How happy are we?

2009-11-10 00:00

SOUTH Africa needs higher levels of happiness than is the case at the moment. It needs to reduce the number of angry, dejected, frustrated, stressed and discontented people. This should have been the key message of the recent round of dialogue about social­ cohesion included in the national­ colloquium held at Durban’s International Convention Centre last week.

Instead, the effect of material conditions of service provision, income poverty and so forth, dominated the discourse. This discussion risked repeating the messages of many similar conversations in the past decade. We have known for some time now that South Africa has had serious difficulties implementing the many grandiose policies developed since 1994. There is sufficient evidence that the decision to jettison the Reconstruction and Development Programme, with its needs-based and people-driven philosophy of development in favour of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy (Gear), which focuses almost exclusively on the macro-economic environment, was a mistake.

Unhappy people cannot be expected to spend their energy on positive efforts of nation building, community development or gainful employment. The higher the number of unhappy people this society has, the lower the numbers of peacemakers, community builders and entrepreneurs. This will mean that the battle for a better life for all will become more and more difficult to win, because it requires communities and people to be actively and willingly involved in efforts to improve our society­.

The rising level of anxiety in the population generates a cycle of negativity which worsens our long-standing problems. This discontent­ exacerbates the challenges of public and gender-based violence, divorce, delinquency, crime, corruption and disunity in society. It feeds into ethnophobia, Afrophobia, xenophobia and other forms of prejudice. In places like Msinga, Kwa­Njengabantu, Nongoma and eMangwaneni, social anger may lead to a resurgence of faction fighting.

Unhappiness extinguishes flickers of hope that have helped many of the poor to cope and survive the vagaries of poverty. There is no arguing the point that some people, such as Magema ka Fuze, the first author of a book in Zulu, have eloquently made many times before, that the African poor has survived through centuries because, driven by optimism, they have used their ingenuity and sense of agency to transform their conditions and create opportunities for their upliftment. Without this hope and faith in their ingenuity, the poor would succumb to the fate of poverty and marginalisation.

The “Zumani” was in part driven by a groundswell of optimism among ordinary people, such as as villagers from KwaSwayimani and residents of Osizweni, who wished to see greater progress in the pursuit of the dream of a better life for all. They pinned their hopes on a man from humble beginnings to assemble a team of able men and women in a government to inspire acceleration in the provision of all that constitutes a better life for all. They thought that behind Jacob Zuma was a strong group of leaders and organisations associated with the working class and the poor. Zuma’s team put emphasis on bread-and-butter issues, stressing their commitment to working together with the poor to better their lives.

To make matters worse, the new administration has found itself in the midst of a bad economic recession, one that is posing a fundamental threat to the current economic order. The miracles that could not be achieved during the best of economic times in the past decade will surely be impossible to attain under these conditions. The economy has shed anywhere between 300 000 and 400 000 jobs in the past six months or so. Very few job opportunities are being created. Stories of small businesses going under due to the adverse economic climate are alarmingly high and growing.

Now it emerges that many big employers will not be paying Christmas bonuses, which help many families get through the expensive December holidays. This means there will be few festivities and ceremonies this Christmas (i.e. few weddings, imabo or imemulo). Come January, the nation will emerge with lower levels of happiness and contentment than is usually the case. Pity those of us who drive through city traffic. We are likely to see more road rage. This will feed into racism, sexism and tribalism in some cities­.

Now psychologists warn that levels of anxiety are rising alarmingly all over the world. Indications are that the poor will be worst affected.

Social cohesion is about strengthening the glue that binds various segments of society together. This includes identity, a sense of belonging, order, development and so forth. But the social cohesion discussions currently taking place emphasise material conditions of social order over intangibles that include happiness and satisfaction. Yet, we now know that some of the so-called “service delivery” protests are actually about intangible issues such as a poor sense of belonging, a feeble sense of identity and weak leadership. The nation needs to realise that for this reason no number of technical plans, administrative interventions and no amount of “accelerated service delivery” will overcome social ills if the intangible variables of happiness and belonging are ignored.

Without festivities and other social events during the holiday season, many people will sit at home and ruminate about the difficulties of belonging to the second economy. They will not be able to escape the vagaries of their poverty. There will be much whingeing. Some will even remember the “good” old days. Some will take their frustration out on others. We will start 2010 less contented than usual. In the past, festivities provided an escape from difficulties, at least, for a time. Socials revived the sense of belonging as people migrated to their homes, while the more fortunate went on holidays. This helped generate a positive mood needed for the poor to face another year of poverty.

But if the happiness levels decline and if the December holidays have less ceremony, where will the poor find the inspiration to face what might be an even more difficult year in 2010, given the general economic climate. Should the rich not sponsor big festivities, at least, to give the poor an opportunity to eat well and drink something good this Christmas, all in the spirit of solidarity? After all, social solidarity is the hallmark of social cohesion.

• Siphamandla Zondi works for the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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