Friday, July 4, 2008


People often ask me about my current home, South Africa. What is it like?

I could tell you so many stories of a people with music in their language, with languages like fruit, and with fruits like water. I could tell you a story of a people who have peoples within peoples. I could tell you a story of people who originated from the Sahara, India, the Maldives, Holland, Great Britain, Germany, France, Indonesia, lands immemorial.

And people always precociously reminisce and extrapolate from their experiences from others countries. And yes, it’s very similar. There are many people who are without. The wealth and income inequality is the highest in the world. To this day, I still meet people who tell me they think South Africa is a first world Nation. First of all, let’s be honest, South African doesn’t meet the base definition of a developed country of first world nation. And I don’t mean this in an exclusionary or elitist way. I mean this realistically. The median or average income is not high enough. But the (very) roughly $11,000 average income does qualify it as a “middle income” country. I myself still have problems with this because I believe the small percentage of people in South Africa that hold a high majority of the wealth create anomalies, if you will, statistical outliers that pull up the median. So the better measure of “middle-ness” or “average-ness” is the median income. This is the income that you find if you line all the people in South Africa and put half on your left and half on your right. You then go up right to the person in the middle (if there is no middle you go up to the two middle people) and you ask what this person earns per year (if it’s two people you take the average of their annual income). This is the median income. And you’ll see it’s a better measure because the average gets pulled up by the few wealthy South Africans all the way on the left end of the line.

Now usually, globally, inequality has a weird inverse effect. In many countries where you have great wealth accumulation and disposable income, you have people who are unhappy, emotionally unhealthy, spiritually sick, divorce-happy, etc. Much of this came out in the book Afluenza. Long working hours, living alone and loneliness, insatiable quest for material gain, broken families, non-stop commercialism—all these things are related to our quest for more. So what seemed like a good thing has resulted in a societal sickness in which we have produced an unhappy people, and that’s not the worst part. We produce a unhappiness-begetting unhappy people; in the same way that a mother can transmit AIDS to a baby (MTCT), so we infect our children with this infectious contagion of epidemic proportions and we teach them how to infect their children.

Fly a million miles or a thousand miles to any developing country or “third world” country? What do you a see? Before you answer that, remember that these people have very little. They make very little money, they eat very little food. They have a limited view of life and are not considered “cosmopolitan.” Look hard; what do you see? You see a smiling people. You see people who are happy. You see people who give more of what they have than the amount that Westerners give. You see people who overly hospitable and overly loving. You see people who love life and are happy with nothing. You see people who are not university educated yet life professors who enjoy teaching and learning. You see people who are joyful. You see people who give even the nothing you have. You see love.

Now hop back on your plane and fly another thousand kilometers to South Africa. You’ve done your research; you know all the case studies on wealth and poverty; you’ve studied global economics and international development. You know that as poverty increases, happiness seems to increase with it. You know that as wealth increases, happiness seems to go down. So you assume when you get to South Africa, you’ll see the same thing: a happy, smiling, loving people.

And it hits you. Things are different. It’s the first country you enter where people are both poor and angry. They are poor and bitter. They are poor and resentful. They are poor and ready to fight. To date, I have not fully figured out why this is, nor do I expect to fully understand this dynamic, but I know it is true, and I have experienced. In the rest of the world, poor people are happy. Here poor people are unhappy.

Even Europeans have told me they can tell when the person they are meeting is not a South African because the demeanor is different. The foreign Africans seem happier, unfettered down by the materialistic society’s weights. It’s like they are the stereotype of poor people in the global community. But when you see an African that it is bitter or beaten down or unhappy, they tend to be South African.

Perhaps this is because of the ridiculous inequality that exists here between the haves and the have-nots. Perhaps it is because in all the 14 years since apartheid wealth inequality has not improved; crime has not improved (though some officials say it has; to be fair you must look at a specific region and a between specific years); etc.

Yet in all their grievances over the years with apartheid and the unfair societal, mental, and emotional enslavement under this system that benefited the ruling people socioeconomically, I have not heard of one retaliatory incident once apartheid ended. Is there still tension between races? Yes. But has there been any clashes between whites and blacks? No.

So what do they do with all the anger? I am not sure, but I can tell you where there have been clashes—with foreigners. They are not only visibly angry with foreigners they are actively angry. You see many South Africans are upset over the international response to their plight. Even though we non-South African Africans feel we did do things and had an influence over what happened in South Africa, many South Africans don’t feel that.

And so we have had clashes. For a two weeks now, gangs in Alexandra (Johannesburg area) have sought out foreigners to ravage, beat, and kill. As of this writing, 12 people were found dead and many more were injured. And of this publication around 56 have now been killed as the xenophobic attacks have spread around the country like a public health highly contagious epidemic. To be honest, the clashes are against foreign Black Africans who are considered to be taking jobs from South Africans and are blamed for crime. But it seems to me that the causes are deeper and older.

Immigration issues happen all over the world—China, Pakistan, Mexico, US, Israel, etc. But what is interesting in this case that people are emigrating into a developing country. Perhaps this is the rub. Perhaps there wouldn’t be so much xenophobia if it were a “developed” country. As it stands the unemployment rate in South Africa is about 40% (I have also seen reports as low as 23% depending on how you measure unemployment). And the poor South Africans in the lowest socioeconomic levels feel threatened by immigrants and foreigners. They have negative names for non-South African Black Africans. And now actual violence has erupted corresponding with these well-known sentiments.

But just a few years back when people fled South Africa for asylum or in exile they were protected by African neighbors. In fact, such xenophobia does not exist in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, to my knowledge. We are one no matter where you go. And you are welcomed, loved, and appreciated. Here it is a bit different as you are considered a threat. And so other Africans are taken aback.

In fact this phenomenon extends to a geopolitical framework. Many African nations (if you can really speak of a nation [you cannot]) are offended by protectionist trade policies (could be seen as the trade manifestation of xenophobia though that is pushing it) and xenophobia displayed in South Africa. This is especially bothersome after years of support of the ANC by other African nations, support which many African nations feel South Africa has forgotten. Through the South African Customs Unit in the late 1900’s South Africa pursued trade deals that were one-sided and benefited South Africa while hurting development efforts for its neighbors. But this hasn’t fully stopped in the post-apartheid era. Today South Africa makes up 80% of South African Development Community’s economy and has a 9 to 1 trade balance with many of its smaller neighbors.

In the US we have affluenza for sure, and it’s epidemic. But here in South Africa, we have confluenza as we stand at the confluence of an apartheid past with a developing economy while being the continental leading society within a developing continent, while being a haven for that continent, while fighting a widening wealth inequality and income gap at home. You have little, yet you live next to someone who has so much, wealth and poverty juxtaposed. Mobility and immobility. Confluenza: it can make your people act different from what is predicted by affluenza theory. Confluenza: contrasted to many poor countries, confluenza can actually make you focus on the material things (i.e. money) though you are without it. Confluenza: it can be just as bad as affluenza.

No comments: