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Only a few months after the World Cup, South Africans' idealism has been replaced by cynicism about the country's values and a feeling that corruption is their only shared experience.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
A soccer fan with the colors of the South African flag smiles during her team's international friendly soccer match against Ghana at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg.

South Africans right now if asked to list the qualities that make up the fabric of the country’s society would probably recite different versions of the following: corruption, entitlement, cronyism, violence.

Of course there’d also be positives, but by and large, these more troubling responses would dominate the conversation. Only earlier this week the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation released a report that said South Africa is one of the most violent countries in the world. And in October at the launch of the Anti-Corruption Centre for Education and Research in Stellenbosch, former chairman of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, Gavin Woods, said that corruption could become entrenched in the public sector if it was not properly challenged. It is also estimated that 80 percent of South Africans believe corruption to be the most significant impediment to the country’s advancement.

This general sentiment is a far cry from that during the soccer world cup where, as a nation, South Africans felt capable of achieving just about any darn thing. Hosting the world cup focused the country on one defined, clearly articulated and measurable goal. For that one brief moment it seemed that xenophobia-related violence stopped, corrupt office bearers behaved, and criminals granted a stay. However, as with all things transient, the world cup ended and with it all the focus dissipated, leaving all the bad fully exposed.

Quite jarring it is to come out a time of unity brought on by feeling the gees (spirit, in Afrikaans) and hearing the praap-praap-praap-praa of the vuvuzela daily into a time shortly thereafter where threats to media freedom and the people’s right to information, and a potentially corrupt $4.8 billion arms deal dominate the daily news. And jarring as it may be, I believe it to be a necessary experience as it highlights quite dramatically the importance of a cohesive, forward-looking national identity and how, at the moment, South Africa lacks such. Even President Jacob Zuma showed some insight earlier this year when he called for national discussions on a moral code for the country. Nothing’s come from that, of course yet.

I recently watched the movie Art & Copy again to remind myself how the advertising teams of post-war, post-depression America used the modes of persuasion – ethos, pathos and logos – to change behaviour and, quite frankly, shape society. The irony isn’t lost on me here. These very people are the ones who now stand accused of hijacking the American Dream and using it to move Americans to rampant consumerism to the point of implosion that was the global economic meltdown.

The power in the American Dream that made it so irresistible to the folks chronicled by Art & Copy is that the ethos was accepted by the majority of Americans (and also are included in the Declaration of Independence as unalienable rights that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness). That’s basically catnip for ad people: a pre-existing group ethos that’s broad enough to allow aligning any product to it, from Nike and Apple all the way to milk and Meow Mix.

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.

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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