The falling baby and the day of infamy
As spasms of anarchy shook the nation last week, futurist Clem Sunter declared South Africa to be a “50/50 call”.
Nothing depicted the knife-edge quite as vividly as the video sequence of a toddler hurtling from a burning building. Below, frantic onlookers scrambled to catch her. Out of the picture, a woman screamed as one who had glimpsed our collective soul.
Monday: A message from a friend I’d not heard from in months. “Are you okay?” Weird. No reason not to be. “For sure! I had my COVID jab last week so I'm feeling much better about life!” Then Gunfire. Ambulances. Roadblocks. A national holocaust. It is, quite literally “a day that will live in infamy”
Tuesday: a message from Lenny, a resident of Groutville south of Stanger. “We have run out of formula for the baby, please, please, please get me a tin”. How? The shops are closed, few are venturing out. Then someone tells me about Nikki, a Spar employee who’s had the presence of mind to stash nappies and formula. I buy it, Lenny walks 10 km to fetch it.
Wednesday: False news, video clips “forwarded many times”. No ships in the Bay. No traffic on the N3. We are cut off! The prospect of shortages, perhaps even hunger looms large. A farmer sells surplus produce from the roadside. We get a small bag of potatoes, a cabbage and a few litres of milk.
Mandela Day: Do you realise how we have had to alter our whole scale of values, now that we are no longer being urged to consume but to conserve?” asked English author Dorothy Sayers at the outbreak of World War II. Mandela Day might be an ironic conclusion to a week of mayhem but it's the perfect opportunity to reflect on my own “scale of values”
We are using the wrong measures
Campaigning for the presidency in March 1968 Senator Bobby Kennedy said that
“Too much and for too long we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product is over $800 billion dollars a year, but if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product includes things like cigarette advertising, armaments, special locks for our doors, the jails for the people who break them.”
The GNP, said Kennedy, measures everything except the things that make life worthwhile. “Things like the health of our children, the quality of their education and the joy of their play. Things like the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages”
This is not to reject the indicator entirely. It is to say that all South Africans (not just looters) have become beguiled by the illusion of material abundance. We are a poor nation masquerading as an affluent one. Some of us are looters. More of us are shopaholics. We live for BOGOFs, Black Fridays and bright shiny things. Two of our most popular online e-commerce platforms are called “Loot” and “Takealot”. We click today and expect delivery yesterday. Our national lottery promises mega-millions. Yet 10 million South Africans (17% of the population) have been lured by big businesses into debt they can no longer serve. As Sayers warned:
“A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded on trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand”
Yet as that house burned, we also discovered our foundations. People rushed to catch a falling child. Sowetans stood arm in arm to protect Maponya Mall. At a warehouse in Queen Nandi Drive, a man used a forklift to hold back the mob. Diepsloot residents went door to door recovering looted items. A man with no legs helped sweep a marketplace. People worshipped amidst the debris. I could go on...
Will we count the things we have lost or things we have found?
We must rethink work
In addition to revising his scenarios, Sunter launched a book that argues in favour of a “participative people’s economy”. “Work”, says Sunter, “has changed since the last century”. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that big companies can continue to manufacture employment.
For this to happen, however, we need a radical reawakening of the meaning of work itself.
Firstly, work has a far greater cosmic purpose than wages and economic security. For the Reformation’s Martin Luther, work was first and foremost about human flourishing and not human profiting. It was the means by which God imparts his “daily bread” to those who depend on him. “God milks the cow through the hands of the humble milk-maid,” wrote Luther. Such truth only becomes apparent when work has been destroyed or temporarily discontinued as was the case last week. Amidst the unrest, Nikki the baby food lady braved the streets to do her...work. The economic cost to myself (R90) was eclipsed by the act of service which saved and sustained a young life.
Next, tertiary education must be removed from its pedestal. At the very least, we must rein in the objectification of degrees and diplomas. We have our fill of salespeople, fund managers, accountants and marketing consultants. We are drowning in bullshit jobs. This week I did not miss my financial planner or my bank manager. I missed the refuse collection team. My wife missed the local supermarket, the dog groomer and fresh fruit and veg. As Dorothy Sayers points out:
“There are only two sources of real wealth: the fruit of the earth and the ingenuity of humans. We must estimate work not by the money it brings to the producer, but by the worth of the thing that is made”
Join me in celebrating ingenious people, not genius people. Let’s get behind small but useful work that actually helps us flourish. A shout out for Welcome, the metalworker in iThete who crafts gates and who can fix almost anything that’s metal. Here’s to the pet groomer who does house calls so the dogs don’t have to go in the car. A “thank you” to the seamstress in the Umhlanga cubbyhole who stitched a few more useful years into my favourite cargo pants. Let’s get behind the Ballito tree fellers who make quirky carvings from the trees they bring down. And let’s not forget the aforementioned Lenny who makes and sells the best African chilli sauce and who Hopes to win this year's Ilembe Chamber’s Entrepreneur Award.
I remember an ad for “The Times of India” featuring Bollywood Icon Amitabh Bachchan. It might just as well apply to South Africa in 2021
There are two Indias in this country
One India is straining at the leash, eager to spring forth and live up to all the adjectives the world has been talking about
The other India IS the leash
One India says “give me a chance and I’ll prove myself”
The other India says “prove yourself first and maybe then you’ll have a chance”
One India lives in the optimism of our hearts
The other India lurks in the scepticism of our minds
One India wants…
The other India hopes…
Join me in hoping. At the very least we owe it to the baby...