Comparing SA and the US

By: Douglas Racionzer

I note that my sending around the lecture from the Tukkies lecturer has received some response. I have subsequently sent a response to Stefan’s “balderdash!” personally which in light of the various comments made may be best shared with you all and might even help us to fashion a narrative around living, working and being in South Africa today. Here it it is:

“Dear Master Gilbert

I take your point about the danger of comparing one poor set of infrastructures (USA) with another (RSA). The danger that it may lead the reader to what you describe as a “fatal” complacency. In many cases this complacency is indeed fatal. However I am still not convinced that this undermines what for me is the essence of the lecture’s argument.
If we removed all references to comparison between the USA and the RSA we are left with points that are still very telling, thus:

“It always amazes me to hear how people complain about South Africa when the facts do not support it. Crumbling and inadequate infrastructure is a worldwide problem, from South Africa to Australia to China to America .”

“I have been concentrating on infrastructure partly because I am an engineer and partly because it is on everyone’s mind at the moment. But the same is true in so many other fields. It’s almost as if people want everything to fail and seize on any negative news and ignore the positive.”

“…I turned them down to return to South Africa to make a difference.
And I have never regretted that decision…
…And I don’t say that because if I had stayed in America I wouldn’t be able to by my furniture and groceries at the trafficlight, or be able to hear an English ad in the middle of a Xhosa programme introduced in Afrikaans, or get that gastronomic delicacy known as Bunny Chow. No, while I would have missed those things, that’s not the real reason….
…I feel at home here. I feel that I am in a place where things are happening, rather than where things have happened, and that I can make a difference. I can get out of bed each morning and think that today I can do something to make South Africa better. I could never feel that way about somewhere that wasn’t home.”

“What I have said tonight has not been to defend the government or say that everything is perfect. Politicians should be criticised and held responsible for their mistakes…if we concentrate on the positives and work together we can make a better life for all in South Africa.”

The points that are left sans comparison seem to be:

1. The facts are not fitting the complaints
2. people seem to want to latch on to the negative and ignore the
3. I feel at home here and I can make a differnece here.
4. This is not defending government
5. We should focus on positives and work together to make South
Africa better

The use of comparisons may not be entirely apt and may indeed lead some people to a “fatal complacency” but the five points above would still stand if we excised the comparisons dfrom the lecture. Would you regard these points too as “balderdash? “.


7 Responses

  1. Thanks Stefan,

    Our Local Governance Barometer application in 26 local municipalities in RSA point to similar findings, concurring with the notes made in the lecture. Citizens, mainly, black Africans are complaining about almost everything, from public participation to infrastructure, but facts as presented by government bureaucrats and thechnocrats point to the opposite. Perhaps the challenge for us is to find the source of this discrepancy. Hence we are now redesigning the LGB to include appreciative inquiry.

    The immediate dismissal directed at whites is that they are looking for reasons to pack for Perth or Fifa to take the soccer world cup to Europe or Brazil. Can the same be said about Amampondo e Qaukeni, or a boeremeisie iewers in die Vrystaat? Do they want to pack for Perth or lose hosting the world cup in 2010? Nee! NO! Like the presenter, they say “I feel at home here. I feel that I am in a place where things are happening, rather than where things have happened, and that I can make a difference. I can get out of bed each morning and think that today I can do something to make South Africa better. I could never feel that way about somewhere that wasn’t home.”

    Similarly, it will be regrettable if the only response to complaints can echo Minister Nqakula’s dismissive response in parliament when he said, if not happy with this country “just pack and go”.

    This can’t be dismissed as “balderdash”. Let’s together find the missing cord.

  2. Siyabonga,

    I think you may have missed my point. My issue was with the idea of “comparing” SA with the US, rather then seeing the issues in South Africa as independently. South Africans, regardless of race, should expect more from government, regardless of whether or not things are better or worse elsewhere. People should be able to criticise their government or society without being told to “go elsewhere”. I, too, am interested in the “discrepancy”, and my point is that I don’t think comparing SA to other countries will help us clarify this.

    In fact, the “pack up and go” response that you mention is, for me, the direct product of people comparing SA to other countries. There is a very strong basis for wanting more in SA, and it can begin with the Constitution.
    One does not need to look elsewhere – to other countries – to find reasons to complain, or reasons to not complain.

    I can give you a personal example.

    I am not South African, but it is my home. That said, I see the planet as my home and don’t therefore really make any distinction based on borders. I think things should be better EVERYWHERE, and I believe this because I cherish values and standards that are, as far as possible, independent of any particular racial, religious, ethnic, national, or other bias.

