Master of Ceremonies, Mr Songezo Zibi;
The Editor-in-chief of the Mail and Guardian, Mr Nic Dawes;
Representative of Xstrata South Africa, Mr Eric Ratshikhopa;
The 300 influential young South Africans;
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am humbled by the honour to address the cream of South African youth today.
To be selected by the Mail and Guardian amongst 300 Young South Africans people must take to lunch is a confirmation of the prestigious position you occupy individually in our society today.
As a collective, you are the best that our country has in 2009, and what we will have in the foreseeable future. You are to South Africa what an emerging sun represents at dawn.
I need not remind you that you are all youth leaders in different fields of our social, political and economic life. Those who are worried about South Africa’s future look at you for national inspiration and hope.
For that, you all deserve a round of applause!
While I am aware that you are here to celebrate your individual success stories, I would like to take advantage of your collective presence and pose a question I think future generations will ask later on in your lives: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
I raise this worrying question because I agree with the assertion made by Roberto Mangabeira Unger in his book, Democracy Realised, when he says:
The perversion of economic growth and its fruits begins when we attempt to make up for the scarcity of public goods by producing more private ones, and to find in the private consumption a barren solace for social frustration. (1998:7)
Who amongst you would argue that we have not yet reached a perverse stage in the evolution of post-apartheid South Africa, where the public sector is the worst preferred, and the private sector the most preferred?
Should anyone doubt if this is true, imagine how an average young South African would reply to the following questions:
• If you had a choice, would you like your mother to be treated in a public or private hospital?
• If you had the means, would you take your children to a private or public school?
• If you had a private option, would you go to the Department of Home Affairs for services?
• If you lived in a townhouse, would you trust the police or ADT to secure your private property?
• If you had to negotiate an ethical business transaction, would you prefer to talk to a politician or a private entrepreneur?
Those who would choose the private sphere as their answer to these critical questions must immediately be alerted that they are active participants in the construction of a private sub-state in South Africa!
A private sub-state is populated by people who choose to kill their conscience by conveniently turning a blind eye to the ills plaguing society. Yet the wealth and incomes generated by these private citizens owe a great deal to the sweat and toil of the suffering workers and the poor.
In his famous book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney lamented this situation in post-colonial African states, focusing on the middle class. He said:
They squander the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky, and perfume. (1972:19)
As the South African middle class, I am not sure if you do not, as Walter Rodney observed elsewhere in Africa, “squander the wealth created by the peasants and workers by purchasing cars, whisky, and perfume.”
But I am certain that, if the champions of the private sphere were to succeed, it would essentially mean the hastening of the very social perversion that Roberto Mangabera Unger wrote about.
The tragedy, however, is that at the peak of post-apartheid South Africa’s economic success in 2007, the Bureau of Market Research at the University of South Africa estimated the size of the black middle class – the so-called Black Diamonds – at 9.3 million.
We now know the economic difficulties the black middle class has fallen into, when the Reserve Bank raised interest rates sharply and the global economic crisis began to hit home.
Even if we were to combine the struggling Black Diamonds with the entire white population, we would still have to confront the painful reality that more than half of our country’s population live in poverty and cannot afford the services provided by the most preferred private sector.
It is these objective socio-economic conditions that divide our nation into ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Those who are cushioned by the comfort and opulence of the private sphere continue to withdraw further and further into their private cocoons, while the poor are left to their own devices.
But the two worlds do, in many ways, interface in a manner that reinforces and continues to widen the chasm between the haves and have-nots. Those who have the means feel threatened by those who do not. The propertied class fortify their private spaces to protect themselves against the property-less.
It is against this background that British cultural theorist Terry Eagleton wrote the following in his book entitled After Theory:
It is not hard to imagine affluent communities of the future protected by watchtowers, searchlights and machine guns, while the poor scavenge for food in the waste lands beyond. (2003:22)
When Eagleton made this profound observation in 2003, he probably thought he was a prophet whose words would come to pass like a religious prophesy that waits for centuries to pass before it is proven right.
Little did Terry Eagleton know that, three years down the road (in 2009), a fellow like me would address 300 Young South Africans, among whom there would be those who already live in communities protected by watchtowers, searchlights and machineguns while the poor scavenge for food in the waste lands beyond.
I say all this not because I am bent on spoiling your special day, but as a desperate attempt to point out your historic responsibility towards the broader society.
