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Living the paradox: Life in South Africa

Johann Redelinghuys is previously founder and chairman of Heidrick & Struggles South Africa, now The Director of the Chairman's Institute and of Portfolio&Co

If we don’t learn to make peace with the paradoxes of life in this country, we set ourselves up for permanent disappointment and an on-going, debilitating sense of failure. 

It does not mean giving up on our goals for the country or backing down from the hope we have for a fair and decent society for all. It means facing the reality of what is scarily trending in many parts of the world and here at home.

Whenever we try to get a hold of what is going on in our economy, the country’s leadership or our service delivery we get conflicting, contradictory pieces of information. It is always the smiling warm-hearted South African anecdote that is then immediately destroyed by equally distressing statistic or an event that leaves us drained and hopeless. We long for a clear picture. We want the information that will help us focus and enable us to understand. But then we are forever being confronted with the muddy water and the confusion of a paradox.

Like so many countries, we aspire to have an expanding, comfortable middle class. The role model is the picket-fenced, bell-curved image of 1950s America: full employment, sound education, proper housing and health care in a society free from crime and violence and where the leaders exercise proper ethical governance. Is that ever a reachable dream? Does it even still exist anywhere?

The well-organized, clean-cut countries of Scandinavia seemed to have had it a generation ago, and may still be close to it today. Australia and Canada think they have it too. But for many others the truth now is that the extremes on either side of the bell-shaped curve are expanding and the middle is sagging. The curve is inverting. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. 

In the wealthy trophy cities of the West – London, New York, Paris and Washington – poverty is increasing. The urban poor are a growing reality. A recent piece in Time magazine was titled Great Divide: How the City of London Widened the Gap between Britain’s Rich and Poor. In Washington, homeless people are living on the street a few blocks from the White House.

At the same time, these cities attract massive wealth and investment from the rich who are fleeing the Arab Spring and the corruption of Eastern Europe and Russia.

The striking miners at Marikana must wonder sometimes how it can be that in this richly endowed country of ours with its great mineral wealth, there can be so much misery and poverty.

How’s this for a paradox: Amid dire warnings of imminent disaster, South Africa is rated by the World Economic Forum as the most competitive economy in sub-Sahara Africa. Forget for the moment that out of 144 economies we are rated 144th in labour-employer relations and 143rd for rigid hiring and firing practices. Focus rather on the ranking of 52nd in the world and third place amongst the BRICS economies, with Russia and India below us.

“Particularly impressive” the report says “is the country’s financial market development (third) indicating high confidence in South Africa’s financial markets at a time when trust is returning only slowly in many other parts of the world”

Even when we are told that we are doing well, we don’t believe it. We are too used to distrusting information and we wait for the contradiction.

Mary Robinson, the UN Human Rights Commissioner and former president of Ireland, delivered the 10th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Cape Town in August this year, calling South Africa “a nation of paradoxes”. She visited the Eastern Cape and witnessed the grinding poverty and hopelessness of the population, then attended a function in a rich enclave of Paarl in the Western Cape and could not believe the two realities existed in the same country. 

Surveying the country’s leadership, she referred to the progress made by women in South Africa, and noted that 41% of cabinet positions are held by women, five of the nine provincial premiers were women and 42% of the seats in parliament were occupied by women. Yet, as she said, “There is a darker side”, describing the rape and murder statistics and the still-prevalent and increasing abuse of women.

What’s to be done? Maybe it is to stop comparing our circumstances with the rosy-edged, comfortable middle class dream. For most of the country it’s not going to happen. There will always be good leaders and bad leaders. There will always be good times and bad times. Ours is a resilient society that has managed to thrive in the face of the most appalling contradictions. We have had poverty side-by-side with great wealth for as long as one can remember. We have had extreme multi-cultural groups and factions within our population since its beginning. 

What more homogenous European societies are only now beginning to experience in their burgeoning refugee populations, we have dealt with for all our years.

The recent Paralympics in London showed how splendidly people can cope with adversity. How is it that someone without legs can be a champion swimmer, or a blind person can be a star long-distance runner? We saw it all. The ideal is what happened in the regular Olympics. But it is in the Paralympics that we find the greatest inspiration.

If South Africa is incapacitated or crippled by our paradoxes and by the extremes of dysfunction in our society, we should take courage. We don’t have an ideal society and we are not a picture of good health, but we get on with it and in our own way, make things work. 

The best advice is from that over-used slogan from the war years in Britain which just says “Keep Calm and Carry On”. DM


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