On October 17 1989, I was working on the computer in my business on Market Street in San Francisco, US. It was a little after 5pm. That’s when I heard the roar coming directly at me.
My computer started bouncing on the desk, then the electricity went out. The whole building shook. It was an earthquake – and a big one – the biggest to hit San Francisco since 1906, when the city was flattened.
The trickle of pedestrians became a flood as the all-electric transportation system – buses included – came to a standstill. Soon there was a line of people in the store, pleading to use the phone to check on their families. I was still there two hours later as people continued to call home to check on loved ones.
I heard stories how, downtown, the homeless, winos and others who are often looked down upon dusted themselves off and started directing traffic – no traffic lights were working. When a double-decker highway collapsed, civilians tied ladders together to get up to the first level and rescued people from their crushed cars. Elsewhere, civilians were using garden hoses to fight fires and rushing the injured to hospital.
Our local pharmacy gave away candles and batteries to those who needed them. Restaurants set up portable kitchens in the parks and fed people for free. A disaster that took all of 10 to 15 seconds united the city.
Right now, many people are shaking their heads about the man-made disaster that hit South Africa – the looting and the pillaging by certain elements. In the case of both the earthquake and the looting, many overlook the other side of the story. The story of what happened in San Francisco is an example of people at their best.
I once thought, if I ever seriously ran for office, my slogan would be “Trust the people.” More often than we give them credit for, people are the source of solutions, while politicians and government make a proper mess of things. Frequently, the media is so focused on the problems of life that they ignore the solutions, which means they often ignore the people.
The vandals in South Africa were like the earthquake, destroying livelihoods and wealth. They made the nation worse off. Katlego Motati of Soweto wisely noted, “At the end of the day, we will be struggling because of this. Our economy is going to be really damaged. People my age, in my neighbourhood, are bragging about stealing things and getting shopping carts full of stuff. Soon they will be coming to my place to borrow sugar. Those things won’t help them.”
Motati is correct – redistribution of wealth, whether done by politicians or violent thugs in the streets, destroys wealth. It makes everyone poorer. The secret to wealth creation is to lift the bottom up, not to tear the top down.
The earthquake only destroyed wealth and made the city of San Francisco poorer. The rioters only destroyed wealth and made South Africa poorer. Both disasters destroyed wealth.
Yet in both cases, the best of humanity was seen as well. In Durban, the SA National Taxi Council organised a civilian-led cleanup of the CBD. The taxi council described it: “Taxi drivers, students, businessmen and other members of the community came together to clean the CBD so that things could at least go back to normal.”
Motati was one of the civilians who came out to stand guard at Maponya Mall in Soweto. “I’m standing here against vandals and hooligans,” she said. In Tshwane, the taxi council announced they had “taken over the protection of three malls in Soshanguve”.
In Nelson Mandela Bay, Mayor Nqaba Bhanga urged the public to join efforts to protect the city from vandals. He told civilians that the looters “are not going to come closer here. We’ll protect this city with you.” In Uitenhage, taxi association chair Mbuyiseli Mfengu said, “We are making sure business does not grind to a halt; shops must stay open because job losses are common.”
Whether the disaster is natural or the result of politics gone mad, we often see the people often come together to solve the problem first while the politicians slowly try to grasp the situation.
This tendency is one reason I often advocate not for the redistribution of wealth, but the redistribution of power from politicians back to the people. It is why I support donations to microloan organisations instead of foreign aid. In general, I trust the people more than I trust the politicians.
Peron is the president of The Moorfield Storey Institute and author of several books, including Exploding Population Myths and The Liberal Tide