Thursday, September 1, 2011

Why I don't like talking about race

Everyone keeps saying we need to have the “race debate” in South Africa, as if that is so revolutionary and enlightened and cutting edge to do so. And it isn’t. Getting over race, in fact, was what the Struggle was for. The victory against Apartheid was a victory against thinking that someone’s race is the most important thing about them, and that they should be treated differently for something as arbitrary as their skin colour. And it was a victory against prescribing to other people how they should behave or think because of our own categorisations. Overthrowing Apartheid meant South Africans standing up and saying that we want to be counted as human beings of worth, independent of any system of classification.

Far from being progressive, race is a concept that had it’s heyday in the 20th Century. It has been proven to be scientifically invalid. It is blunt, dehumanising and has only ever done the world harm (from Hitler’s genocide to Rwanda to our very own Apartheid). It is a social construct, not a genetic one. And like all social constructs, it only exists for as long as we believe it does. So I find the increasing mention of race in public discourse profoundly depressing.  (Though not all that surprising, considering the pressure mounting on government for delivery and the need for a scape goat.)

But only recently did I start to understand why so many of my black friends think it is important to discuss: because they think white people saying race does not exist is a cop-out.

White people, so the story goes, created this mess that we’re in and are now trying to say that everyone must just get over it because actually we’re all equal. It’s a cover for being anti-affirmative action, or for perpetuating the bubbles in which so many wealthy people live. And that is not what I mean at all (I can only speak for myself, of course.) That interpretation would piss me off, too. It sounds like the person saying it refuses to acknowledge how horrific Apartheid was or how much still needs to be done to fix that.

I fully acknowledge what a mess Apartheid made of South Africa. It ripped the social fabric apart, it stripped people of their dignity, their livelihoods and their opportunities. It was an awful, evil regime steered by monsters. It breaks my heart that people can do that to one another. And I have fought with older people my whole life about how they did not do more to overthrow it.

And that, I think, is the challenge of many young white South Africans. We cannot believe that such evil was carried out in our name. It makes us angry, but our anger doesn’t help those who were screwed over, and our anger isn’t even recognised because we are seen as the “beneficiaries”. But we didn’t want it, we didn’t ask for it. We don’t want this to be our history. But we have no control over what came before us.
And so yes, admitting that white people benefitted from Apartheid is a step. In one sense it’s not even controversial because it’s so obvious. But then “benefit” is a strange word to use when I believe all of us (black and white) would have been better off had Apartheid never happened. We would live in a much more prosperous, cohesive society. Black South Africans would have been accumulating the same wealth and skills as white South Africans for generations by now. We would be an upper-middle income country with almost none of the social problems we have today. But that is the spectacular short-sightedness of the architects of Apartheid: screwing the entire country for their misguided belief in the importance of race.

And yes, more needs to be done to fix it. I think every citizen in this country should be doing all they can to address the poverty and hopelessness that exist. I’d love to see a national volunteer programme. And I’m not against the idea of a white tax for the sake of atonement and reconciliation (though I think, unfortunately, that wealth redistribution won’t fix our problems – only education and wealth creation will). I believe in transformation, and enterprise development and BBBEE. These measures are all necessary to mend our psyche and they are important to address the historical imbalances in our economy. I think everyone should be furious to hear of the glacial pace of executive transformation recently announced in the press. We need more black CEOs and more black entrepreneurs. But what we really don’t need is the increasing trend to believe in things like “white tendencies” or “black Twitter.” Realising that race-based measures are still required in SA does not mean seeing the world through the lens of race is ever good for anyone.
So while the debate around transformation does need to happen, it must never assume that “race” is a permanent, real, or worthy way to segment people. It disguises obvious things, like that there were white Freedom Fighters, that inequality has increased in South Africa since Apartheid and is no longer all that racial, or that wealthy black people who treat poor black people badly are just as cruel as wealthy white people who do it. Making everything about race detracts from what really needs to be done to make South Africa fairer. And it inhibits us personally in our relationships with everyone around us.

