Friday, March 26, 2010

Is bling the new opium of the people?

I recently spent time back home in South Africa. It was fantastic: family, friends, sunshine, fine food and wine. I also visited various community projects in areas such as Crossroads. The way many people are overcoming poverty through local sustainability projects, education and hard work is an inspiration. Progress is evident every-where, whether it is shacks that now have electricity or new low-cost homes for those lucky enough to get them.

But, at the same time, as everyone knows, serious problems persist. It seems that, for every person moving out of poverty, another person is languishing in squalor. In this regard, I concur with veteran journalist Allister Sparks that “it is not that nothing has changed, but that things have not changed for enough people”.

I do not, however, want to get into a debate about whether government’s economic policy is correct, or whether government is doing enough. Rather, I would like to talk about how people react to all this. And, if I am frank, and I acknowledge that what I am about to say may be a symptom of my own coming and going from South Africa – there is something about my home society that disturbs me deeply.

I lived most of adult life in South Africa. I know what it is like to be confronted on a daily basis by pervasive poverty, crime, violence and social disintegration. For most people, and I am not blameless in this regard, the best way to deal with this is to ignore it, get on with your work and life, and, perhaps, make a small difference where you can.

Obviously, this is inadequate, but there are trends in South Africa that I find more troubling than the ostrich syndrome of survival. It seems that people are using the trappings of wealth as a way of anesthetising themselves from noticing the poverty that is all around them.

Karl Marx thought religion was the opium of the people, but in South Africa it is bling and shopping malls that are the new temples. The bigger your car, the heavier your wallet, or the more flashy your house, the easier it seems to avoid everything around you. Wealth can insulate you from an insecure world, but I fear the obsession many people have with the green stuff in South Africa extends beyond the basic need for security.

Of course, people living in places like Ireland and the UK are materialistic, and most of us aspire to living well, but, in South Africa, I am always struck by how much people talk about their salaries, their cars and their houses, and how they like to show it all off. People clearly aspire to being rich, not to simply being comfortable.

I think this is because the apartheid system perverted the idea of what success means. Since the system was founded on privilege for some and not for others, it appears that being privileged has become the yardstick of success. If I am direct, for many black South Africans, overcoming the indignity of apartheid means one has to become superprivileged. For many white South Africans, the best way to defend yourself against potentially losing your gifted privilege is to not merely maintain a certain lifestyle but to become superrich.

The matter is further complicated in South Africa by the apartheid past, which has rendered people incapable of having a discussion about ostentatious wealth and the desire for it without it becoming a political or race issue.

But, surely, it does not matter whether you are black or white, a South African or an American, a politician, a popstar, a banker or a poor man made good – buying a R1-million sports car or wearing a R250 000 watch is downright sickening in a world where some people cannot afford one meal a day.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, March 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 26 March 2010.