Bullshitting the Nationby Daniel Sher / 21.06.2013
“You can do anything that you want to!” A wine-soaked melody rises from the cacophony that epitomizes Sea Point Main Road. Heads lift nonchalantly before swivelling back toward lap-tops and newspapers: the folks at this cafe’ are accustomed to vagrants and their unusual antics. The man’s phrase implies that he’s either masochistic or deluded. If his words are true, then his aspirations are limited to smelling like a porta-loo at a summer-time music festival.
What had he hoped to achieve with his song? Why those words? Perhaps an act of proud defiance: a metaphorical middle-finger to café-dwellers around the world? “You may be rich, but you’re no better than me. I find more truth on the streets than you with your lattes and clichéd romantic novels.” Realistically, he was probably looking to score some coins or a sandwich. But his words are sociologically significant, whichever way you look at it. He understands the attitude that must be projected in order to gain the approval of wealthy South Africans.
Perhaps you got wind of Joseph Khohlokoane’s inspirational story – he worked for 17 years as a petrol-attendant in order to re-pay his student loan and claim his rightfully earned university degree. Or you may have noticed the renowned ‘UCT confession 1472’ – the stirring story of a rural orphan from KZN who, through ardour and sheer dedication, managed to work his way into UCT’s law program. Both stories recount the fable of the South African dream: rags to minimum wage. Incidentally, both stories went viral and served to distract spiritless office workers for at least a week.
Nonetheless, it would seem that South Africans are willing to embrace those who dare strive for the impossible. Hard-work is currency, both literally and figuratively. However, for a vagrant to extol the virtues of diligence seems ironic, even self-depreciating. The café-dwellers of South African society, on the other hand, can embrace this sort of ideology far more comfortably.
Imagine your typical News24 comment-troll: he attempts to speak the language of Mandela whilst exuding the conservative ideals of old. For him, publically congratulating a black man such as Joseph Khohlokoane constitutes a multi-racialist expression of national pride. However, this subtly implies that South Africa’s impoverished (black) majority has simply not worked hard enough. After all, Joseph was able to elevate himself from his unfortunate position – why not the rest? And let’s not forget that by making diligence of paramount importance, our closet-racist implies that his personal wealth is purely a product of hard labour. His own hard labour, that is.
One notices that issues of tender-based corruption, persistent structural inequality and 300 years of colonial oppression have suddenly slipped out of focus. Am I arguing that ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’ these stories is unpatriotic and intentionally racist? Not necessarily; but the path to hell is paved with good intentions and ignorance stokes the fire of injustice.
There’s a psychiatric phenomenon known as encopresis, which is the involuntary loss of bowel control amongst toilet-trained children and adolescents. Often these children are raised by young and overburdened single mothers, who, quite simply, are unprepared for parenthood. Consequently the child takes-on an unreasonable degree of maturity and emotional responsibility. Unsurprisingly, the poor little soldier is prone to shitting his pants, as if making an unconscious, but bold statement: “Look, mom! I’m still an infant – treat me that way!”
A glance at the latest tabloids reveals that South African protestors are flinging buckets of excrement in order to make a statement about service delivery. Just the other day a group of these protestors were stopped at Cape Town Station, heaving buckets of poo, destined for Helen Zille and Patricia De Lille’s doorstep. Our country, quite literally, is shitting itself. Understandably so: we’re expecting South Africa to behave like an adult when it’s really still an infant, struggling with issues of basic needs and historically entrenched disadvantage. These issues cannot be relegated to the sidelines of our collective consciousness; we need to consider what exactly we are asking our nation to overlook when we proudly champion anomalous tales of the South African dream.
Joseph Khohlokoane’s story is a remarkable one, and as a nation we can draw much inspiration from his will-power and determination. But a true patriot would have made just as much noise over the plight faced by those who cannot be expected to muster such herculean perseverance and dedication. Denial can play no part in national pride: we need to collectively own all that South Africa has to offer. If this happens, perhaps one day the Sea Point vagrants will be able to beg without implicitly downplaying the forces of inequality that act against them. Perhaps, one day, they won’t be begging at all.