Thursday, July 08, 2004

I’m guilty, but I don’t know what I’ve done 

There are parallels between the way that the South African mindset developed, and the way in which the British and American ones did. America is a country built by entrepreneurs, so it is the work ethic that is (Paul?) revered. The British system is built on class, guilt and Empire, so in the UK, who you are defines what you are, whereas in the States it is the other way round. The US has a culture of possibility – a poor man will look at a rich guy's BMW, and see that he too could be like that with a lot of hard work and a few lucky breaks. In the UK, there is a culture of resentment: the poor man will take his key to the BMW's paintwork. Nationally, there is the notoriously apologetic approach born of the vague guilt that we pillaged quite a lot of the rest of the world in the days of Empire.

In South Africa, the situation is inevitably more complicated. If you are white, then the massive advantages given to you by apartheid mean that you are at least as privileged as anyone born into the right circumstances in the UK. For the black population, however, the reverse was true: it was phenomenally hard to succeed regardless of how hard you worked, because the system was designed to work against you because of the colour of your skin. Now that South Africa has a democratic system, there is a white guilt similar to that felt by the British. This is all generalisation, but the position that the white South Africans generally find themselves in, in relation to their black compatriots, is due largely to the exploitation and imbalance of apartheid, hence the residual, collective guilt. The privileged position that Britain found itself in until fairly recently was due in large part to the exploitation of the Empire, hence a similar underlying guilt. The British, of course, have raised the self deprecation and apologetic nature to an art form in order to deal with this, while hopefully the white South Africans will grow out of it.

In the meantime, another one of South Africa’s problems is the culture of entitlement. The previously downtrodden majority feels that it is “owed something” by the state, the whites, the world, due to the suffering that they endured. In a similar fashion, the poorer nations of the world come, cap in hand, to the richer with a similar argument: “you exploited our resources and our people”, they say “now is the time to give something back”. This is a powerful force – for good in many cases. The inevitable danger is that people and nations starve waiting for a handout that doesn’t come, rather than getting off their collective arses and making things better for themselves.

What I hope for, and to be fair what is actually happening, is that the white South Africans will see that the best way to deal with their guilt is to make the country a better place for everyone. The government has to keep out of the way just enough to let them do it. Next, to deal with the entitlement culture, somebody needs to figure out how to create an entrepreneur with aid. That’s the tricky part. Shit, I’m glad I’m not a politician.

Listening to: Paul Weller, grand-daddy of British pop, so I guess that goes with yesterday’s selection?

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