Guest Column

Ignorance: A malady of oppression

2017-01-22 06:36
An aerial picture of Hout Bay, showing the ubiquitous inequality of South Africa’s citizens. Picture: Johnny Miller / Millefoto

An aerial picture of Hout Bay, showing the ubiquitous inequality of South Africa’s citizens. Picture: Johnny Miller / Millefoto

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It is trite – but nevertheless true – to say that we live in a sick world. More concerning for us South Africans should be the form of the malady we face as a nation. From the highest echelons of government and the commanding heights of the economy, to the lowest position in a shack somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we seem surrounded by ignorance. Not just the proverbial type as in, “poverty, ignorance and disease”. That we face too, but it is the ignorance we have chosen, whether real or feigned, that denies our own illness. We labour in the unrelenting tides of poverty, inequality and unemployment. We swim in a cesspool of crime, corruption, avarice and greed. Our world seems to be shaped by crooked spooks and spooky criminals. Many would place the blame for these ills at the feet of the colonialists and their descendants. Others, not so many, would place the blame at the feet of those who sought to liberate us from colonialism, apartheid and even capitalism. Whatever that individual truth, it is our reality. From the “I did not have anything to do with the decisions” of the president, to the “I don’t know” of the SABC leadership, to the “I did not mean it” of Dianne Kohler-Barnard, and the “I did not mean to be racist” of Penny Sparrow, claims of ignorance beset us as would a fungus or an ulcer.

Yet, it seems, South Africans, that there is no cure, no end in sight, for our condition. But this reality is obviously a distorted one. There is no “one truth”. But if we are to be honest, the majority of us know enough to know the closest approximation to a shared truth about the state we are in. Unless we are brave enough to accept this much-needed compromise, then we are doomed to relive our past and our present in this post-apartheid dystopia. Why would we accept this, when we had such high hopes for ourselves as a country? Lest we pretend, this illness has been upon us for over 365 years. That does not absolve the current government from its responsibilities, but it helps us to understand the context for our inherited maladies. Let’s pose our condition as a problem, a puzzle to be solved. How is it that a country such as ours, rich in mineral resources beyond measure, populated by resourceful, innovative and enterprising people, seems condemned to this condition of poverty for the majority, this obscene inequality and perpetual abandonment of almost half of its adult men and women to a lifetime of intermittent, survivalist labour? What are the possible hypotheses for answering this question?

So, here are the choices:

. The majority of our people – the poor – are lazy, dishonest, prejudiced, stupid or some variant thereof.

. The wealthy minority are corrupt, racist, dishonest, cruel or some variant thereof.

. The system is dysfunctional and, i) racist, or ii) run by incompetent (sometimes black) people or some variant thereof.

These are the three explanations posed by those pushing key ideological agendas in our country. In some way, all of these are true, except for the part about the incompetent people being black. But the truth is more complicated. Many of the alienated majority feel that there is no point in labouring in a system stacked against them. Many have no skills or experience to do so even if they wish to. They therefore just opt out. Some rather choose crime as an alternative. Many of the well-off in our country operate in a system in which the rules are rigged in their favour. Some of these are prepared to bend the rules further and further to keep things that way. The system of governance we inherited, the economic system, the social conditions, are clearly undesirable, ineffective, inefficient, inhuman and intolerable. To date, all the interventions to change these have fallen short of the mark. Many of the people, black and white, in positions that are meant to ensure change for the better, are ill-equipped or simply not interested in making this happen.

It would be a lie to say that the majority of people’s lives have not changed for the better since 1994 or even 1990. But the bar is low if that is the measure. For someone with no water, potable water is a liberation. For someone with no school, a classroom is an opportunity. For someone with a cruel boss, fair labour laws represent freedom. Yet, the malady remains. Why? It is clear from the increasingly emboldened racism we see, the increasing intolerance of difference and the fear of uncertainty about the future, that all our efforts have brought us this far, but we are clearly not going forward. We debate politics as a zero-sum game, yet for the majority of South Africans, it makes little to no difference whether Party A or Party C is in power. Crime, road deaths, most communicable diseases, matric results, employment opportunities and many other measures of the quality of life of our people remain stagnant. Three white men own 50% of the wealth of our country. The rich are richer and the poor are, relatively, poorer and even – in some cases – worse off than 23 years ago, or even 365 years ago.

Unless we are able to find a way to make the vision in our Constitution – the ideals, the values, the hope contained therein – a reality for the majority of South Africans, we are doomed to repeat the cycles of poverty, underdevelopment, joblessness, inequality and ill health that we currently experience. We are all aware of this. Some lie about it, some pretend to themselves it’s not the case, some blame others for it, some exploit it, some just ignore it and hope it will go away. Ignorance is the biggest stumbling block to change. We all have our strategies for claiming and feigning ignorance. From apartheid denialism, to the denialism that won’t acknowledge the poor governance that many experience. The question we need to ask ourselves is: Why do we have this denialism? It is in the benefits of claiming of ignorance and the feigning of concern that the answer lies. People deny that they knew about apartheid.

People deny that corruption is a problem. People say they care about the poor, yet their actions show that these claims are anything but true. When strategies are proposed to overcome the legacy of apartheid, they are all denounced as “unworkable, racist, unrealistic”. When dealing with corruption is demanded, the answer is always “its racist to say there is corruption, it’s a conspiracy, I didn’t know”. When we demand relief for the poor, it’s “soup kitchens, a R5 donation, a prayer and an ag, shame”. Ignorance absolves us of any responsibility for our reality.

It’s time we all took collective responsibility for the state we are in. It’s time we elect leaders who will address this present and give us a vision and a programme for a future of radically reduced poverty and inequality, of rising prosperity and equality, of a well-rounded and well-off life for all to be productive citizens.

It’s time we all did something to make change happen for the better. It’s time we took the medicine. Some of it won’t taste nice, some of it will have side effects, but to continue as we are will leave nothing but a cadaver ready for an autopsy. The verdict will be the same as that of any self-inflicted, fatal cause of death. What were they thinking?

Ignorance is bliss, but the feigned ignorance of us as citizens is nothing but the opportunistic dereliction of responsibility.

Dexter is an ANC member

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