Ouroboros: Repeating the Past, Predicting the Future

“I’m not sure the government is in charge any more,” the black-suited Servaas says from behind his bushy eyebrows, “the uprisings and strikes are escalating out of control. And…it is getting worse.”

For once, Gertruida agrees. “But it isn’t a new thing. The Ouroboros has been with us since the time of Plato – and even before that.  It happened with every empire the world has ever known, and our country isn’t immune to this phenomenon, either. The government will become its own biggest enemy…”

“Okay, Gertruida. You win. What are you talking about?” Boggel is so used to Gertruida dropping the strangest concepts amongst them, that he immediately stops her for an explanation.

“The Ouroboros is a snake that lives by eating its own tail. Plato described it well: “The living being had no need of eyes because there was nothing outside of him to be seen; nor of ears because there was nothing to be heard; and there was no surrounding atmosphere to be breathed; nor would there have been any use of organs by the help of which he might receive his food or get rid of what he had already digested, since there was nothing which went from him or came into him: for there was nothing beside him. Of design he created thus; his own waste providing his own food, and all that he did or suffered taking place in and by himself.” Her cynical smile says it all. “The principle being that this snake-like creature survived because it was continuously eating itself, thus providing the nutrition to recreate the bits it digested. Like the dream of perpetual motion, it was supposed to keep on eating and recreating itself for all eternity.

“The Phoenix is another example of this type of eternal regeneration, only it had to die every time to start all over again. The Ouroboros went one step further: it kept on living because it kept on supplying its own food.”

“Then you are saying we have to live with the current government … forever?” Kleinpiet rolls his eyes and sighs heavily. This doesn’t sound good…

“No. The Ouroboros and the Phoenix are myths. What the analogy tells us is this: once a government becomes blind and deaf; and once it has to feed on the gullibility of the masses to survive – well, it’ll go on for a while under the misguided impression it’s invincible. But then the cracks start appearing. The original  source of its strength becomes the waste-product it needs to survive. Nutrition and energy get lost because other, smaller but growing, little creatures are born. Malema. Marikana. De Doorns. Sasolburg. The once-big-and-mighty Ouroboros now finds itself caring for a family of teenage Ouroborosses, each believing itself to be invincible. The original Ouroboros starves to death while its offspring now enter the same cycle of power, self-gestation, unhappy offspring, and death.”

“Now, I suppose you’re going to tell us that’s why the Ottoman, the Roman and the British Empires crashed?” Boggel doesn’t even bother to ask; he simply serves a new round. When Gertruida is in such a lecture-mood, the only way to keep his customers in the bar is by providing a constant flow of beer.

“Exactly, Boggel. Governments remain in power by listening and by observing and by delivering. That’s what democracy means: elected people serving those who elected them. It implies honesty, integrity and respect. Dictators don’t do that. They think they can emulate the mythical Ouroboros by concentrating only on their own needs.”

“So what’s going to happen, Gertruida?” Precilla’s voice is uncertain and worried.

“Things will get worse before they get better. Die isolated incidents of unrest in the rural areas are practice sessions of what will happen later. The recipe will be the same: the jobless people in the shacks of the informal settlements will be used to rob and rampage. They’re the tail-end that gets eaten. Cities will be targeted next. Metropoles will become ungovernable. The snake will feed on itself until it dies. Then, with the economy blown to pieces, the infrastructure wrecked, schools and shops burnt to the ground and the government unable to create more chaos – then people will demand peace. Those who survived, that is. And they’ll hold an election, choose a fair and just government, who’ll set out with the most wonderful of promises.”

“Gee, Gertruida, for a moment I thought there would be a sad end to our story.” Precilla sighs with relief. “So the Ouroboros will die? Please tell me it will?”

“No Precilla, it won’t – not like that. The only Ouroboros that’ll survive, is the perpetual motion of the Political Machine. Labour and Democrat  and Republican and Independent  – the one will follow the other in an endless cycle as they eat each other in turn. No party will govern forever, for at some stage it stops seeing and stops listening and stops delivering on its promises. It’s part of the bizarre political genetics that will see governments rise to the level of their incompetence – just like the Peter Principle predicts.”

“But where does it leave us, Gertruida? Are we doomed to be passengers on an aeroplane whose captain forgot where the landing strip should be?”

“We live an isolated life in many ways, and we’ll escape a lot of the damage that will follow. But think of the poor souls in Cape Town and Pretoria and Durban – when the feeding frenzy starts, few will escape the ripple effects. It’s unfortunately a natural cycle – like Global Warming and Ice Ages, birth and death, and a New Year every 365 days – we cannot escape the Ouroboros seasons: one must follow the other.”

“Then we must make others aware of it as well.” Servaas straightens his white tie as he buttons his black jacket. “And we must pray…”

This time, the sombre silence in Boggel’s Place is only broken by Oudoom’s soft ‘Amen’.

3 thoughts on “Ouroboros: Repeating the Past, Predicting the Future

    1. Amos van der Merwe Post author

      It’s Afrikaans, yes. The English translation of the lyrics doesn’t really portray the beauty of the original words, but we can’t have it all, can we? And yes, it is close too Dutch. Thanks for listening, and reading – much appreciated…

      Reply
    2. Harold Green

      I agree with Purnimodo! A beautiful deep read and beautiful deep music all around. Now I’m in for an afternoon of heavy thinking. Thought I might watch a hockey game or play some golf. Guess again, Harold.

      Reply

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