/ 16 June 2009

Where were you?

Where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate? It is a question future generations will almost certainly ask.

I raise it because I agree with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, who writes in Democracy Realised: ”The perversion of economic growth and its fruits begins when we attempt to make up for the scarcity of public goods by producing more private ones, and to find in private consumption a barren solace for social frustration.”

Who among you would argue that we have not yet reached a perverse stage in the evolution of post-apartheid South Africa, where the public sector is the least preferred and the private sector the most preferred?

Should you doubt it, ask yourself:

  • If you had a choice, would you like your mother to be treated in a public or private hospital?
  • If you had the means, would you take your children to a private or public school?
  • If you had a private option, would you go to the Department of Home Affairs for services?
  • If you lived in a town house, would you trust the police or ADT to secure your property?
  • If you had to negotiate an ethical business transaction, would you prefer to talk to a politician or a private entrepreneur?
  • Those who would choose the private sphere must immediately be alerted that they are active participants in the construction of a private sub-state in South Africa.

    A private sub-state is populated by people who choose to insulate themselves from social ills. Yet their wealth owes a great deal to the sweat and toil of the workers and the poor.

    In How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney lamented the situation in post-colonial Africa, saying of the middle class: ”They squander the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky and perfume.”

    I am not sure South Africa’s middle class is any different. But I am certain that if the champions of the private sphere were to prevail, it would hasten our descent into barrenness and social frustration.

    The tragedy, however, is that at the peak of post-apartheid South Africa’s economic success in 2007, the Bureau of Market Research at Unisa estimated the size of the black middle class — the so-called Black Diamonds — at 9,3-million.

    We now know the economic difficulties the black middle class has fallen into since the Reserve Bank raised interest rates and the global economic crisis began to hit home.

    Even if we were to combine those struggling Black Diamonds with the entire white population, we would still have to confront the reality that more than half of our country’s population live in poverty and cannot afford the services provided by the private sector.

    It is these objective socioeconomic conditions that divide our nation. Those who are cushioned by the comfort of the private sphere continue to withdraw into their cocoons, while the poor are left to their own devices.

    But the two worlds do interface. Those who have the means feel threatened by those who do not. The propertied class fortify their private spaces to protect themselves against the property-less.

    In 2003 the British cultural theorist, Terry Eagleton, wrote: ”It is not hard to imagine affluent communities of the future protected by watch-towers, searchlights and machine guns, while the poor scavenge for food in the wastelands beyond.”

    He may have thought he was talking about some dystopian future. But, six years down the road, many South Africans already live in communities protected by watchtowers, searchlights and machine guns, while ”the poor scavenge for food in the wastelands beyond”.

    I say all this not to spoil your day, but to point out your historic responsibility.

  • If you are a famous young writer and you do not write about the plight of the poor, history will ask: where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
  • If you are a prolific young journalist and you say nothing about corrupt politicians who embezzle public funds, posterity will ask: where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
  • If you are a flourishing young entrepreneur and you do not contribute to the improvement of the lives of the destitute, future generations will ask: where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
  • If you are a singer and you do not sing in defence of the downtrodden masses, history will pose a question to you: where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
  • It does not matter what kind of work you do, there is a role you can and must play to stop the perversion of our society. Your success will mean nothing if it is not connected with the general advancement of society.

    The divide in our society
    For those of you who are black and whose success is connected to the struggles waged by the masses of our people, Frantz Fanon has an important message: ”We who are citizens of the under-developed countries, we ought to seek every occasion for contact with the rural masses — We ought never to lose contact with the people [who have] battled for [their] independence and for the concrete betterment of [their] existence.”

    If you do not take Fanon’s call seriously, the divide in our society will deepen further. You will fortify your private spaces without success. Criminals will not fail to reach wherever you live. ADT will not be enough to prevent the theft of your luxury sedan, the murder of your family members or the rape of your mothers, sisters and daughters.

    We should be wary of behaving as if the poor are powerless. When the gap between the poor, the middle class and the rich is allowed to yawn, the poor have a way of outsmarting those who think they know it all.

    The destitute have it within their power to take over society in ways that leave the middle class kicking and screaming from the margins as if they are little children crying for help.

    As Unger reminds us once again: ”The excluded — will not wait. They will strike back through politics, especially through the election of populist leaders, threatening to recommence the destructive pendular swing between economic populism and economic orthodoxy.”

    Once this has happened, the educated class will be dismissed with derision, as if they have nothing to offer. Mediocrity will be celebrated and the slide into hopelessness can only accelerate.

    Once the poor have taken over, having been abandoned by the champions of the private sector, the public sector becomes a realm where corruption and inertia reign supreme.

    When the destitute strike back at the indifferent middle class and the rich, abnormality becomes normality, scorn is poured on good sense and rationality is subjected to demeaning ridicule.

    When politics has reached this stage the relationship between the authority of the office and the office bearer becomes tenuous. As Herbert Marcuse put it: ”The dignity of the office and the worthiness of the officiating person no longer coincide in principle. The office retains its unconditional authority, even if the officiating person does not deserve this authority.”

  • Who among you does not know a youth leader whose authority does not coincide with that of his office?
  • Who among you does not laugh or squirm when some of our leaders speak on national TV?
  • And who among you does not wish that some of our leaders were more like Barack Obama?
  • If you have experienced this personally, it means that you agree with Unger when he says: ”The excluded — will not wait. They will strike back through politics, especially through the election of populist leaders.”

    If you find this situation familiar, you should ask yourself the following question: how do I respond to Fanon’s demand for contact with the rural masses?

    If you do not, you might find yourself unable to answer when future generations ask: where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?

    I raise these concerns not simply to be provocative, but because no one is better placed than our brightest young leaders to bridge the chasm in our society and because you have an immediate responsibility to halt our country’s slide into hopelessness.

    There is nothing magical you are expected to do. You must simply intensify your work.

    But, as you do so, keep in mind that future generations will one day ask: where were you and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?

    Prince Mashele is head of crime, justice and politics at the Institute for Security Studies. This is an edited version of his speech