Nineteen years ago, a Polish railway worker, Jan Grzewski, was hit by a train and fell into a coma. Recently, he woke from what doctors cruelly call a “permanent vegetative state”. It is remarkable to think that someone could have been asleep for nearly 20 years. Before his coma, in 1988, Poland was still communist and the Berlin Wall was its imposing iron curtain self. When Grzewski woke, he found the changes astonishing. He is quoted as saying that shops filled with food compared to communist rationing, and the excessive number of people speaking on cellphones in the street made his head spin. But he also observed that, although life seemed better, people complained just as much as before. Clearly, singer Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Song of the Year when Grzewski passed into his coma, had little lasting impact. In Northern Ireland and South Africa, I am constantly struck by persistent complaining.
In South Africa, I often hear people, from all different race groups, say that things were better in the past. Do people remember the past? Do you remember 1988? Let me refresh your memory – there were at least 25 major bombs that went off in 1988 in South Africa, most notably at Wits Command, killing 12 people. It was also the year the Hyde Park shopping centre, and several Wimpy bars and police stations went up in smoke. The South African Defence Force continually crossed borders that year, killing African National Congress activists in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. One such attack severely injured anti-apartheid lawyer and now Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs. The police detained, tortured and killed a plethora of people, too, including children. The so-called ‘Wit Wolf’, Barend Strydom, killed eight black passers-by in Strijdom Square, in Pretoria. So, 1988 was not exactly stress free.
Put in context, it is hard to argue that South Africa is now a worse place than before. South Africa, obviously, still has its problems, including ongoing violent crime and poverty. Equally, for many Poles and people in Northern Ireland, life can be harsh. But Grzewski’s observation that people complain despite positive changes is more profound than it first appears. The key to successful complaining, according to the website, howtocomplain.com (no seriously), is to be clear as to why you are dissatisfied. Grzewski is observing a general trend towards complaining for the sake of complaining, when it is unjustified and seldom specific.
So why do people complain? The answer may well depend on your socioeconomic standing and where you live, and your complaints may well be warranted if you are living on skidrow and in constant fear. Some complaining, as is often the case in South Africa, can also be politically motivated. But incessant complaining can also be the product of the forgetfulness brought on by the relentless drive towards the future, more money and being better off than the person next door. This makes us neglect the past. Most of us complain because, unlike Grzewski, who only has memories of the distant past, our most recent memories are of the present. We forget the bad old days and hone in on the problems of today. But we should spend more time remembering how appalling things were and how far we have come. In South Africa and Northern Ireland, this would make us more grateful and a lot more positive.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 15 June 2007 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.