The farce that played out at Schweizer-Reneke primary school in recent days is far from tragedy, but some other words of Greek origin referring to our less heroic instincts apply perfectly: isothymia and megalothymia.

Those two concepts, the desire to be equal to others, and the desire to be superior to them, are to be found in Francis Fukuyama’s latest work, in which he deals with the contemporary problem of identity politics. Liberalism, while being the basis of today’s best-functioning democracies, has been unable to fully administer to one fundamental human craving: the recognition of dignity.

“Equal respect, embodied in individual rights, the rule of law, and the franchise … do not guarantee that people in a democracy will be equally respected in practice, particularly members of groups with a history of marginalisation,” Fukuyama writes. Isothyma is unlikely ever to be completely fulfilled.

Likewise megalothymia will be with us forever, and cannot be overcome. It “thrives on exceptionality, taking big risks, engaging in monumental struggles, seeking large effects, because all these lead to recognition of oneself as superior to others”. What a liberal democracy does is allow these energies to be channelled in more harmless activities than trying to become a Hitler.

In earlier work, 25 years ago, Fukuyama cited Donald Trump as an example of “a fantastically ambitious individual whose desire for recognition had been safely channelled into a business (and entertainment career)”. In Identity, his latest work, he notes ruefully: it is “hard to imagine an individual less suited to be president of the US”.

In the past US election, he writes, isothymia and megalothymia were conflated, when Americans feeling marginalised by the managerial classes exemplified by the Clinton family, chose the TV celebrity who turned their failures into occasions for fun and games.

The picture taken by a Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke grade R teacher that caused outrage when it was shared on social media. Picture: SUPPLIED
The picture taken by a Laerskool Schweizer-Reneke grade R teacher that caused outrage when it was shared on social media. Picture: SUPPLIED

Fukuyama’s concepts apply remarkably well to SA. Here isothymia is an almost pathological need among black people, after generations of deep damage to their dignity by colonialism and Afrikaner fascism. The constitution enables a return to dignity, but it cannot guarantee that citizens will apply its ethos.

Hence the strange cases of megalothymia among whites; one would have thought that after the demise of a whites-only government white racists would get over themselves. The game is up, and yet from time to time we have outbursts from diehard supremacists.

Since the mainstream media’s reporting on incidents labelled racist is so atrocious, it is difficult to tell what exactly happened in Schweizer-Reneke. But from the very basic facts one can see isothymia at work in not such a productive fashion.

In another country, four children being seated separately from others might have been interpreted quite differently. A group of four can easily single themselves out as getting special treatment from the others. So why the hysteria over not being part of the masses at the school in Schweizer?

The answer is that whites are still the standard against which many black people measure themselves. Equal treatment becomes a simple formula, a quota thing, and whether that really promotes greater dignity is discarded in the excessive isothymic drive.

One reason given by the defenders of the teacher involved for the kids’ separation was that their language was different. This has been generally poo-poohed but the truth is there is every practical reason to treat them differently. These 5-year-olds had never been to a school before, and their grade was not yet even a proper one. It would have been highly unusual for them to have mastered English, let alone Afrikaans, which must have been the home language of most of the other kids.

Were the DA, ANC and EFF politicians piling into the incident suggesting that the Tswana-speaking foursome be forced to sit among the others and converse in Afrikaans? Some taalstryders might have welcomed this, but the aversion to Afrikaans is well established in our political elite.

And what is going to happen to these children now? Will they be told they are not allowed to seek out each other’s company on the playground, but can only play with white kids, forced to speak something else than their home language?

Schweizer is also a good demonstration of the unhealthy kind of debate to which public discourse has regressed due to megalothymia. Politicians from the three biggest parties stumbled over each other’s feet to manufacture a crisis and launch an impromptu social media lynch party. Calling out “racists” on social media has become a cheap and easy way of feeling superior to others — and once again the benchmark are whites, whom “critical race theory” imported from the US has designated as almost genetically racist.

Such is the hysteria that it seems acceptable to these race warriors that the right person was not even targeted for suspension and mob intimidation (not the teacher who separated the kids, but the one who took the picture).

Isothymia of the good sort has been well served by our constitution. In just 20 years or so the system has pushed into international prominence the likes of Thuli Madonsela and Caster Semenya. Sports fans of all races dance on their chairs over the exploits of a Kagiso Rabada or an Aphiwe Dyanyti. Though the odds against it remain great, it is possible for a dirt-poor child from the depths of Venda to excel at school and become a rocket scientist.

But the mass of South Africans, unemployed and impoverished, their prospects worse than ever, need more than the odd glimpse of a sports hero on a TV connected to a battery outside a shack. Mass restoration of dignity is possible through language, by showing at the official level that your mother tongue is worthy of being the medium of communication, government and instruction in schools.

This is where Schweizer also becomes instructive of the contradictions and confusion when it comes to especially black identity. The race warriors clearly rate instruction in Afrikaans or English higher than Setswana. One person who would turn in his grave is Sol Plaatje, who resorted to developing Setswana after he had decided that blacks had no future anymore in SA.

Plaatje was concerned that the SA Native National Congress he had helped found would engender a kind of homogeneous, narrow-minded activist fixated on beating white domination — isothymia and megalothymia conflated. His prediction has come to pass in the dominance of the corrupt, entitled cadre suffused with dead white men’s ideologies.

That whites remain the benchmark is also clear from the populist rationalisations of the EFF’s Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, who says whites do not belong in SA. He seems to argue that Congolese and Zimbabweans have a greater claim. Perhaps he should tell the voting public whether the EFF would prefer Congolese people to come to SA and the whites to leave.

At the heart of such confusion is the deeply unstable concept of “African”. African seems to mean someone who is more authentically native — and therefore superior — to others, even though these others might have local ancestors stretching back 15 generations or more. And yet mother tongues, the base requirement for recognition of dignity, are scorned as inferior by all three of the biggest parties, who only pay lip service to policies to promote them.

This has been shown up once again in the hysteria over four Schweizer-Reneke kids.

• Pienaar is a journalist and author.