#ImStaying and the bright side of crime
What started as a social media hashtag has grown into a social movement. But is #ImStaying bigger than its contradictions?
One of the fascinating things about researching the evolution of the #ImStaying movement since its inception on September 7 is the way the numbers grow with every story you read. From 25,000, to 50,000, to 350,000 — and now this story, which records the #ImStaying Facebook group at a whopping 670,000 members.
The movement — started by Jarette Petzer, an estate agent with a gift for reassuring platitudes who has decided to sell SA as a fixer-upper in a good location — is being touted as a symbol of South Africans’ desire to "just get along".
A lot of it seems to be about looking on the bright side of crime. "Sure, someone stole my car. But then a policewoman hugged me, so that’s why #ImStaying. Also, I haven’t got a car, so I can’t go anywhere anyhow."
At times, this is taken to extremes, as in a post by a man who was stabbed three times. His takeaways are that there are good people who will hold your hand while you’re fighting death, but also: "I’ve realised how important it is to bleed when you’re wounded."
That could be a maxim for the #ImStaying group: many of the posts function as gimcrack therapy; people sharing not only their wounds but also, crucially, their Band-Aids.
Then there’s the bit about how beautiful SA is — the "I have a pet zebra/kudu/hippo in my garden, so #ImStaying".
Another variation is the "white people at play in the fields of the Lord" posts. Generally featuring some beautiful bit of nature made conspicuous by the absence of people, these seem to suggest that landscape trumps lawlessness, and that a pretty sunset is a palliative to the trauma of being South African.
On one bathetic occasion these two are elided: "I’m staying because one night we thought we heard a burglar ... but it turned out to be an African crested porcupine!"
One of the group’s rules, as proclaimed by Petzer, is "only uplifting stuff, nothing that’s political, nothing that deals with race".
An inescapable irony, of course, is that every post is underpinned by race. As you’d expect, that favourite trope and hoary indicator of racism, "Some of my best friends are black", makes an appearance. The fact that it’s morphed into "Some of my best friends are white" might actually show that we’ve moved along as a society, though not necessarily in the right direction.
Petzer comes from a long line of prophets proclaiming that they don’t see colour, though in his case it’s articulated as "sentiment doesn’t have colour … We don’t need to put a label on a person in order to give our discussion context."
The #ImStaying movement is easy to lampoon. But fundamentally, people need to make sense of their lives in a way that allows them to get up every day and carry on with the business of making our messy, violent, broken paradox of a country move forward. Some of them do this for the greater good, but most do it because they need to survive. If they want to tell themselves a story that gives them the strength to carry on and the illusion of agency, there are many more malevolent ways to do so than to proclaim "I’m staying".
And yet, at its ideological core the movement perpetuates a division that might be inescapable. The major intellectual problem with #ImStaying is that it posits a place that isn’t SA — an alternative to which you could choose to go. For the vast majority of South Africans, there is no such option. As many have pointed out, being able to choose to stay is a sign of privilege; most South Africans don’t have the luxury of that decision.
In defence of the "stayers", there is a sense of their proclamation being more about staying invested in the country’s future than choosing to be geographically bound.
When I first checked the group, one of the top posts was a video of Nelson Mandela saying: "The first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself. And one of the most important weapons in changing yourself is to recognise that … people everywhere in the world want peace."
As a mission statement, it has a certain resonance. It’s possible that being a member of the group, experiencing the flow of communication from your fellow South Africans and learning how their prejudices differ slightly from yours, has an edifying effect. But SA needs a lot more than good intentions to move forward.
The "stayers" are a strange amalgam of Rhema and Lead SA. It’s hard to avoid the quasi religious nature of some of the language. Petzer preaches a belief system of passive goodness that seems designed to be as nonthreatening as possible.
"We don’t have to have anti-movements, we don’t have to fight anything, all we have to do is remain positive," he says. "All we have to do is ignore the things that we don’t want to be a part of our lives. #ImStaying is a place for positive rhetoric, nothing more."
It’s a very Lutheran belief in salvation through faith rather than good deeds, and cleverly allows for a positive attitude that belies that sense of impotence that bedevils so many South Africans.
As with all new religious cults, there are already schisms we’re being warned about. "There aren’t any splinter groups as far as #ImStaying is concerned, there’s only one entity. If it doesn’t come from this platform, don’t support them, they’re not part of us."
That other marker of modern cults is that they give their adherents the illusion of agency by virtue of joining the movement. As Petzer enthuses: "Never let anyone tell you that you don’t have power … We think we don’t have any power, but look at what we’ve achieved as individuals, we’ve managed to create something so powerful that the world is talking about it."
And, of course, every good religion also needs a foe: "We’re showing the world, this is what we are, not what the media tells you we are, not what the politicians think that we are."
Petzer’s constant refrain, delivered with the wide-eyed surprise of a goldfish bumping into a plastic treasure chest for the first time, is: "What a time to be alive, guys."
It makes up in fatalist precision what it lacks in rhetorical power. The overriding impression is of people who are not allowing the vicissitudes of life to stop them from living.
#ImStaying’s official payoff line is: "Good thoughts, good words, good deeds." It’s the good deeds bit that remains to be proved — will social media translate into action?
Petzer has promised that the movement will address problems of unemployment, but with no indication of what that actually means.
In his most recent video post, Petzer reveals that #ImStaying is registering as an NGO (there’s already an official merchandise store), and that the hashtag ImStaying is copyrighted. He promises to talk transparently about "money money money".
Can #ImStaying survive a shift from safe space to activist NGO, from anodyne good news to political movement? In his latest video, Petzer says that concerns about who benefits, and who controls the money, will be addressed, proclaiming: "What we’re about to do has never been done in SA. We’re about to take transparency to a whole new level."
It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, and whether the same people impelled to share their feel-good stories about dancing garage attendants can also be compelled to share the rather more scarce currency of cash.