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South Africa's growing trend: cynicism

Only a few months after the World Cup, South Africans' idealism has been replaced by cynicism about the country's values and a feeling that corruption is their only shared experience.

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I use the example of the American Dream to illustrate how a single nationally-accepted vision can be used to affect the behaviour of the group in the same way that, for a brief moment, the goal of hosting a successful soccer world cup was used to put some pep in the South African step.

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It’s not the existence of the vision, or rather ethos, that’s causes the problem. It’s how it is used and by whom. The American Dream is a great ethos. Was it hijacked? Well that’s not the subject of this post. The point is, any group will likely find common shared values and the more advanced ones will go on to codify these into an ethos.

In South Africa’s case, we have not yet elocuted our shared values into an ethos. And so I found myself wondering ethos should be.

I thought ubuntu.

Before it was bastardised, commercialised and became the name of Linux software, the ethical philosophy of ubuntu held a lot of sway in my life, as it may have in the lives of many South Africans regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. In Setswana, the maxim is expressed as “motho ke motho ka batho babangwe”, or “I am because you are”. That’s powerful stuff, and, apparently, also catnip for marketing folk. They lapped it up faster than you can imagine, naming everything under the sun after it. There’s even an Ubuntu Cola, which claims to donate 15 percent of proceeds to farmers in Malawi.

The intrinsic value of this oh-so-awesome philosophy’s been run down to the point where, when I asked on the admittedly non-representative Twitter, “what comes to mind when you hear the word ubuntu” the responses were disheartening:

@cynicalgrinch: Linux

@Menzi20: Borrowing and not returning…

@MvelaseP: sadly, first thing that comes to mind is that it’s a notion co-opted by govt & companies to suit their purposes

@Sun_Lava: A term used at ‘relevant’ times by opportunists

There were some positive responses, but again, the troubling responses dominated the conversation.

I still hold firm though. False starts or not, like it or not, no other philosophy transects South African society as historically and culturally evenly as ubuntu, and more so, it challenges each South African to play his or her part in rooting out social ills. This writer would like to see it reclaimed and used to resurrect the gees we felt once upon a time.

Bonus footage: See what Americans said to the question “what comes to mind when you hear the word American Dream?"

– Osiame Molefe is a Cape Town writer who blogs at Boos from the Pews.

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