Breaking free from the single story

Chris Maxon

Chris Maxon

Published Mar 21, 2024


Chris Maxon

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they aren’t true, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

In her seminal TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delves into the perils of embracing a single story. She adeptly navigates the complexities of narratives, highlighting how they can arise from innocuous misunderstandings, or be wielded with malicious intent to suppress certain groups because of prejudice.

Adichie’s insights have a particular resonance in our contemporary political landscape, where new parties are often perceived as strange or foreign entities outside the bounds of our familiar narrative.

Unfortunately, in his recent conversation with Unisa students, Thabo Mbeki appears committed to promoting a singular political narrative that exclusively revolves around the ANC, disregarding other perspectives. He implies that voters should scrutinise new parties as if they are required to discharge a unique burden of proof.

Consequently, we have grown comfortable in our discomfort with this single story, often failing to recognise its limitations and biases.

Our single narrative prevails, overshadowing the country’s rich diversity and complexity. Often overlooked is the fact that South Africa is home to about 60 million people, encompassing a multitude of languages, political persuasions and cultures.

One negative consequence is the prevailing perception of a country of hitmen-driven violence, poverty and rampant government corruption. Another is the picture of a nation filled with incapable and helpless individuals, devoid of hope and agency.

In the words of Adichie, this single story has perpetuated a narrow view of South Africa, depicting it as a land of beautiful landscapes and people, yet marred by senseless leaders, failed democracy and economic stagnation. It reduces the people of South Africa to passive victims awaiting salvation from external forces, particularly God and white people.

However, this single story fails to capture the resilience, strength and diversity of the South African people. It overlooks the vibrant cultures, the entrepreneurial spirit, and the ongoing struggle for social justice and equality that are all around us.

To truly understand South Africa and forge a transformative agenda, we must challenge and move beyond this limiting narrative, embracing the multifaceted reality of the country and its people. It is this view that is behind the “Rise Mzansi” call for people's agency.

Adichie compellingly argues that, by listening to and embracing diverse narratives, we embark on a journey of self-discovery that opens our minds to new possibilities. It is precisely this openness to alternative perspectives that is essential in fostering a more inclusive and enlightened society.

Adichie offers compelling examples to underscore the hazards of generalisations, citing her own personal encounters, including her college roommate’s tendency towards “well-meaning pity”. This is evident in the tendency to label someone as racist merely for addressing a form of injustice solely based on their skin colour.

Her eye-opening trip to Mexico serves as a powerful testament to the ways in which power can manipulate our understanding of others.

Adichie’s discovery that Mexicans didn’t conform to the negative stereotypes portrayed by Western media highlights the perils of embracing a single narrative without scrutiny. Likewise, we frequently hear the excuse that issues like inadequate water supply or persistent power outages stem solely from apartheid’s legacy, rather than acknowledging the failures of present-day leaders.

So, as we stand on the brink of this year’s landmark elections, Adichie’s message must serve as a timely reminder to challenge default positions and self-pitying attitudes: for example, believing there is no alternative to the ANC, or that all new parties are proxies of “white monopoly capital”.

The future of our country hinges on the choices we consciously make, and it is imperative that we contest the single-story narrative that has dominated our political discourse for decades.

Adichie’s exploration of the connection between single stories and power further underscores the urgency of embracing diverse narratives. By being open to listening to a multitude of stories, we can help to empower and humanise others, fostering a more compassionate and equitable society.

In essence, the upcoming elections present us with a unique opportunity to challenge the entrenched single-story narrative that has shaped our national identity for far too long.

Adichie ended her address by pointing out that “when we reject the single story, when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise”.

As Adichie implores, we have the power to contest this simplistic narrative and rewrite the story of our nation. Our future depends on it.

Chris Maxon is a member of Rise Mzansi in KwaZulu-Natal.

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