Racing against time in a cosmic struggle


Too often, and to our detriment, we dismiss the clashes of our national heroes as “political in-fighting” and we regard these as the highest level of engagement.  Unless of course you consider institutions like BRICS, the ICC, the United Nations, the IMF and so on to be an even higher level, like the gods on Mount Olympus.  Whereas our national heroes are half men and half god, fighting elections and court battles on behalf of us mere mortals.  It is easy to get distracted and to forget that we all struggle daily with corruption and patronage, whistle-blowing and related court cases.

Our new NDPP Shamila Batohi is quoted as saying in a recent speech that “We have a very small window of opportunity to turn the situation around.”  Is that really true?  Or do the battles of power and politics not go on endlessly?

One of the most famous turnovers happened to Belshazzar, a king of Babylon.  He was named after Bel, one of the lesser gods in the Babylonian pantheon of gods.  He held a great feast to celebrate his amazing success.  During the feast, a hand was seen in the banquet hall, writing on the wall!  “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting”.  Within days the Assyrians attacked Babylon and this mighty king, son of the great Nebuchadnezzar (also named after a Babylonian god Nebu), was out in the bundu hiding behind rocks to escape the enemy.  His dynasty was of little use to him anymore, and his favourite gods could not help him.

There was a lot of in-fighting within the Achaemenid Empire.  Stretching from Ethiopia to Afghanistan it covered much of what we now call the Middle East – except for Saudi Arabia. By percentage of world population, this was the largest empire ever.  Contesting its dominance internally were the Persians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians.  We cannot escape the fact that today’s struggles between and among Iran, Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and Ethiopia have deep and ancient roots.  Notably excluding Saudi Arabia.

One of the greatest works of literature of this empire is also one of the greatest poems in human history – The Book of Job.    It has dual prologues.  One is the human story narrative, Job’s success and good fortune – until he slams into calamity and his health collapses.  The other prologue is about God meeting the Devil in the court of heaven.  They actually talk about Job.  So there is a dualism that runs through the book.  South Africa needs a reminder that the calamities and challenges being experienced did not happen in isolation.  There is a cosmic struggle going on behind these events.  Shamila Batohi is one of the actors at the human level.  In her speech, she said:

“Corruption has become so widespread that there is a real danger of it becoming entrenched and normalised in South Africa unless something serious happens soon. For too long, corrupt politicians, government employees and business leaders have acted almost with impunity to plunder the scarce resources of our country.” 

It is naïve to think that the criminal syndicates that have tried to overthrow South Africa’s democratic equilibrium are acting in isolation.

The predominant religion of that ancient period was Zoroastrianism.  Its great prophet was Zarathustra, from Persia (Iran).  Dating his life is difficult – estimates vary from 600 to 6000 BC.  But it was he who entrenched “ethical dualism” in people’s thinking before the Axial Age.  He perceived a cosmic clash between Good and Evil, each with its ultimate destination (heaven and hell).  He perceived that individuals are accountable and that one day there will be a Judgment.  Thus he was the first monotheist to see through polytheism, which had brought more chaos than order to Egypt, the Middle East and Europe (e.g. Greece and Rome were polytheistic until challenged by the monotheism of Christianity, centuries later).

The two prologues to Job illustrate this dualism, which was expressed much later by St Paul: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.”  Judaism and Christianity both arose from the Middle East.  So did Islam.  In fact the Quran mentions 25 prophets, and among them are Zarathustra and Abraham.

The Greek mathematician Pythagoras studied in Babylon, where he learned of Zarathustra’s system of religious ethics called Masdayasna (i.e. Worship of Wisdom).  He adopted and adapted this book title into a new word that he coined in Greek – philosophy.

After the flood, God had pushed the reset button with Noah’s family.  One of his sons was Cush, and one of his grandsons was Nimrod.  Nimrod became the first king of this area that we call Mesopotamia, from Persia to Ethiopia.  Some people believe that Abraham’s departure from the Chaldean city of Ur – eventually to the Levant – was a result of his disapproval of Noah’s grandson Nimrod.  There are some extra-biblical accounts of Abraham encountering Nimrod to register his disapproval.  His challenge to Nimrod could be summed up by the words quoted above from Shamila Batohi’s speech.  There are two versions to the narrative, at this point.

One is that Nimrod ordered his subjects to fetch firewood for four years so he could build the biggest fire ever seen, in which to burn Abraham.  (This would be the Ace Magashule version.)  The other version is that Nimrod repented, and gave his son Eliezer to Abraham as a majordomo.  Included in his roles managing Abraham’s household was returning to Ur to negotiate Lobola for Rebecca.  (This would be the Pravin Gordhan version of the narrative.)

