Winds of change at the press of a button

A few years ago I went to South Africa. On my way back to Kenya I stopped in Johannesburg to visit some old friends from university. They were doing well.
We did not talk about struggle politics, did not even talk about politics. We talked about town houses. Who has one, who has two. Buy or lease? Lease is better—then you can change the car every year.

My friends had been commerce students at the University of Transkei. They were now empowerment babies, earning fabulous salaries and working for banks and such in Johannesburg. I asked about Sis D. Oh, Sis D, who had been in our class. Oh, she is a teacher in Transkei. How is she doing? Oh fine.

Everybody here was earning many times more than what Sis D was earning back in the Transkei. She had the same qualifications. At the time it seemed as if there was something terribly wrong with Sis D. Why could she not get it “together?” This all seemed normal. At every airport I went to, I saw these cappuccino people, all young, all crisp, all earning fabulous salaries, all could tell you a thing or two about museums in Barcelona, or colonic irrigation or the party scene in Amsterdam.

One thing united this new black class: finance. They all seemed to be working in finance. I do not work in finance, but so many people I know, from all over the world, do, that I even know finance buzz words.

I knew that if so and so got a job at Citi, that was good. I did not know why. I knew that there was finance and then there was finance. Which is to say, I knew not to be excited if somebody told me they were a bank manager. That was not finance—that was folk music. Finance hedged, it swooped on emerging markets, it worked on the rouble; it repackaged mortgages. It was jazz; no no, it was hip-hop: it sampled here and there, and, a few cuts-and-pastes later, it was a big hit on You Tube.

The idea that you spent 10 years learning guitar and five learning vocals, then you performed in bus stations for 40 years, accumulating savings and using the small surplus from each to grow bigger, was not popular. This idea was the curse of the folk music bankers.

I was terribly excited about all this. It seemed, just two years ago, that the world was one great website and you could use code to make it as you wanted. Touch screens could move Gondwanaland apart and together; the cellphone revolution would replace ideas, ideology and the imagination; text message banking would connect the trader in Lagos with the consumer in Johannesburg.

Two years ago, when we heard that Jacob Zuma was running for president, we were upset. That man—with an interesting take on the condom, with a primary school education, several wives and the sort of public talk that didn’t lend itself to cut-and-paste—was the call of the terrible past.

Those people down there need to be better taught how to produce for the text message economy and now they were getting surly and angry. And it is because they were not ­connected to ICT networks.

Did they not know we could do ICT networks in Zulu with instant translators? That we could help them transact business with Hong Kong even if they were illiterate because they would only need to speak to their Zulu iphone for everything to be arranged into invoices and business plans? South African Man would only need to push the button.

Now, Zuma is the president of South Africa. And we are afraid. Very afraid of the beasts he may release, for he seems to have a foot in a place of desires and dreams that does not speak cappuccino. He got to them before our trickling down software did and while we were busy seeing our therapist about white noise or leveraging our ­mortgage package.

Many of us had no time to dwell on Zuma, as we were busy discovering—after the markets crashed—that the season of religious ­fundamentalism was a season of global fundamentalism and we too were Pentecostals of the Market. Like them, we saw the giant church implode, our pastors in sex ­scandals. We discovered that the instant healings were fake, that the billions of computer calculations made no dent on human behaviour. That the market was as animal and primitive and unchanged as it was in the Old Testament. Like TD Jakes and Usama [bin Laden], we thought a simple act would rearrange the world; like them we believed without doubt, without the scepticism we were taught in school, that we were the generation that would make the world push one button and move to the 23rd century.

Well. What now?

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