, September, when two amateur astronomers using Russia's International Scientific Optical Network spotted the comet. (Now you know where its name comes from.) ISON at the time was way behind Jupiter's orbit.

Already, enthusiasts and amateur astronomers have begun posting pictures of ISON. They show a beautiful blue fireball with two distinct tails. One of these is a dust tail that accompanies any comet. The other is an ion tail, caused by ionized gases pushed away from the comet by solar winds.

The dust tail marks a straight line to the path ISON has taken, the ion tail shows a straight line toward the sun.

It's long journey for ISON. Comets are believed to be leftover space debris from the formation of the solar system some 4,6 billion years ago. (That's a relatively short while – the Big Bang happened some 13,7 billion years ago.)

ISON's journey might come to an end soon. On 28 November, she will pass within 1 million kilometres of the sun travelling at 377 km per second, 22 620 km per minute, 1,3 million km/h.

That close to the sun, ISON's temperature will be raised to some 2 700 degrees Celsius. That's hot enough to melt metal and vaporise rock.

By that stage, she should be quite spectacularly visible to the naked eye.

With all the rubbish floating around in our national discourse right now, it's easy to be distracted from the fact that the universe is getting on with what it does best – distilling beauty from chaos.

Aren't you irritated with how parochial our national conversation has become? I certainly am. I'm tired of people telling us what's wrong with the way in which we are doing things and playing the blame game.

Think back to the Orlando Pirates versus Al Ahly clash at the CAF Champions League Final in Cairo on Sunday night. We lost, and immediately the fans began braying for the coach's head.

I don't hear people stopping to consider that we don't have developmental programmes that are identifying promising young players and nurturing them to greatness.

Think about the 29 people killed in the collision between a bus and a truck on the Moloto Road near Kwaggafontein in Mpumalanga on Monday. The president calls for the carnage to stop and for law enforcement authorities to act.

I don't hear him stopping to point out that most of our national roads no longer have viable emergency lanes. Here in Johannesburg, the emergency lanes on the M1 motorway have been removed to widen the roads.

It's a formula, really. And it doesn't work. And it's leaving us as a disgruntled twisted bunch with no sense of purpose.

I think we need a change in our national conversation that focuses on where we want to go.

One million of our fellow citizens turned out for voter registration last weekend. I expect they, like most of us, want a winning nation. How about this?

We, the people of South Africa,

Recognise the injustices of our past;

Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land;

Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and

Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.

We therefore, through our freely elected representatives, adopt this Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic so as to —

Heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights;

Lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law;

Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person; and

Build a united and democratic South Africa able to take its rightful place as a sovereign state in the family of nations.

My point is that we don't need to reinvent the wheel. We already have a magnificent blueprint in our constitution for the type of country we want to live in.

Can we please focus on that?

I appeal to my colleagues in the media: let's change the conversation. Every time a politician opens his or her mouth, judge what he or she says in the light of those words of our constitution.

Highlight when they comply. Berate them when they don't. But otherwise, let's ignore them.

As they sing at Harvard, "Illegitimum non carborundum".

Get up before dawn, look to the stars, and then vote. Distil beauty from chaos.