Monday, August 3, 2015

Not letting go

Things we should stay outraged about.

So Nkandla is in the news again (or still!), with politicians across the board joining the longstanding chorus of outrage at the exorbitant cost involved. In an earlier indirectly linked expression of anger, South Africa’s biggest trade union, Numsa, announced plans for a one day national strike against corruption. (See report here). The call came in the same month as the country celebrated the legacy of Nelson Mandela in a widespread outpouring of goodwill and reflects the contrast we often face between active disapproval and tolerance.

There is an indescribable mystical power in the ability to let go. You witness it when you are in the presence of death; when a terminal condition in its final act extinguishes the remaining embers of conscientiousness. There is a near imperceptible moment when that person simply lets go; in an instant ending years of torture and anguish in exchange for deep peace and serenity. Those last hours are the sum total of our lives; the culmination of countless snapshots of the mind’s camera and the last decisive entry into life’s ledger. Embracing them without struggle is the final conquest.

We have been taught over millennia that the ability to let go when faced with something out of our control is strength and not weakness; wisdom, not folly. But at what point does that mean resignation? At what point does it represent premature defeat? At what point does it open the door to needless misfortune? Above all, at what point does it allow the miscreants in our lives, the malevolent actors, to continue to sow their destructive seeds in our passive field of goodwill and indifference?

We have been taught that anger and outrage are poisons that we prepare and swallow ourselves. But they are also weapons of action and resistance and could be the difference between doing something and standing idly by as predators tear our lives apart. This is not about a debilitating obsession with the past, but about confronting a persistent and deliberate repetition of improper behaviour. There are those who have either never possessed or have thrown away their moral compass; have long since learned the art of aloofness; of waiting for things to blow over; of rhino-skinned immunity to the disgust and disdain of their fellow beings, and simply wait for the “robust debate” to calm down before continuing as if nothing had happened.

Numsa’s efforts will no doubt culminate in just another disruptive display of censure, of which we have had many in this country on a wide variety of issues. The weakness lies in confronting an issue rather than the villains themselves. It is not always easy to identify them when accountability is vague and often diverted in occurrences and in large systems; unless one subscribes to conspiracy theories and exposes the hooded rascals exchanging malevolent thoughts in whispered tones and in dim-lit corners of secret and remote venues. But where the results of this iniquity are individually displayed and personified, there should be a sufficiently explicit and maintained outrage to make those involved persistently uncomfortable and ashamed – to the extent of confronting them in public toilets to “pay back the money”.

There are some things that we should be outraged about, and stay outraged until they spur us into action or call to account the perpetrators. At the very least they should not be allowed to embrace a place of comfort in passive approval. Nkandla and corruption are certainly worthy causes of anger. But there are many of them, and you are welcome to give vent to your gripes in the comments.

A pet peeve that I cannot let go of falls under the large umbrella of inequality. Whatever else Nkandla represents, the most profound is iniquitous inequality perpetrated by those who themselves have acknowledged it as one of the critical issues of our time. Inequality is a symptom of many underlying ills, including corruption, maladministration, nepotism, unbridled greed, a broken and abused monetary and economic system and above all repugnant social values. It is always difficult to counter the knee jerk response of detractors that it is simply about envy and resentment.

To be clear, this is not a detraction from classic market logic, or refuting income differentiation as a reward system that at least in part plays a significant role in supporting individual aspirations, progress and prosperity beyond those directly rewarded. It is not that principle that should be attacked, but rather the excessively wide wealth gap resulting from broken markets that no longer reflect real and tangible value that has been created for society as a whole, or systemic loopholes that allow the avarice to accumulate obscene levels of riches.

A perfect display of appropriate outrage was the lambasting by American Senator Bernie Sanders last year of 80 CEO’s who dared preach to the government about deficit reduction. We should have more of that at home. I have on various occasions challenged the rock-star myth behind executive pay in this country. The problem is that the media quickly tires of these things and only occasionally do they make the headlines when spotlighted by a “news-maker”, such as billionaire Johan Rupert’s recent confession of what kept him awake at night. Rupert’s wealth can hardly be defined as “ill-gotten”. By my definition he is one of those business builders that should inspire aspirations and not malicious envy; unlike many of the professional managers heading corporates here and abroad.

Our political leaders can hardly justify standing next to the bishop on income disparities and attacking private sector rewards. There simply is no justification for those leaders to be amongst the highest paid in the world. That’s apart from a bloated political executive and the billions squandered on self-gain acts at all levels of government. That’s what makes Nkandla so significant. Here you have more than R¼bn spent on the comfort and security of one man within sight of abject poverty in a surrounding area. In addition it was funded at least in part by those very people through taxes and VAT, even if only through the latter or through less being spent on their own development.

Yes, we should constantly confront those deserving of it with our outrage. But at the same time, we should also not let go of our demonstration of goodwill, our support for the many laudable NGO’s, NPO’s and activist groups, and the benevolence we are generally capable of.

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