/ 15 December 2011

From selfless to selfish

My maternal grandmother died when my mother was five years old. My mother was raised by her grandmother, four aunts and the village she came from.

That was in the Trans­kei in the late 1950s.
At that time, my mother tells us, children eating from the same bowl was standard practice, so was sharing a sleeping mat, blankets and clothing with other family members, as was inviting the entire village when a beast was killed, to be shared among the men, women and children. It was the African way, they say. Life was simple and humble.

On Sunday, I broke bread with my mother, her aunt and my cousins and aunts. After a dinner of pap, salad and meat, we watched the news on television and talked about Jackie Selebi and how some of us pity him, about the now-executed South African air hostess who was imprisoned in China for drug smuggling, about the ANC and how Thabo Mbeki went against Nelson Mandela’s plan and became president too soon, and about how R27-million is being allocated to political parties’ Christmas parties in the Eastern Cape when the education department there has redeployed teachers because of a lack of funding.

During this classically South African discussion, where disappointment and doubt hang like a ceiling, my 86-year-old great-aunt, who had been quiet, called for silence and said in clear isiXhosa: “You city people need to start doing things like us rural people. Things need to be like they used to be.”

It was an awkward moment. While she was telling us to go back to eating from the same bowl and sleeping under the same blanket, some of us took it literally, got bored and started fidgeting with our Blackberries, while others understood the figurative meaning of what she was saying.

When I’m on the road, I’m proud to say that I always stop behind the demarcation line so that cars coming from the left or right can pass through when the robot ahead is red. Drivers are always overly grateful for the open space, in spite of the fact that it is their right of way. This simple daily observation is indicative of a society in which people expect selfishness from others.

When I drove home alone after the family dinner, it was after 10pm. I saw a young white woman walking barefoot in the middle of the left lane on Jan Smuts Avenue, looking as though she had just gone through something traumatic. She was not a prostitute. She was not signalling for help because her hands were rubbing her neck vigorously. I slowed down because I wanted to help her but, reluctantly, I drove off again, suspecting that this might be some new hijacking plot.

There is a fundamental difference between the selfishness in which one reserves something that should be shared with others for oneself and the selfishness of looking after one’s own interests so that one can give to others. It seems as if the former is the simple African way of today.