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Our cultural legacy - A divided society

by Steuart Pennington: CEO at South Africa - The Good News (Pty) Ltd.

“No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich” - Chinese Proverb

In the National Planning Commission Diagnostic Report it is stated “South Africa remains a deeply divided society where opportunity continues to be defined by race, gender, class, geographical location and linguistic background, our fault lines ... Nation building is important to inculcate a feeling of belonging ... Nation building can re-write history ... Nation building is necessary to build trust ... Nation building must effect redress.”

In this article I want to explore some of the messages contained in this diagnostic report. They deal, in essence, with an issue that bothers all of us: What is the status of our “Rainbow Nation”? For example, how can we, in July 2010, present to the world a quite magnificent World Cup as a nation “united”, and then two months later run a series of, as Mondli Makanya of the Sunday Times puts it, “apartheid-era anger” industrial disputes? How can so much joy be immediately followed by so much anger?

In his book “Outliers” Malcolm Gladwell deals with the issue of success; successful individuals, successful teams, successful businesses and successful countries. When examining successful countries he focuses on the issue of cultural legacies and their role in determining the success of nations. He says, “cultural legacies are powerful forces. They have deep roots and long lives. They persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them have vanished, and they play such a role in directing attitudes and behaviour that we cannot make sense of our world without them.”

In explaining this he gives example of the modern day Chinese work ethic by describing centuries of rice paddy cultivation as the owners toiled 12 hours a day, 365 days a years to provide for their family. “Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.” To illustrate he compares Russian and Chinese peasant proverbs remarking that the differences are striking. The Russian proverb “if God does not bring it, the earth will not give it,” is remarkably different from the Chinese proverb, “if a man works hard, the land will not be lazy.”

Without wanting to summarise our difficult 400 year history, it is important to try and unravel our cultural legacy. What is it? Do we have a pervasive legacy? There is little doubt that the cultural legacy we have inherited over the past 400 years in South Africa, and Africa for that matter, can be summed up in one word – exclusion. While some historians will argue that colonialism brought development, infrastructure and administration these things were done with the specific intention of excluding the “natives”. The same can be said of apartheid, its overriding legacy was that of exclusion.

The central question for many of us is whether what Malcolm Gladwell says will continue to hold true, that our cultural legacy of exclusion “will persist, generation after generation, virtually intact, even as the economic and social and demographic conditions that spawned them begin to vanish.” Or will we, as a nation, be able to direct a new set of attitudes and behaviours that will create a new legacy and a new sense of our future?

When we try to understand the violent nature of our society, the poor state of our education, our work ethic, our strike ethic, our driving ethic, our litter ethic, our racial ethic, our corruption ethic... so many of them can be explained by examining the roots of this legacy of exclusion and what has emerged over the past three hundred years.

This quandary is represented by many of the reports coming out of the ANC NGC 2010 Conference. They reflect inclusive talk, “the party” as Mondli Makhanya (Sunday Times Sept 26 2010) writes “talks of creating an ‘inclusive society’, an ‘inclusive economy’, ‘inclusive healthcare system’, ‘inclusive education system’ and so on. Yet this ‘inclusive’ mantra rings hollow when one scans our society. The post 1994 government’s achievements notwithstanding, the reality is that the democratic order has overseen the continued exclusion of large parts of our population. This reality is refreshingly acknowledged in the NGC’s documents.” He then warns that much of the ongoing exclusion of the poor, the unemployed, the uneducated and the unsafe has to do with poor government as well as global reality. Our currently levels of exclusion are “the fruits of corruption, cronyism and incompetence” says Makhanya, “and these must be addressed.”

In Helen Zille’s presentation on transformation to the Black Management Forum, she spoke forthrightly right in the lion’s den. Her message was that if ‘transformation’ is to succeed it must be inclusive. This kind of conviction, commitment and honesty, increasingly scarce values in opposition parties around the world, is in my view, very South African.

She said to the BMF “Transformation must be about overcoming apartheid, not resurrecting some of its worst features. If apartheid was characterised by racial division, one party dominance, power abuse and crony enrichment, it follows that transformation strategies should be centered on transcending race and gender, opening up the democratic space, putting limits on power and broadening opportunities for all. This is what we in the Democratic Alliance mean when we talk of “transformation”. She echo’s Makhanya’s sentiments as she concludes “Admitting where mistakes have been made, and charting a new path forward based on lessons learned, is the most important role that South Africa’s leadership can play in bringing about genuine and meaningful transformation in our country.”

Again, we would argue that her speech was focused on warning against the exclusivity of many of the “transformation” practices emerging in SA, and urging her audience to think about what would constitute inclusive transformation.
 
Miller Matola’s (CEO International Marketing Council) honest assessment of Africa’s reputation reflects the need to be inclusive if this is to change. He says “there seems to be agreement that something needs to be done beyond blaming each other (read exclusion) or others for the fact that Africa is still synonymous with crisis, war and poverty. Blame (on colonialism – my words) is not the solution to Africa’s brand. He argues that the way forward is to focus on:

  • Honesty, if we are not doing well, we have to fix what is wrong
  • Bringing government, civil society and the private sector together to establish where we can leverage our efforts
  • Listening, monitoring and measuring more by taking what the world says about us seriously
  • Showing proof of delivery and commitment
  • Stop rewarding mediocrity and start defining, and then rewarding, excellence.

Inclusive talk indeed.

I am often annoyed by people who say “please don’t drag up colonialism or apartheid, they are dead and buried.” As institutions they may be, but their legacies remain and are still necessary to examine as we try “and make sense of our world”. Equally I find it frustrating when 1994 is talked of as a kind of epiphany moment, an omnipotent “turning point” when South Africa “changed forever”. We changed government, we adopted a new constitution, we become a democracy, but we didn’t, and can’t, sweep our cultural legacy away in a blink.

If our cultural legacy is one of exclusion will we be able to change it in one or two generations into one of inclusion?

By way of example, last week I celebrated a 40th reunion at my alma mater, Rhodes University. I listened to a speech by the Vice Chancellor Dr. Saleem Badat on the integration practices in the Residences. He said “58% of the students at Rhodes are black, there is a strict policy of ensuring that all residences reflect this number. Increasingly in the dining halls more and more black and white students are sitting together but still a large number of tables are either whites only or blacks only. 20 years ago Rhodes was for whites only. To move from a University that was exclusively white to a University that is inclusively South African there are some changes you can impose and there are others that you can’t. They have to evolve, and time will tell.”

In South Africa how long will that take? What changes can government, the private sector and civil society impose to rid ourselves of this legacy of exclusion, and what do we need to do to allow inclusiveness to evolve? How long will it be before the cultural legacy of exclusion becomes one of inclusion?

We don’t have generations of time to do this if we want to preserve our Rainbow Nation and provide a positive future for our children.

So as the Diagnostic Report suggests, maybe we should start by talking to each other across our fault lines.


Useful resources:
South Africa: The Good News
South Africa: The Good News is a news website that highlights the positive developments in South Africa. We celebrate the good and confront the bad.
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