Isaiah’s upbeatness comes amidst suffering and defeat for Israel in exile. It is a reminder to us that our attitude plays such an important role in how we see our situation. Many of the reflections this Lent on contemporary South Africa have spoken of our problems: poverty, corruption, crime, inequality, the lack of social cohesion. I do not apologise for such a critique; the situations described are real and in many cases pose a serious threat to our democracy. There is a mood of discontent and even despondency across all sectors of our society.
Yet when we return to Isaiah’s vision, God’s vision, we are confronted with a challenge to ourselves. Do we choose to wallow in such disillusionment or do we, inspired by Isaiah, take action? The danger in taking action is that we act short-sightedly and destructively. At one extreme, murder, domestic violence and child rape, through violent protests, road rage or simply getting drunk. These are not solutions to our problems. They make things worse.
The great South African political philosopher Rick Turner, when asked by his mainly white students whether they should protest Apartheid, told them that the best kind of protest they could do was win people over by reasoned argument. While the system remained strong he urged them to canvas white voters to elect the least worst councillors and parliamentarians. He also encouraged black trade unionists to campaign, by striking if necessary, to get the best possible wages for their work.
Though far less politically fashionable and newsworthy than violent protests, Turner’s ideas are more relevant than ever today. Moreover, in our new democracy we have far more political space for engagement. We can not only dare to dream of a better life, we can act democratically to start to make it happen. As citizens, filled with Isaiah’s vision of a new world, we can (in fact I think we must) become participatory democrats: we must challenge our leaders to be accountable; we must examine past performances and election promises; we must prudently examine the feasibility of their current programmes; and we must get out there and vote.