It seems that every time one picks up a newspaper or switches on the television, there are new stories of corruption in government, of nasty competitiveness for leadership positions in the ruling party, of a crisis in education, of so-called service-delivery protests that regularly turn destructive, of the most horrendous incidents of violent crime.
And, instead of narrowing the gap between rich and poor, we have allowed it to become a dangerously yawning chasm.
Most alarmingly, we have evolved over the 18 years of our democracy from an organized nation of activists for social change – for common good – to a nation apparently preoccupied with the accumulation of personal wealth.
In 1994, when we all voted for the first time, we hung up our activist T-shirts and ceded total responsibility for our lives to our newly elected government. Then we folded our arms and waited for the miracle of better lives to be bestowed on us, a nation of passive recipients awaiting government largesse. When it isn’t forthcoming, we organize service-delivery protests.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with criticizing the government where criticism is due, but we equally need to look deep inside ourselves – each one of us – and ask what we can contribute to creating a better society.
What can we do to hold the government accountable for its spending? But also, what can we do, as an active and organized citizenry, to improve conditions ourselves? Surely it’s possible for parent bodies to get together for one day every year to paint and spruce up our children’s schools. Surely our church congregations and our community-based organizations should be sufficiently active to be able to avoid most preventable deaths of infants. Surely if we took responsibility, we’d be able to reduce our terrible road-accident rate. If we raised our children with decent values, surely incidents such as the gang rape of the apparently mentally impaired teenage girl in Soweto 10 days ago could never have happened.
It starts within us, with the recognition that we do not live in a vacuum. Each one of us is a constituent part of a greater organism: our community, our country, our continent, our world.
We are a deeply wounded people. We carry the recent scars of apartheid and the ingrained hurt of centuries of colonialism before that. Some of us feel superior to others, and some feel inferior. For generations, instead of following the universal golden rule of reciprocity, to love one another as ourselves, we have been trained to be mistrustful, to dislike – even to hate.
If we are to improve our performance, we must improve our teamwork, which begins with our own understanding that we are members of one team. Our hopes and aspirations are tied up not just in ourselves and our own material well being, but also in each other. For the organism to prosper requires healthy cells.
I was criticized last year for suggesting that the wealthy, most of whom are white, should seriously consider contributing some of their riches to improve the lives of the poor, as a magnanimous gesture. Surely it is not outrageous to suggest that it would be in the interests of the “haves” to contribute to a more equitable, stable and sustainable society? If not in cash, then in kind.
But it is not only the relatively well-off who should contribute. The poor, too, have a responsibility to roll up their sleeves and participate constructively for the common good. Living in filthy and unhygienic conditions is not necessarily a product of poverty. Ensuring that our children go to school every day, joining neighborhood watches and other community initiatives, cooking a meal for an elderly neighbor, getting involved and plugging in, these are contributions that do not depend on wealth.
You know what? God has blessed us with a wonderful country, the best in the world. And God has blessed us, each one of us, with gifts. You and I are meant to work together to make South Africa the scintillating success it has within it to become.