It’s the ‘Culture of the Personality’, stupid!

2017-01-01 09:07

When I peruse the vitriol directed at the ANC I’m struck at how disproportionate it seems. The ANC hasn’t declared war on white people, and has done little to loosen their hold on the commanding heights of the private sector. That’s possibly because they don’t have a choice – but other liberation movements have been far rasher. Jacob Zuma is not Pol Pot. The ANC is not the Khmer Rouge, it’s not Zanu PF, and it’s not ISIS.

So why are we, I’m talking about minorities and a growing proportion of African middle-class, so anti-ANC. I believe South Africa’s last pre-apartheid Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, has the answer. In a little-known work called Walt Whitman: A Study in the Evolution of Personality, Smuts - with the help of his subject - tells us why democracy is so important, and why it will be a force for years to come. The book was written in 1895.

To paraphrase Smuts quoting Whitman: “We believe that the object of government is to encourage the aspiration for independence, and the pride and self-respect latent in all characters.”

As Smuts puts it: “Discarding both laissez-faire and repression, future democratic government must make the culture of the personality the cardinal feature of its legislative and administrative activity.” (My emphasis).

It seems to me that the ANC top brass are threatened by this sort of individualistic creed. The ANC seems happy to allow the brightest, and most ambitious, to emigrate. It’s a values clash. Educated, driven people leave South Africa because their values are not aligned to those in power; they want to help build a prosperous country, but they don’t care much for ‘Africaness’ as such, or any other political appeal to group identity. The globally-connected individual is where it’s at – identity politics is dead.

In its most benign incarnation the ANC is dedicated to the legitimate goal of creating a powerful and influential African-run republic. But this laudable dream is being sacrificed on the altar of the grasping ego. Zuma cares more for his cronies than for the grand vision of his predecessors. At this rate the ANC needs the poor, in whose name they govern, more than the poor needs them.

But, according to Smuts and Whitman, big idea politics won’t do anyway in the modern milieu. It’s just too limiting. The age of the big idea has past; ask an ex-communist. We’ve entered an age where the ‘culture of the personality’ is paramount. Governments are here to govern efficiently, resourcefully and creatively. Their true measure of success, if one had to reduce it to a utilitarian formula, is the greatest amount of self-actualisation for the greatest number of people.

But self-actualisation is not like land – a limited resource to be conquered and occupied. It’s the opposite, the more self-actualising people at the top and middle of the economic food-chain, the more chance for those at the bottom to lift themselves up. Everyone, and especially the privileged, does want to make a difference. Making a difference equals self-actualisation - which is, according to Maslow, the final pursuit for those who have it all. Our government doesn’t see it like that, and that’s why they make it so easy for highly-skilled, success-driven people to emigrate, and so difficult for them to immigrate.

We live in a world of multiple ideas, value systems, lifestyles, and abilities. In our fluid and shifting reality politicians should forget about the BIG IDEA. To be a proud Afrikaner was a rallying political call at first – but the appeal wore off. It’s the same with being a proud African. ‘Culture of the personality’ will prevail over the culture of identity.


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