Prince Mashele

Pricking the proud SA heart

2008-12-15 07:33

Prince Mashele

A few days ago, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation released findings of their annual barometer, which essentially tells a gloomy story about our nation; that a majority of South Africans think that our country is heading in the wrong direction.

The likes of Fikile Mbalula, with a serious dislike of intellectuals, may quickly dismiss what the barometer found in a manner similar to when Professor Barney Pityana was castigated as a hallucinating, armchair intellectual. But any honest South African would agree that, currently, our nation is very apprehensive about the future.

Few would disagree that the state of our economy does contribute to a sense of national depression. Socio-economically, life is tough in South Africa today. The middle class hardly sleep when thinking of the possibility that their debit orders might bounce back, and their flashy cars and ostentatious mansions be repossessed. What a depressing thought!

Under the current economic conditions, to be poor in our country is close to a socio-economic curse. Food prices are unbearably high and taxi fares are so high as though to tell people not to go to work. Those who have jobs are not sure if they will have them tomorrow. For example, new vehicle sales have gone down by 20%. Many enterprises ask the same question: how do we cut costs?

In tough times like these, nations generally look for inspiration from their leaders. It is for this reason that US President elect Barack Obama was quick to announce his economic recovery team, which includes New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers.

By looking at the leadership calibre of Obama's team, the mood of the American nation immediately swung from depression to optimism. The future suddenly became a trip many wished to undertake.

Inspirational leaders

What the Americans have is precisely what South Africa seems to lack today: inspirational leadership! Other than telling us how they will stabilise the economy and ensure that more South Africans do not lose jobs, our leaders continue to promise that they will give social grants to young people up to the age of 18. Where they will get the money from is a question they do not want us to ask. If you dare pose such difficult questions, you are immediately given the status: armchair intellectual.

As if having listened to internal discussions of our political parties about social grants, age limits and such wonderful election promises, Alan Greenspan tells a story in The Age of Turbulence:

    Some... states have extended so many amenities to their citizens that those without an inbred will to work don't. Mundane tasks fall to immigrants and guest workers who gladly collect what is to them a good wage. There are political effects too: a ruling clique can use part of the resource revenue to placate the population and keep people from marching against the regime.

Saying something like this in South Africa would certainly guarantee wrath from our verbally capable leaders. But restaurant goers and hotel frequenters say foreigners now constitute a large part of the workforce in such places. One hopes that these are mere hallucinations of armchair observers, to borrow from the creative Mbalula.

Today our leaders tell us that education should not be considered as part of a barometer to assess political leaders. In other words, we are being persuaded to view Obama and his highly educated economic recovery team as the elite who are not rooted in the masses of the American people.

As we dismiss Obama and his highly educated team, we are then invited to celebrate that, here at home, we are blessed because we do not have Obama and his highly educated team; our leaders are very close to the people. The logic of this celebration is that uneducated leaders are better placed to pull a depressed nation such as ours out of gloom and despair. Or should we wait until our political parties announce their economic recovery teams?

For how long have we heard political leaders disparage the middle class and the rich, purportedly in defence of the poor? In the minds of such leaders, to belong to the middle class is to be removed from the people. So, in order not to be removed from the people you must remain poor until Christ returns!

The irony, though, is that the most vocal champions of this people-centred gospel are themselves not poor and they indeed do not live with the people. If you visit places were the middle class and the rich spend their money, you are most likely to meet one or two spokespersons of the poor busy strategising on how best to sound poor.

Lack of understanding

But the criticism levelled at the middle class is also based on a lack of understanding of the dialectical relations between the working and the middle classes in our society. If you were to ask any poor mother or father in any black or white community in South Africa, they would certainly tell you that they want their children to go to school and become successful in life. When the dreams of this poor mother eventually come true, our political leaders see the child as the enemy of the poor.

In other words, the leaders become extremely unhappy that the dreams of the poor mother have finally come true. The child no longer lives with the people, who remain poor!

Returning to the barometer of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and our depressed nation, we may now need to find solace in Chinua Achebe's magnum opus, Things Fall Apart. Achebe tells a story of Unoka, an ailing father who encourages his son Okonko after a bad harvest: "I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart. A proud heart can survive a general failure because such a failure does not prick its pride."

As South Africans ask themselves whether, like Americans, they have inspirational leaders, Unoka would reply to our nation and say: "I know you will not despair. You have a manly and a proud heart." Could it be that, as a nation, we might need to defend ourselves against political leaders who attempt to prick the pride of our collective heart?

  • 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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