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On the myth of South African meritocracy"

15 May 2014, 09:27
Given the recent euphoria surrounding the South African elections and the, somewhat, surprising results, I could not help but wonder what a resounding majority of our country’s population use as criterion for choosing which political party to vote for.

On one hand we have loyalists, who choose to be faithful to a particular party similarly to how football fans pledge their undying allegiance, seemingly oblivious to anything that might suggest fault, malfunction or blatant incompetence albeit in the face of evidential fact. On the opposite end of this spectrum, you get what I call ‘emotionalists’; now this is a special breed of voter who is swayed into a decision based on rife feelings of disgruntlement at the government of the day and chooses to side with any alternative that manages to, even vaguely, articulate their grievances in a manner that they can relate to and one that purports to “hold our leaders accountable” if granted the privilege of having a presence in parliament.
Looking at the current state of South Africa’s political climate, one of my main questions is if the voice of the rational voter has ever been given its fair share of publicity. Furthermore, I want to challenge the notion that we reside in a meritocratic society; where a government is selected according to merit and where citizens fail or succeed on the merit of their efforts.
With the above in mind, I want to show that there is a very large gap between how people think the system works and how the system actually works.
The impact of merit on economic outcomes is vastly overstated (Rainbow Nation myth)
An overriding narrative over the past twenty years has been that South Africa has transformed into a land of opportunity, where citizens have access to equal opportunity and will be justly rewarded provided they work hard and stay true to the values of the rainbow nation. By ‘justly’, I am referring to the economic freedom that we all so badly seek.
What has proven to be a reality is that those who work the most hours and expend the most effort are the most poorly paid in our society. It saddens me just thinking about the millions of South Africans who arise significantly before dawn, spend hours travelling to their places of employment, made to toil in excess of ten hours a day, often risking their lives and compromising their dignity for what is not much more than what is required to meet one’s basic needs.
The truth is big money comes not from working, but from owning, which requires no expenditure of effort, physical nor mental.
Next follows a brief analysis of what is aptly referred to as the poverty cycle.
According to the culture of poverty theory, poor people are ‘present-oriented’ and are unable to defer gratification. Present orientation may encourage young adults to drop out of school to take low wage jobs instead of staying in school to increase their earnings potential.
One view to take is that the ‘present orientation’ of the poor may be an effect of poverty rather than a cause. For example, if you do not know where your next meal is going to come from, you essentially have no choice but to be focused on immediate needs first and foremost. In contrast, the rich middle class can afford to be more ‘future oriented’ since their immediate needs are secure.
On the conditioning of the South African proletariat
To illustrate my point here, I am going to make use of the concept of the “Skinner rat” as presented in the psychology of learning.
A rat is put in a box and can only eat if it performs a particular behavior. The experimenter determines when the rat is going to eat and he determines the living conditions under which the rat must survive. The rat becomes conditioned and changes as a result of the fact that the man has control of vital things in its life.
Presenting this example in a political context, the rat is conditioned; i.e, it reflects the conditions under which it is forced to survive as the result of a set of power relations. We may reach the conclusion that the rat is socially created; it’s personality is a social creation. What it learns is the result of a power differential between the rat and the experimenter, because the experimenter has power over the rat and uses that power to transform and create something new in the rat.
As a result of this experiment, the rat is different from other unconditioned rats; it shows the effects of its conditioning. In essence, the experimenter is able to do this because he has control over the rat’s circumstances.
I felt it necessary to use the “Skinner rat” experiment to illustrate how economic inequality is at the heart of the set of power relations that govern our society. A reality we have to face is that a minority population continues to enjoy the benefits of wealth derived from ownership. This group is in a position to determine the living conditions under which the majority must survive. It follows that the South African proletariat is conditioned to do what it takes to earn a living.
So it turns out that South Africans do not succeed nor fail on the basis of merit; they continue to succeed or continue to fail because of the economically stratified structure which, at second glance, is actually stratified according to race. Ownership is the most immediate issue to address towards achieving equity over equality, much needed social justice, and a country where the majority are not forced into a cycle of poverty simply as the result of a set of power relations.
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