    I think people should be more positive and try to make a difference where they live (which for me would be the planet, of course, but that’s just me), but I don’t think the motivation for this should be based on an argument that uses “it is just as bad or worse somewhere else” as a starting point.
    To me, this doesn’t even make sense.

  3. Point taken Stefan.

    The lecture is of course a fruit-salad bowl, you can pick anything from it. The angle from which I agree with the author is that when SA performs badly it is unfairly compared with other countries, at times the US, when things are so bad in the US than in SA. That is not fair and loaded with hipocrisy. The SA bashers fail to shout loud that there are potholes, electricty failures, crime, racists, women abusers and child molesters, teenage pregnancies, drug pushers and addicts, and all matter of evils, elsewhere-as in SA.

    Please help me find a passage in the lecture where the presenter implictily or explicitly suggests that a government failure elsewhere is an incentive for South Africans to be complacent. Instead I hear the presenter calling us all to put our arms on the wheel and make SA work.

  4. You are right, Siyabonga, it doesn’t state that anywhere.

    What I am trying to point out is that, in my view, these kinds of comparisons CAN lead to complacency.

    Let me use another example.

    One of the presenters at the Reflection Week made the comparison between the US and SA in terms of how long it took the US to get to where they are today, in terms of democracy. The same comparison could be done with Europe, if one so chose.

    SA has only truly been a democracy for 15 years, so the argument goes, and it has taken other countries decades (if not centuries) to develop “healthy” democracies. Therefore, we must be more patient and re-evaluate our expectations.

    Now, I am not saying people should expect SA to be a perfect country tomorrow, or next week even, but neither would it be good if the target date for a “healthy” democracy is 100 years from now.

    But you are right, there is hypocrisy in the comparisons SA bashers make.
    In truth, they are too simplistic and thus unfair to SA. They disregard the many things about SA that makes it BETTER then some other countries, like the US, I might add. But the list of issues you raised (potholes, electricty failures, crime, racists… etc.) are a fact of life in SA, and just because the bashers don’t say that these also exist elsewhere doesn’t negate the validity of that fact. It just makes them simplistic and one sided.

    The problem, as the presenter points out, is that there is too much winging and too little action. All I am saying is that the standards by which we should judge (praise or criticise) SA, should not rely on comparisons.

  5. I agree!

  6. Very good debate and one worth having. I like both sides of the arguments because

    It is good to know that we are developing the right intellectual context to judge events in RSA and not assume because they happen here we are lousy and rotten-thus comparisons to our illustrious northern friends is not at all out of place

    It is bad, because even if you use comparisons that are appropriate, it still may not make sense. Take education. We hear almost everyday about how we spend loads of ZAR and yet the return on that investment is not good COMPARED TO OTHER DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. What these comparisons leave out are the differences and only emphasise the similarities. If the differences were properly considered and taken into account, we may begin to see an end to such comparisons and the unfortunate consequences they spawn.

    In short, one cannot settle the comparisons debate I think because you can always make something appear more similar than what it really is and you can of course do the opposite….

  7. I can barely forbid myself from cheering. I have an observation that I would like to share: In Europe, the piped water is largely undrinkable. In parts of Italy and France the water infrastructure dates back to Roman times. In Italy not much gets done without the cosa nostra’s nod (about a third of Italy’s economy is mob-run). The road system is at times so old that one can only but wonder where all that amassed social wealth went.

    I can go on, but you get the idea. We should not be comparing SA to anywhere else unless to make a point such as the one I have made here. We can do better than we are doing and we can do better than the Europeans.
    My issue in all of this is a simple one: patriotism should not blind us to our failings nor should we allow comparisons allow us to lapse into a coma of self-congratulation, a point Stef made.
    I personally think that the Tukkies lecturer was looking to take pot shots at the chicken-runners, something that dates back to the Beit Bridge 500 in the late 1970’s so we cannot really use his argument for anything more than purposes of amusement.

    Where we are fairing badly is in our democracy perceptions.
    This can be remedied by taking exclusive parliamentary power away from political parties. 100 seats should be allocated to elected members of civil society either by expanding parliament or reducing their current proportions. It might not reduce corruption but it will certainly spread the game around making it more difficult for people to get shanked by their elected representatives.
    So, in essence, I have said nothing new, but introduce a new dimension. This might stop people from complaining about what is going on in the country because they would have more to do than wait 5 years to make an opinion heard. It would also give civil society a way of increasing its ability to influence policy AND outcomes.
    So before anyone says ‘sucks boo to you harry hun’ to shoot my idea down, socialising power is one way to stop negative perceptions from dominating the discourse and a good way to promote public ownership of institutions.

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