Friday, September 17, 2010

I would rather be hung over than be a glutton

t is difficult to write on subjects like alcohol without attracting criticism. Mentioning the word in a column such as this can result in letters claiming the wrong sort of message is being promoted. I recall receiving an email berating me for noting in an article that I had paid for a large purchase with a credit card. The complainant felt it was problematic because I was advocating negligent personal finance. So let me begin by saying that I am not encouraging either irresponsible or responsible drinking, whatever that is.

In fact, I do not even want to write about the merits or demerits of drinking alcohol – rather I want to talk about hangovers, or, in South African parlance, babalas. I have, of course, never experienced a hangover and, for those of you wondering, the glass of wine sitting on my desk right now is only there to increase my bohemian literary credentials rather than assist in lubricating my vocabulary.

I hear, however, that, by all accounts, a hangover is deeply unpleasant. Apparently, there is nothing worse than waking up fully clothed (or sans clothes), dehydrated and with a piercing thud in your head that is only interrupted by waves of nausea that make seasickness seem desirable.

But are hangovers not inevitable if you really want to have fun? The mature among us would say, of course, that they are not. Everything in moderation is a more measured way to live. But is a little overindulgence from time to time not necessary for the human spirit to replenish?

It has not taken long for the word ‘hangover’ to become associated with the post-World Cup woes in South Africa. The Economist ran an article in its August edition titled ‘After the party . . . comes an almighty hangover’. The piece referred to the public-sector strike that shook the country to its core in the last few weeks.

Over one-million people took part in the strike. Horrific incidents hit the international media, including striking hospital workers leaving patients to die and picketing teachers beating children as they tried to attend school. Such stories are stomach churning.

I do not want to debate the machinations of the strike – there are more sophisticated political analysts than I who can do that. But, given the social and economic problems in South Africa, was a serious clash between government and workers not inevitable with or without the World Cup?

The World Cup might have temporarily diverted attention from the country’s underlying social problems, but they were always there. The tournament merely dulled the political senses for a while.

Personally, I think the country was right to throw the World Cup party. Some hangovers are worth it, even if the eupho- ria (which, in this case, came in the form of a reignited sense of racial unity and a reminder of what might be possible) is artificially induced.

Enjoying a party and tackling deep, underlying structural issues are different things. I know many would say this is a reckless comment, as the money spent on the World Cup might have been better used, but tackling social problems in South Africa is a long-term project. The World Cup is a blip in the history of this process, a tiny contributor, whether positive or negative. Only the naïve would have ever seen it any other way.

Remember, when dealing with the deep social problems – whether in South Africa, Ireland or the UK – it is not the occasional spending binge, like the World Cup, that is the problem, but the persistent drain on or misdirected use of resources. The main culprits are businessmen (they are mostly men) and politicians that continue to suck economies dry through greed and a lack of willingness to bring others into their gluttonous economic clubs and, lest we forget, corruption and political ineptitude.

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, September 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 17 September 2010.