/ 20 January 2012

Mercury falling

I am currently reading Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged — an intimidating enunciation of the author’s controversial and relentless philosophy of objectivism.

I find that it is the kind of content and writing one has to read in broken chunks because of its severity in principle and exception in the craft of the written word. There are bold philosophical concepts in almost all of its 1?084 pages, some that are true and universal and others that one has to revisit to grasp fully.

This is what one of the unyielding protagonists says about money:

“Money is the barometer of a society’s virtue. When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion — when you see that, in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing — when you see that money is flowing to those who deal not in goods but in favours — when you see that men get richer by graft and by pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you — when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice — you may know that your society is doomed.”

This is a notion, I reckon, that can be applied to our beautifully, typically emancipated African society.

I went to have my car washed at my favourite car wash last weekend. On arrival, I was approached by two enthusiastic car washers who asked me, in an isiXhosa sprinkled with many a “My sister”, which kind of car wash I was there to have.

My regular service had increased in price over the New Year, and I only had enough cash for a wash and dry. ­

When I told the guys I only had R100, one of them, older with thick lips, black from smoking, said under his smoky breath: “Don’t worry, my sister, you can pay for a wash and dry but we’ll do a full valet for you.” The valet cost R20 more than what I had.

I thought twice but agreed. I sat reading my book while they worked and the quote above about corruption invaded my comfort zone.

Finally, when the car washers were done, I folded up a R20 note and squeezed it into a tip box they had placed conspicuously.

As I pushed the money in, the innocent-looking younger one expressed disappointment that I had not handed them their tip directly. “Now we will have to share it with the others, and these dogs [the bosses] will also take some,” he said.

I felt bad. I had gone back on our deal. So I scratched around for some coins and cigarettes to give them as I uttered a simultaneous thank you and apology, dismayed that my mismanaged generosity had opened the way for this particular act of corruption to take place.

Later that night at a dinner with my friends, I asked them what they would have done in that situation. There was a questioning, “But, Mili, why didn’t you even give the guys the R20?”

And, I thought: well, good luck South Africa.