Prince Mashele

'Call me counter-revolutionary'

2009-01-21 08:37

Prince Mashele

Following on the heels of the judgment recently delivered by the Supreme Court of Appeal, it would not be surprising for readers to expect this column to at least say something about a man who is threatened by a string of criminal charges.

But such is exactly the mistake committed by the man's own political party: reducing the whole party to one man! When the man runs into trouble with the law, the party also gets entangled. The wisdom being: this man or nothing!

It is precisely this mistake committed by the political party in question that our nation should do everything to avoid: reducing South Africa to one man! When there is a man battling with this or that court case, South Africans should rather talk about more important matters that affect the real future of our country; a future that stretches beyond the "importance" of one man.

Accordingly, this column concerns itself with a more important question: how can we engender a culture of productivity and hard work in our society? But what makes this question important?

Hard work

Two weeks ago, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) released data that must worry those whose minds have room for important matters. Stats SA informs us that, in November last year, manufacturing in our country fell by 4.4 percent. In the third quarter of the year, it shrunk by 6.9% - a decline we had not seen in 17 years, leading to a loss of about 19 000 jobs.

That this decline in manufacturing has something to do with the global economic environment is indeed undeniable, but this correct acknowledgement should not make us feel justified to hide behind our fingers. We must admit the part we have and continue to play in this.

In his satirical play, A Man of the People, Chinua Achebe uses the main character, Odili Samalu, to express a profound observation. Odili narrates:

    I could not help thinking also of the quick transformations that were such a feature of our country, and in particular of the changes of attitude in my own self. I had gone to the University with the clear intention of coming out again after three years as a full member of the privileged class whose symbol was the car.

In Odili's mind, a car clearly rang louder than making a contribution to his society. He dreamed of producing nothing, but buying a car! Having bought the car and having finally joined the "privileged" class, Odili must have whispered to himself: "I have now reached in my dreamland!" Then life became a monotonous cycle: perfunctorily going to work, earning a salary to refuel the car and driving to pubs - near and far - for drinks with friends and a variety of new girlfriends.

Even if, in Odili's country, manufacturing were to decline by 6.9 percent in one quarter - as it has been the case in our own country - he wouldn't care at all; as long as his car moves. Nor would Odili be worried that every third item on the shelves of his local retailers are made in China or outside his country. For him, nothing beats his big German sedan. At best, Odili thinks constantly of a man who is facing a string of criminal charges: "this man must lead my country!"

As our manufacturing products keep on declining, are we not to be concerned that ours is a country soon to be handicapped by an Odili syndrome? In Problems of Knowledge and Freedom, Noam Chomsky reminds us: "Radical transformation of any society is unthinkable without the participation of those engaged in creative and productive work." Indeed, Chomsky would be extremely troubled to learn that Odili neither reads a book nor produces a commodity.

In recent times, songs and choruses have been sung about the so-called "Black Diamond", the black middle class. But few in society have the guts to ask what exactly does this class produce. Where are the factories that have sprung up as a result of this class? In other words, how different are member of this class from Odili; the fictional fellow who neither reads a book nor produces a single commodity?

Squandering wealth

Sadly, in The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon tells a heartbreaking story of post independence African states, which we must consider each time the "Black Diamond" spring to mind. Although writing in 1962, Fanon makes an observation that would make you think that he had today's South Africa in mind: "This get-rich-quick middle class shows itself incapable of great ideas or of inventiveness." Indeed, this also applies to members of the white middle class who, too, love their German sedans.

Infuriated by the same observation painfully made by Fanon, Walter Rodney has no kind words for the middle class in post-colonial Africa. In his book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney criticises the African middle class for "squander[ing] the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky, and perfume." What a conscience troubling criticism!

While he may not be as harsh as Walter Rodney, Tito Mboweni seems equally concerned about our middle class. He has repeatedly complained that South Africans generally do not save; they spend their money as if tomorrow is the apocalyptic end of the world!

Could it be that the South African middle class, too, "squander the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky, and perfume"?

The problem with our country is that critical issues such as these are generally considered boring, politically irrelevant or taboo. Those who raise such issues, especially if they dare talk about race, do so at the risk of being pelted with all sorts of insults. If they are lucky, they are called counter-revolutionaries! Thus, it would not come as a surprise if the author of this very column also suffers the same fate. Alas!

But when are we going to mature? When are we going to make what matters the content of our national politics? Until when are we going to allow the man facing a string of criminal charges to dominate our political agenda? Are we not worried that the world might laugh at us? How is having, or not having, him going to change the economic plight of the poor?

And what are we going to do, collectively and individually, to save South Africa from a dangerous Odili syndrome? Well, one hopes this is not a lone cry in the wilderness!

  • Mashele is Head of Crime, Justice and Politics Programme at the Institute for Security Studies. He writes in his personal capacity.

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