The danger of "inequality" talk

Mike Berger warns that this public narrative can be used to shield a host of abuses from proper scrutiny

On Cape Talk Radio, Friday afternoon, John Maythem replayed an extract of Jay Naidoo on the theme of "Inequality". According to the hyperarticulate Mr Naidoo, the ills of South Africa derive directly and, apparently, almost exclusively from the vast disparities of wealth and other goods between peoples in South Africa. The solution: to hold an urgent public, national "conversation" on this burning topic.

Jay Naidoo is partly right of course. Who could possibly deny it? But "Inequality" also serves as a smokescreen to shield a host of inter-related social and political abuses from public scrutiny. Let's peer through the smoke and mirrors to see what this public narrative so conveniently obscures or minimises.

First amongst these is corruption: pervasive, insidious, manifold and often brazen corruption, permeating all levels of our society from our President down through the serried ranks of ANC cadres and their private sector enablers and beneficiaries. When Zuma, who has spent the last decade in a public game of hide-and-seek with law enforcement agencies, talks of "stamping out corruption" he simply adds another layer of cynicism to the fatalistic but angry mood of the country.

That cynicism expresses itself in innumerable opportunistic and destructive forms. We have trade union bosses instigating viciously violent and destructive strikes while publicly disclaiming any responsibility for the associated mayhem, damage and economic consequences. Demagogic  politicians, supported by a host of internet trolls and facilitated by the media, conjure up imaginary racial slurs to blow smoke in the face of the public. Tony Ehrenreich, taking a leaf out of Malema's book, detects an imaginary insult in the cap worn by Victor Matfield in South Africa's comprehensive defeat of Scotland, and uses the occasion to call on the Minister of Sport to end the "white" domination of rugby - a pressing national problem it would seem.

Along with the corruption, opportunism, cynicism and anger comes social irresponsibility and lawlessness, often accompanied by extreme violence. It permeates every corner of South Africa from the behaviour on our roads, to abuse within families and communities, to criminal activity, littering and public disorder and, of course, includes strikes and protests.

Every public agency, including such vital services as law enforcement, health and education shares in the national malaise. It is reflected in police violence, corruption, laziness and incompetence, in the dismal performance of public health, in the sad lack of essential skills and by the spectacle of adults dancing their way into collective infantilism.

Such examples are endless and eventually pall through excess. The daily parade of corruption, cynicism and opportunism, lawlessness, violence and disorder are manifestations of a society in serious danger. They represent the unravelling of the social fabric, of trust and sense of mutual responsibility. Such social dysfunctionality becomes the essential foundation of a fragmented and failed state.

In order to address these social ills we need to examine the social attitudes, practices and dominant narrative or narratives of our society at this moment in history. In this brief article I will concentrate on the narrative.  

Not long ago the chief competing ideologies were those of the liberation struggle versus an ethically and pragmatically bankrupt Apartheid regime. Given such a choice it was rather easy for many of us to gloss over any discomforting features of the liberation movement that occasionally surfaced and could be written off as hostile propaganda.

We cannot afford wilful blindness any longer. The chief elements of the dominant narrative promoted by our public "intellectuals" and the media, subtly or openly, deliberately or inadvertently, thoughtfully or, more often, carelessly, include, at least, 3 seriously harmful components which make a stable, democratic and just society impossible.

Absolutely top of the list comes "relief from moral agency and thus personal responsibility". According to this paradigm, people and communities behave as they do because of circumstances beyond their control or because of the malign intervention of some nefarious "other". The "other" may be "whites", a theme much beloved by ANC politicians generally. Or it may be the capitalist system or "capitalists" favoured by the left, or specific individuals; as, for example, the Swedish activist accused by Gwede Mantashe of instigating the platinum mine unrest and the Marikana massacre. The "Inequality" narrative is part of this complex of ideas which relieve people of the burden of choice.

The chief purpose of all such allegations and explanations is to outsource responsibility. Violence becomes the work of provocateurs, or the legacy of Apartheid or past injustice or ‘Inequality" - but never the responsibility of the individual, group or community. And so on and on through its many permutations and combinations.

Second on the list comes the selective assignment of responsibility whereby the white community and, indeed, individual whites bear a permanent burden of "guilt" derived from their participation in the grievous historical injustice of colonialism and Apartheid. This primal guilt requires endless reparations. Thus land may be repossessed, jobs may be redistributed, promotions denied, criticism rejected and opportunities confined to the victims of this foundational injustice. Once again, there are too many manifestations of this broad attitude to deal with here, but it is worth mentioning that "white males" and "rich whites" come at the top of the hierarchy, and that the mere possession of "wealth" - broadly defined - by any white (other than those bearing "certified struggle credentials") is prima facia evidence of additional guilt.

Outsourced guilt also requires the simplification and mythologisation of history to ensure a seamless fit. The new history entails the exclusion of any historical event or interpretation which re-allocates some responsibility for the current situation to anyone other than white settlers and their Western masters. Thus the simple fact that roads, electronic devices, hospitals, flushing toilets and, indeed, the very idea of the nation-state" are Western importations, must be denied or elided. History as selective "sacred myth" is of course an extremely useful, tool to mobilise and enlaager black opinion, but the deleterious consequences are manifold. Such narratives, endlessly repeated in the media and reinforced by various forms of public theatre by politicians and media propagandists, serve to undermine any hope of national cohesion and to induce a sense of grievance and entitlement in selected groups.

All of these elements, directly or indirectly, minimise the role of personal and community moral agency and sense of national unity. They promote short term personal and group advantage over broad-based social development. Down this road lies persistent and worsening inequality, increasing corruption of all kinds, social conflict, personal misery, uncertainty and loss of human and material capital. The "next liberation struggle" is not economic as Malema asserts, but the liberation of Black South Africans especially, from the shackles of a self-serving narrative that threatens us all.

The DA with its imperfections understands this. Everyone, especially our "public intellectuals" our media spokespersons and the leaders within the Black community need the courage to "step up to the plate" to paraphrase our rugby heroes. We must totally reject the analysis of Jay Naidoo and those like him in favour of a national culture which promotes personal and collective accountibilty and the reality of personal choice.

If South Africa fails to create an inclusive narrative, a more truthful history and an ethic of personal and collective responsibility, this country faces a bleak future. I am pleased I'm not a betting man, but, just possibly, South Africa with its history of escaping the executioner's axe and rich human capital can pull this vital rabbit from the hat. We all need to do our part.

So rather than a conversation about "Inequality", this is what we need to talk about.

Mike Berger

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