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a South Africa where “my people” could mean fellow cyclists, or marketers, or people-who-hate-scary movies? Wouldn’t it be great if we chose which communities we belonged to, and which we identified with, and we didn’t have the media, and politicians telling us what we think or who we feel affinity for? I am just as entitled to be furious with white racists as black people are. I’m just as likely to like chicken. I know for a fact that I have much more in common with my black friends than I do with many white people. So why, why, are we STILL looking for commonalities or characteristics of “what makes us black” or “what makes us white”? Nothing does, is the short answer. We’re all just people. Motley and diverse and opinionated and wonderful.

We need to listen to one another. We need to get to know one another. We need to trust that we all want South Africa to do better, and to be better. That was the whole point of the Struggle. And if we see each other as black or white first, and individual people only second, then Verwoerd and his bastard crew won. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

What do you see?

Being a good guy is inconvenient. Our brains are hardwired to save time by filling in the missing detail before we have grasped a concept or seen something fully. We needed it for evolution. We see what could possibly be fragments of a lion between the rustling grass, and we think we see the lion. And we baleka. And we live. The guys who didn't want to assume anything until they saw the whole lion probably got eaten. And ended that evolutionary line.

And we do it every day, in every tiny action. I'm no linguist, but I'd guess it's a necessary part of language, actually - to use experience to fill in the missing detail, and categorise everything. Instead of spending all morning trying to grasp the intricacies of the contraption in your friend's kitchen, experience tells you it's almost certainly a fridge - even if you haven't seen that particular model before. Happy with the judgement call, you move on to more interesting discussions, like when the brownies will be ready. But when it comes to concepts and other people, that in-built pattern-recogniser is exactly the problem: As soon as we have found a category for someone or some idea, we disengage. We no longer spend energy trying to understand them or it. We think we have, already.

The labels we give one another certainly save time. But they stop us from really seeing the other person. Once someone is "woman" or a "Marxist" or an "accountant" or a "boyfriend", a whole bunch of expectations, beliefs and prejudices kick in in our dealings with them. We become guided, to a large extent, by our experience with that category of person, rather than with the individual. And the same is true of ideas. Once we recognise enough in what someone is saying to classify it, we stop listening. We can write it off as "religion" or "capitalism" or "environmentalism" and we'll miss the interesting new points that are being made.

It is the greatest disservice to another person to think you understand them just because you know similar people. You owe it to them not to fill in the missing detail for yourself, but to spend the time finding it out. Google outcompeted the other search engines precisely because it did not navigate the web by categories, but by the actual details of every specific piece of content. That is what turns out the greatest value. In people and ideas, too.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Development and the removal of choice

Africa has joined the urbanisation binge that the world is on, and is catching up fast. Lagos is set to be one of the biggest cities in the world soon, rivalling the likes of Tokyo and Shanghai, and our very own Gauteng megacity (if that is still the strategy for Gauteng) also fills me with awe with its sheer scale and sprawl.

But you will note that I no longer live in Jozi. I discovered somewhere along the way of my life so far, that I need to be close to nature. I developed the habit of climbing Arthur’s Seat whenever I needed to be alone with my thoughts at varsity, and have never shaken that need. One of the reasons I chose to live in Cape Town is exactly that, too: I can smell the sea and see the mountains. Nature is all around me, and it keeps me calm.

And so it makes me profoundly sad to think that Africa, the last great untouched wilderness, is giving in to the greed and ugliness of industrialisation, modernisation and “development”. Without sounding too esoteric, I often wonder whether modernisation was the downfall of our species – that we were happiest when we were in touch with nature and each other in the Garden of Eden / Avatar’s Pandora / whatever metaphor you like. I think many “indigenous cultures” have more wisdom and fulfilment in them than any modern ones do, and that the modern world is full of the exact distractions that keep us from attaining true happiness, in the Buddhist sense. Having a great expanse of untouched nature is necessary in order to restore and replenish us when we feel overwhelmed.

But aside from that hippy train of thought, the world would be a richer, more interesting place for everybody if it kept some of its diversity intact. Variety is the spice of life and all that. Even if you love the city, it is boring and monotonous to cover the whole world in it. Surely everyone should have the right to escape the modern world if they choose to?

But they don’t have that right.

Because everyone should also have the right to make of their lives what they will. And spreading opportunities requires spreading economic growth. Rural Africans have the same right to become doctors or physicists or actors as Americans or Japanese or Germans do. If we believe in equality of opportunity as an ideal for human society (and I don’t believe there is anyone left on earth who does not), then we necessitate getting all human societies to a certain level of wealth in order to offer people within them opportunities.

