March of mediocrity

2008-12-19 00:00

Over the past while, I have had a set of experiences which, put together, make me wonder about a whole lot of things. I watched, in real horror, footage from a surveillance camera belonging to people I know who own a petrol station. It showed a progression of events which shocked me to the core.

Apparently there is a young man who works late in the area. He is well-built, but described as extremely gentle, who regularly comes into the shop to buy a pie at 1 am every day. On this occasion, he had noticed a group of teenagers sitting near the petrol pumps smoking. Being a socially minded sort of person, he went up to them and told them to clear off because they stood a good chance of blowing the whole place up. He then went into the shop to buy his customary pie. As he left the shop he was accosted by this group of eight youngsters, who started threatening him and punching him.

The camera picks up the group re-entering the shop, with him being threatened, punched and hit. At one point, his shirt is ripped off. At another, a piece of shelving is used to hit him. At yet another point, a tall metal table is picked up by one of the thugs and is clearly intended for bashing — but the big guy’s mate pulls it away from the thug, after much effort.

Eventually, this guy and his friend left in their car and were allegedly followed by the thugs who then forced them off the road with the result that the big guy’s friend is now dead and the big guy is in hospital in a coma.

That is one instance. And another — well, another three actually — is within my present domain of work. Part of my job, relating to the 2010 Soccer World Cup, is to set up public viewing areas throughout the Western Cape. So, a month ago, we set up one in Gugulethu. Part of the planning was to have events for children and young people throughout the day. We are talking jumping castles, water slides, five-a-side soccer coaching, dancing, drumming, etc. The idea is to get as many young people as possible involved in sport with the simple, yet compelling logic, “a child in sport is a child out of court”.

And they certainly came. There must have been 10 000 people who came through the gates, and 2 500 people there at any one time. I noticed, however, that during the day there were extremely few adults. Hundreds and hundreds of young people and children — some of whom were very young indeed — and not an adult in sight. The same trend was evident in other similar events in Bredasdorp and Worcester, both far-flung rural areas.

Now consider — these are public events. There are loads of children and the only adult supervision is a bunch of total strangers. What kind of parents allow their children to go to an event like this, or encourages them, knowing full well that the adults will be nowhere to be seen? What kind of parents abrogate responsibility completely and hand over their children to the elements?

In the other scenario, what kind of parents allow their teenage children to be sitting at a petrol station smoking cigarettes after 1 am and what kind of homes breed the kind of children that feel entitled to rampage in a petrol station shop and beat up someone they don’t like, using bits of the shop as weapons?

Well, without putting too fine a point on it, they are probably the same people who jump red traffic lights, smoke in no-smoking areas, talk on their cellphones while driving, buy stolen goods and cheat on their taxes. And somewhere along the line, their parents must have enabled them to feel that it was okay to do all of that as well.

I fear, both in the political arena and in ordinary life, that what we are seeing all around us is the unstoppable march of mediocrity. The glorification of the second-rate. The acceptance of lawlessness. The prizing of the ethic of “me first”. Because now is the time of the thugs — the business thugs, the political thugs and the group thugs. It is okay to be a thug. It is okay to be less than excellent and far less than responsible. In fact, it seems, it is probably preferable, because things like excellence and responsibility have become something close to being a handicap.

And because we live in South Africa, and not on the moon, let me just mention that the teenage thugs at the service station shop were, by and large, white.

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