We simply have to see that there is more at stake in Zuma testifying at the Zondo Commission, in Magashule taking on Derek Hannekom, and in the clash between Pravin Gordhan and the Public Protector, than simply politics.  The ruling party taking on a foundation started by one of its own illustrious Treason Trialists is another clue.  Just as cosmic forces came down on Job like a ton of bricks, South Africa has been put through the ringer.

Will a Humanist Constitution with a man-centred Bill of Rights hold?  Or is it time to refresh our roots of monotheism – in Christianity, Islam and Judaism?  Even for the polytheists, losing bazillions of Rand to plunderers of the public purse must be unacceptable, although without the “In God We Trust” as their credo, do either polytheists or humanists ultimately have any absolutes?  If Relativism takes over, then the criminal justice system will be adrift.  If there is ultimately no right or wrong, how enforceable do laws become, and how long will it be before South Africa ends up a mafia state?

Somehow, rebellion against God (i.e. monotheism) smacks of Nimrod, the grandson of Noah.  Mesopotamia became a very wicked place – as well as a very powerful place.  Building the tower of Babel (from which Babylon takes its name) may have been just an innocuous ziggurat?  Or was it cosmically an act of rebellion?  Some say that Nimrod was the first to rule as a king after the flood, even coining the word “crown”!  (He was the first to wear one.)  Other versions say that as a grandson of Noah he knew better, so he fled to Assyria (like Abraham did on his way to the Levant).  Where God rewarded him – for sticking with monotheism – by raising the Assyrians up to trounce Belshazzar.

Before long, Alexander the Great would come along with Greek conquest re-introducing polytheism and soon after that, the Roman legions.

It is interesting to note that Saudi Arabia was not much affected by all this ancient history.  Until the rise of Islam brought it to the fore as a regional power.  That is certainly still playing out in the Middle East.  One of Mohammed’s great accomplishments was to replace the polytheism of Saudi Arabia with Islam – in his time.  When you think that only one Pharaoh in Egypt ever tried to do so, and did not succeed because of the vested interests of polytheism, this was no mean accomplishment.

Zarathustra did it in ancient Persia and Mesopotamia long before.  To the extent that when Abraham, a descendant of Nimrod, first arrived at Salem (the site of Jerusalem) he found a priest/king called Melchizadek, who was a monotheist.  Centuries later when Moses escaped from Egypt for killing a soldier in the forces oppressing his people, he encountered Jesse – another monotheist.  And before long, as Joshua marched out of the desert to claim the Promised Land, he met a prophet name Balaam, with a talking donkey – who was also a monotheist.

This is a call to the faiths of monotheism to join the impetus to defeat corruption, patronage and above all State Capture.  We can thank a Dominican priest Father Mayibe for filing the first complaint about State Capture with the Public Protector.  We can also thank the Methodist Church’s “Unburdening Panel” for its analysis and insights into State Capture.

But more that any others in Civil Society, we are the ones who can perceive the ethical dualism behind the near and present danger that Shamila Batohi warns of.  We share a psalm vision that talks about “captivity being led captive”.  Also our common prophet Jeremiah said “Bel himself will be confounded”.

Bel was only a minor deity to the Babylonians but he was and is called “the Persuader”.  We cannot abide the “persuasive voices” any longer.  Did God say that if you eat this fruit you will die?  Didn’t God say that if you throw yourself down from the Temple, he will raise you up?

“Unity” is a word that comes straight from this demon.  Aren’t we all the same?  Can’t we all rule South Africa together?  Do not listen to the persuasive voices of Bel.  Or you will be weighed in the balance and found wanting, like his namesake Belshazzar.  God can raise up other powers to sort out those who try to rebel against His authority and to confound human history.  You cannot put people like that into the shoes of John Dube or Albert Luthuli.

History is repeating itself.  Shamila Batohi is right that TIME IS SHORT.  But not just against the prospect of entrenching gangsterism so that criminal syndicates can call the shots. 

The big picture is that there is an on-going cosmic battle between Good and Evil.  It has Zoroastrian proportions.  Remember the lessons of Noah, Job and Abraham.  All monotheists revere these three figures.  So the struggle has Biblical proportions as well.  Let us reject apostasy and revisit the faith of our ancestors.  Ora et labora – pray and act.

Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.