It is a strange thing to get our heads around: we pursue economic growth in order to give people opportunity and choice. And yet, in so doing, we obliterate their choice to opt out of industrialisation. It’s sadly ironic that such a high percentage of people in the already fast-paced and modern cities yearn to live in nature, while so many in the “developing world” dream of the opportunities of cities.

It is a crisis of geography, and freedom of movement. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if, instead of turning the entire planet into one generic city with opportunities for all no matter where you are, we interviewed every child or family and asked them the kind of life they would like to lead? Those who wanted modern lives could be placed in flourishing modern cities to pursue their dreams. And those who wanted to fish or farm or live humble lives in nature could be placed in the jungles, mountains or coasts that make them happy. The injustice of unequal development would be removed, because it would no longer be an accident of geography, but an individual choice. And those “undeveloped” regions of the world could be proud of all the wonder that is in them, that today, they seem so keen to forget. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Branding your Plumber

I am for the little guy. I really am. It's the reason I love the "buy local" movement, independent publishers, artisan brewers. It's the reason I use MTN. Okay, they're not so little, but they are the younger brother; the upstart, the second-to-market. So while I spend my days thinking about how to craft powerful brands for clients, part of me always loves when people choose not to buy brands. When they hand-make something. Or buy from a friend.

But I challenge anyone out there to be for the little guy when it comes to plumbing. Over the past few days I have had experiences that would have me all over Hello Peter if there were organisations behind them to bitch about. First off, my geyser went cold. Annoying, but these things happen. I called a plumber - who my flatmate randomly found in the Yellow Pages. He arrived, was very sweet, spent the afternoon up in my roof and left. He billed me nearly a grand, but I appreciate that there were parts he needed to buy. But how, exactly, did he get to that figure? He seemed to make it up on the spot when I asked what I owed him.

Skip to 30 hours later. I'm in bed, reading. My neighbour phones me to tell me my geyser has burst. I run through to my bathroom and see boiling hot water pouring through the ceiling. I run around like a headless chicken for a bit, decide the wisest thing to do is to phone my mother, 980kms away, and fight with her about where the water main is. It turns out, it's in my downstairs neighbour's garden UNDER A DECK. We had to unscrew all the decking and remove the planks to be able to turn off the water.

So by this point I have realised two things:
1) the previous owner was a stupid tit (but good with his hands)
2) Plumber A had no idea what he was doing.

Because of point 2 above, I called Plumber B (yes, sourced from the Yellow Pages). Plumber B tells me that the thermostat was broken (the one that Plumber A had installed the day before) and replaces the valve that blew. When I asked what I owe he replied, off the top of his head, "seven-hundred." Then he thought about that for a bit and said "that sounds a bit cheap. It was R1000." Clearly by then I looked more baffled by the process than horrified by the price yet (which I was, but my facial expressions can only do one thing at a time) so he added, for good measure "minus VAT."

And that's not it. He then proceeded to give me a speech about how my geyser is old and is going to blow again soon. Why doesn't he replace it now? I ask. He doesn't recommend it. And that judgement was given with the sage finality that I should just say thank you and move on with my life. He looked Anna Wintour-esque when I insisted, "but why don't you recommend it?" "The insurance won't pay" He told me. "Come to think of it, it was all very badly installed in the beginning. I doubt that it's SABS approved. The insurance probably won't pay even when it does blow."

It was then that I decided I hate plumbers. Each and every one (and I've spent my whole life arguing against generalisations). And in plumbing, I hate the little guy. Because if there were a big branded company, you would know who you are going to get. You would have a sense of who to trust and who is no good. Or at least where to look. There would be professionalism, and some transparency about billing. There would be a process to deal with my dissatisfaction. And, most importantly, I would be able to smear their name if they disappointed me so wildly. But there is no mass revolt I can launch against these plumbers, because no one knows who they are anyway, and no one thinks to asks their friends for advice when they need a plumber. So their reputation is protected by their insignificance and I am left writing an angry diatribe, with a geyser that's probably going to burst again, while they drink Mojitos on my money.