Friday, August 18, 2006

Get rich or die trying

In the US and Canada, each State has a slogan under the number plate of cars registered in it. For example, Washington, DC, plates have the phrase ‘Taxation without representation’ on them, making reference to the State’s lack of voting representation in Congress. Nova Scotia plates have the less political ‘Canada’s Ocean Playground’ emblazoned on them. On a recent trip to South Africa, this got me wondering what might be an appropriate slogan for Gauteng, where Johannesburg is located. After a short drive through the city, the answer was clear: ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it’. Desperate poverty sits uncomfortably next to excessive and unabashed wealth. South Africa is now 120th out of 177 countries on the UN index that measures the rich-poor gap. It has dropped some 30 places since 1995. Yet, as Abraham McLaughlin, of the Christian Science Monitor, reported recently, nearly 7% of all new cars bought in the country are BMWs. This makes it the second-highest per-new-car sales of BMWs in the world, fractionally behind Germany’s 8%. Car sales in South Africa increased by 25% last year, the biggest increase in the world. But is this not a good thing? On some level, it reflects the rapid economic growth in the country, which is getting close to 5%, according to some sources. Wealth is slowly deracialising. Life is booming for those who can get a seat on the gravy train. Johannesburg is going through a second gold rush. At the same time, this has led, according to President Thabo Mbeki, to wanton consumerism. At the fourth annual Nelson Mandela Lecture recently, he noted: “The demons embedded in our society, that stalk us at every minute, seem always to beckon each one of us towards a realisable dream and nightmare . . . with every passing second, they advise, with rhythmic and hypnotic regularity, ‘Get rich! Get rich! Get rich!’ And, thus, it has come about that many of us accept that our common natural instinct to escape from poverty is but the other side of the same coin on whose reverse side is written the words, ‘At all costs, get rich!’” South Africa is not the only place in the world where consumerism is all-encompassing, but it specialises in pretension. As a friend mentioned to me, life is measured by the three Cs – car, credit card and cellphone. It is a national obsession.

Although the term ‘conspicuous consumption’, coined in 1899, is somewhat outdated, it seems alive and well in the not-so-new South Africa. The term, according to Wikipedia, is used to describe lavish spending on goods acquired mainly for displaying wealth as a form of social status. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman sees consumerism as even more insidious. He talks of a ‘consumerist syndrome’. Gratification has to be immediate and consumerism is all-pervasive in our relationships, attitudes, thoughts and visions of happiness. This is typified by the way liberation is sought through the power of ‘things’. It may sound melodramatic, but has liberation in South Africa been commodified? Of course, I do not bemoan people’s success or regret that more people are sharing in the profit pie. Economic growth is needed. I am also not laying the blame for consumerism with the government, or the rising black elite. It is much more pervasive than that. Ostentation knows no racial or class boundaries in South Africa. But it has its cost.

As Mbeki notes, the ‘get rich’ mantra is doing something to the essence of humanity in the country. Rampant consumerism and the ‘get rich or die trying’ mentality are great bedfellows. Violent and white-collar crimes are the natural extension of this. At the risk of sounding like a conservative moralist, Mbeki is right when he calls for an RDP, or reconstruction and development programme, of the soul for all South Africans. Luxury cars, flashy houses and cellphones can never be enough.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 18 August 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.