He strolls in, dressed in his best high-collar shirt and flashing a smile usually reserved for used-car salesmen. Greeting you like a long-lost friend, he asks you to order him a Johnnie Walker Blue while he quickly goes to the loo. He never offers to buy you a round in return, nor does he pay for the drink you have bought. This is one of the many traits of the post-Apartheid character known as amachancer.
We all know amachancers – we’ve all been victims of them. They crave wealth and have no qualms as to who they step on or associate with to get it. Amachancers can be found in the upper echelons of sport administration, politics, entertainment and business – but especially politics. Our friend’s loud voice is only eclipsed in volume by his raucous laughter. His conversation is filled with his ambitious plans for the future, on how much money he is going to make, what he drives and, if there are no ladies present, the vast numbers of women he has bedded. He shares intimate details of his close friends and confidants, who all happen to be of the rich and famous.
What he neglects to tell us is that looking successful is an expensive business, that he is behind on his car payments, the bank is foreclosing on his mortgage loan and his cellphone contract has been replaced with pay-as-you go (which actually makes sense because it now costs less). He does have an unfailing weapon in his limited armoury in his constant battle for self-promotion. He loves the sound of his own voice and he does not have to be eloquent or convincing in his argument. He merely has to bury you in unconnected details in order to bamboozle you into agreeing with him. He is entertaining and he is funny, but he is ultimately without substance. Yet with all this counting against him his path to the top still seems unhindered in the new South Africa.
So why is it seemingly so easy for self-promoting brigands to advance unhindered ahead of all the quietly hard-working folk? Firstly, the quiet, hard-working folk are just that - quiet and hard-working. Lacking the ability to sell themselves and their skills, they always go unnoticed and don’t get the credit they deserve. The second is due to apartheid curtailing the number of people with skills from the black community. Third is the pressure on previously white institutions to transform themselves in the shortest possible period. This creates a hole that has to be filled. If the gap is not breached, the cost of the lack of transformation will be measured in their bottom line in the form of government tenders (or the lack thereof).
Amachancer is now in his element, in that he can play the game with one of the few skills he truly owns: realising the true meaning of the word opportunity. Amachancer will pounce on it, grab hold of it and wrestle it until opportunity has embraced him like a long-lost relative. If he is not qualified it matters little, if amachancer has used false credentials, conscience was carefully left off the resumé. We find that our friend will wear his blackness proudly and never cease to remind us of the need for transformation and change in post-Apartheid South Africa. He will use the need for transformation for his own aims and constantly point out the white conspiracy to disenfranchise black people of the roles within the broader South African society. Enlisting the help of the competent, he passes off their work and ideas as his own, even if he has a limited understanding of it.
We commend amachancer for making best use of an opportunity and for having the balls to create his destiny and not merely be a victim of it. The problem arises when he is asked to deliver on what has been promised and the sheer balls of flagrant self-promotion cannot make up for the lack of skills our friend clearly displays.
When the shortcomings of our friend are laid bare, does he retreat into his shell, acknowledge his failure and hide his face in shame? Never! He is belligerent, cocky and filled with the self-righteousness reserved for the innocent and persecuted. The reason for his failure has never had anything to do with his ineptitude. The blame is laid at the feet of a white conspiracy hoping to hold back transformation or black colleagues jealous at his success.
Does failure stop him and make him reconsider the fact that he was never good at his position in the first place? No! It acts like an artificial stimulant on a professional athlete and merely boosts his ambition. He is nothing if not resilient and will surprise friend and foe with his ability to come back, failure after failure. For he still harbours ambitions of owning his own company, despite his tarnished reputation and bad credit rating. He will endeavour to get another 4X4 with personalised number plates. In his anger and disappointment he will be determined to show up all those who laughed at him and derided him in his failure.
For we have underestimated the driving force behind the fragile ego, we have failed to see the power of raw ambition. It surpasses education, competence, eloquence and even good looks as the main driving force in what can be achieved beyond the boundaries of one’s abilities.
Surely our wise, smart and savvy institutions can spot the swagger of our over-confident but incompetent friend, who dreams of greatness without wanting the hard work that goes along with it? Is it not obvious to them that he will fall short of expectations from the very outset? Maybe it is the devil in me to suggest that both parties have entered into an unspoken conspiracy, both know that our friend is not all he professes to be. But they take him on board, because they need their black faces and they need him to be less than competent. Our friend can drive the smart car, wear the flashy suits and not be a threat to them in their positions of power, thus thwarting genuine transformation by co-opting it through covert means.
In failure and success, our friend is a danger to change in that he is bought by the glitz of pseudo-success and takes up the space of people who are competent and capable of transforming South Africa. Amachancer’s measure of success is short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive in that it mistakes the trinkets of success for something that cannot be measured in tangible terms. Pride cannot be measured, nor can the conquering of negative stereotypes be displayed on a statistician’s chart. The time for amachancer's fast rise has to come to an end to be replaced by someone who is hard working, ethical and competent.
Unfortunately there are no quick fixes other than training and hard work and being able to market yourself and your good work. DM