The Cargo Cult Mind – South Africa’s Undoing

2016-06-08 18:31

When I hear politicians promising their followers social justice; minimum wages; government sponsored job creation; the reclamation of land alienated through history - or reducing inequality, I am bemused at their fraudulence. Likewise I am appalled at the impunity with which they get away with the deceit.

But then of course I have to remind myself of a ruling environment where free t-shirts and food parcels are handed out to the poor at election rallies; it really should come as no surprise.

The bottom line is that such utterances are self serving, false and promise the unachievable. They are there to exploit the ignorant.

And I am reminded of the “cargo cult” phenomenon.

“Cargo Cults” first came to the attention of Westerners among the Melanesian Islanders during and after the 2nd world war. It is an iconic social phenomenon that vividly demonstrates the gulf between first world rationality and a primordial belief in sorcery.

Knowing its background is key to understanding it.

As a result of the Second World War effort some primitive peoples on far flung islands of the Pacific were suddenly exposed to hitherto unknown cultures, customs and technologies. For the first time they came face to face with people who flew in airplanes, drove motor vehicles, used radios and TV sets, and so forth. The populace imputed a magical quality to outsiders and what they had exposed them to, and sought to emulate them through imitation.

An iconic example of such activity was the building of airstrips in the middle of nowhere – replete with landing lights of burning wood - to “lure” in aircraft bearing goods.

According to sociological studies, cargo cults are marked by a number of common characteristics, including a "myth-dream" that is a synthesis of indigenous and foreign elements; the expectation of help from ancestors; charismatic leaders; and - most importantly - a belief in the appearance of an abundance of goods (cargo)!

The indigenous societies of Melanesia were also characterized by a "big man" political system - where the more wealth and patronage a man could distribute, the greater the number of people in his debt and the greater his renown. In this way, the more savvy and perceptive among the Melanesians developed a sense of "value dominance" over others and climbed the socio economic ladder, with a sense of superiority over those who remained loyal to their original value system.

It seems to me that much of South Africa’s societal fabric is woven from similar cloth. Let us consider some examples that illustrate the hiatus between reality and belief. The notion of Social Justice is one such example.

Although used extensively by politicos, Social Justice is a buzz word that roughly implies fairness, but is light on specifics and differs from plain justice in the sense of favouring one group, class or sub-set of people in society over others. It is predicated on the implied illegitimacy of what some possess, own or have worked for and promotes the transfer of title from those in possession to those defined as being “in need”.

Apart from the implication of illegitimacy, it promotes reallocation according to criteria decided by someone in political control, who deploys resources according to a subjective and inevitably distorted vision, rather than according to economic realities and the contributions of those out of political favour.

And – like any vision – it is ephemeral and can change on a whim.

Even worse can be when it fails to change - even in democracies - when conditions demand it. As a result, such visions can promote widespread misery. The collapse and of the Venezuelan and Brazilian economies resulting from the “visions” of Chavez and Dilma Rouseff are obvious examples.

The notions of minimum wages and government driven economic advancement are examples of similarly flawed visions. It makes common sense that minimum wages (especially in our nation – with the highest unemployment in the world) will put people out of work because there is only so much to go round in the absence of prosperity and GDP growth.

It is simple arithmetic.

It is also widely known - and should be in South Africa more than anywhere else - that government participation in the economy wrecks it - so fewer stand to benefit in the long run. The state of the nations parastatal enterprises – Eskom, Telkom, SAA, the post office and others all bare testimony to that fact.

Finally arguments for state participation in land reallocation and overcoming income inequality are devoid of logic for the following reasons. With less than three percent of the nation’s GDP accounted for by agriculture and a growing urban population, the land issue is a mischievous red herring.

The notion of income inequality being a problem is even more absurd because no two people are worth the same in any role, job or function. If they were paid the same because the state required it of employers, the inefficient, incompetent and stupid would be discarded and become unemployed – which would simply increase inequality further.

In conclusion, I have to ask but one question.

Is there any substantive difference between people believing in voodoo, praying to ancestors and trying to lure aircrafts full of booty - and placing the levers of state and an advanced economy in the hands of cadres ignorant of the workings of the nation state and what makes things work?

The past two decades have taught me that there is not.

Seldom has such ignorance and primitive logic ignited such grand fraud. Indeed, it is on a scale that has exacted a  huge opportunity cost on the populace - a large proportion of which does not even recognise it.

This of course highlights again the limitations of the Cargo Cult mind, but then maybe they still believe that their ancestors will bring them the riches their politicians have promised them?

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