• If you are a famous young writer, and you do not write about the plight of the poor, history will ask: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
• If you are a prolific young journalist, and you say nothing about corrupt politicians who embezzle public funds, posterity will ask: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
• If you are a flourishing young entrepreneur, and you do not contribute to the improvement of the lives of the destitute, future generations will ask: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
• If you are a singer, and you do not sing in defence of the downtrodden masses, history will also pose a question to you: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
It does not matter what kind of work you do, there is a role you can and must play to stop the perversion of our society. Your success will mean nothing if it is not connected with the general advancement of society!
For those of you who are Black and whose success is connected to the struggles waged by the masses of our people, Frantz Fanon has an important message for you:
… we who are citizens of the under-developed countries, we aught to seek every occasion for contacts with the rural masses. … We aught never to lose contact with the people [who have] battled for [their] independence and for the concrete betterment of [their] existence. (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961:150-1)
If you do not take Fanon’s call seriously, the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ that already exists in our society will deepen its roots even further. You will fortify your private spaces without success. Criminals will not fail to reach wherever you live. ADT will not be enough to prevent the theft of your luxury sedan, the murder of your family members or the rape of your mothers, sisters and daughters.
We should indeed be wary of behaving as if the poor are powerless. When the gap between the poor, the middle class and the rich is allowed to widen its yawn, the poor always – and sometimes brutishly – have a way of outsmarting those who think they are educated and know it all.
Politically, the poor possess the disruptive capacity to disturb the untenable tranquillity of the educated elite. The destitute have it within their power to take over society in ways that leave the middle class kicking and screaming from the margins as if they are little children crying for help. As Roberto Mangabeira Unger reminds us once again:
The excluded … will not wait. They will strike back through politics, especially through the election of populist leaders, threatening to recommence the destructive pendular swing between economic populism and economic orthodoxy. (Ibid: 82)
Once this has happened, the educated class will be dismissed with derision, as if they have nothing to offer society. Society will be forced to celebrate mediocrity, and the slide into hopelessness can only be faster.
When mediocrity prevails, there will be circumstantial heroes whose heroism will be defended even if it means embarrassing society. Indeed, this hastens society’s collective descent into the abyss.
Once the poor have taken over, having been abandoned by the champions of the private sector, the public sector becomes a realm where corruption and inertia reign supreme! African and other countries that have gone down this road have, unfortunately, failed to make substantial reverse.
When the destitute strike back at the indifferent middle class and the rich, abnormality becomes normality; scorn is poured on sensibility; and rationality is subjected to demeaning ridicule.
When politics has reached this stage, the relationship between the authority of the office and the office bearer becomes tenuous. This is precisely what Herbert Marcuse refers to in his seminal book, A Study on Authority, when he says:
The dignity of the office and the worthiness of the officiating person no longer coincide in principle. The office retains its unconditional authority, even if the officiating person does not deserve this authority. (1972:16)
• Who amongst you does not know a youth leader whose authority does not coincide with that of his office?
• Who amongst you does not laugh or get embarrassed when some of our leaders speak on national TV?
• And who amongst you does not wish that some of our leaders were something close to Barack Obama?
If you have experienced this personally, it means that you agree with Unger when he says: “The excluded … will not wait. They will strike back through politics, especially through the election of populist leaders.”
If you find this situation familiar, you should then ask yourself the following question: How do I respond to Frantz Fanon when he says: “… we who are citizens of the under-developed countries, we aught to seek every occasion for contacts with the rural masses”?
If you do not ask yourselves this soul-searching question, you might find yourself unable to respond when future generations ask: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
I know that most of you are by now upset with me, that I have troubled your hearts and souls during an occasion where you were invited to celebrate your success stories.
I did this because I am convinced that the Mail and Guardian selected you to be among 300 influential, young South Africans because of the burden history has placed on your shoulders.
Like the Mail and Guardian, I see no person better than you to rescue our society from the yawning divide between the private and the public spheres of life.
I see no other group of young people better placed to lead me in all facets of South African life in ten, twenty years from now. And I also think you have an immediate responsibility to halt our country’s slide into hopelessness.
There is nothing magical you are expected to do that is beyond your already proven capabilities! All you need to do is to intensify the work that made it possible for you to be selected as part of 300 Young South Africans people must take to lunch.
But when you do it, keep in mind that future generations will one day ask: Where were you, and what did you do when South Africa began to degenerate?
Congratulations, and thank you very much!