I often hear people say that “life is what you make it”, but I struggle with the interpretation of a seemingly self-explanatory statement without finding contradictions. On face value it seeks, rightly so, to place an individual at the epicentre of his/her aspirations and the true, and sometimes only, agent in the realization of those aspirations. On the other hand the statement seems to be without limitations to the extent that it lends itself to ‘abuse’ or justification purely because the “how” and the “at what” or “whose” expense, if ever, one “makes it” is left to the individual.
Is it a given that the individual, in his quest of “making it”, will do so in a manner that doesn’t have unsuitable consequences on those with whom he/she interfaces? Put differently, does one have to necessarily consider rules in an attempt to actualize “life is what you make it”?
So given the capitalist make up of the South African economy, and by extension society, how is one to make sense of the ambiguity of the aforementioned statement without conducting oneself immorally, whether political; socially and economically while trying to secure scarce resources? Has South Africa ever had a moral high ground to which the citizenry may aspire to in this regard? Former Pres. Mbeki, while delivering the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture in 2006, quotes what he said in a Lecture (The Historical Injustice) in Canada in 1978: “The capitalist class, to whom everything has a cash value, has never considered moral incentives as very dependable. As part of the arrangement (of the British and the Boers in 1910), it therefore decided that material must play a prominent part…Because the white minority was the dominant social force in our country, it entrenched in our society as a whole, including among the oppressed, the deep-seated understanding that personal wealth constituted the only true measure of individual and social success…I am arguing that the new order, born of the victory of 1994, inherited a well-entrenched value system that placed individual acquisition of wealth at the centre of the value system of our society as a whole.”
If Mbeki’s assertion is anything to go by, then, it would seem that South Africa, as constituted in the post-Anglo Boer War (recently termed the South African War) setting of 1910, has never had the moral high ground where the uncompromising pursuit of capital and social balance were at logger-heads. This may explain why we aren’t effectively stomping out the pertinacious plundering of public coffers individuals in both the public and private sector all, perhaps, because “life is what you make it” and they are getting theirs.
The grave unemployment statistics coupled with dangerously high income inequality gaps continue to relegate many a South Africans to the extreme ends of the sought after mainstream economy and that has, unfortunately, delivered those citizens to the ever-welcoming alluring yet unscrupulous ways of the underbelly of the republic as a means of “making it” as it were. Is it a coincidence that the sale of high discounted electricity and illegal electrification of a lot of households has multiplied against the background of increased tariffs by power supplier, ESKOM. How often have desperate children fallen prey to fly-by-night education institutions? The competitive edge of casino capitalism, where anything and everything is fair game, is so demanding on society to keep up or risk losing better shelter; security; healthcare; quick access to the justice system and it almost always ‘punishes’ those who can’t make the grade as they’re eventually left at the mercy of an apathetic public service which has been known to offer citizens, ineluctably ‘chained’ in the underclass, dehumanizing services, if at all. In this context, does “life is what you make it” apply as a code that imbues one to claw oneself out of the underclass by any means necessary?
It could be argued that the prevailing laws of the country deter and punish any act that contradicts them in so far as “life is what you make it” goes. But as well meaning as rules and regulations are in society as instruments that keep, or at least ought to keep, harmony and order, they, through selective application, can be perceived as not being credible in trying to curb the pernicious aspects of this existential question. When the US mortgage market hit rock bottom in 2008 and plunged the world economy into the “Great Recession”, the bankers who profited from home loans gave little consideration to the ramifications their reckless and revenue-inspired actions would have on debtors in the event that they’re unable to repay the bonds and the greater world that exists beyond Wall Street. The same charge of inconsideration can be laid against clothing companies whose products are produced by Asians on slave-wages and farm workers whose hands toil in the manufacturing of the finest wines the world has to offer in returning for underwhelming salaries. It goes without saying that they, the big businesses and their directors, were, and are, taking control of their lives and doing what they saw, or see, fit as constituting “making it”. In spite of lives ruined, the bankers’ actions weren’t taken to task instead they received bailouts. So is there really a difference between those benefited from the “Great Recession” and drug peddlers? Yet the law would apply harsher with the latter even though in both instances lives are gravely affected.
Given the spill-overs that “life is what you make it” can result in, is it still a motto worth living by and would qualifying it so as to comply with certain rules impede what it seeks to achieve? These are questions best answered by the individual in his/her daily activities. One thing that’s worth noting is that Social Darwinism- the kill or be killed system- isn’t the solution because “Nothing can come out of this except the destruction of human society, resulting from the atomisation of society into an agglomeration of individuals who pursue mutually antagonistic material goals. Necessarily, and inevitably, this cannot but negate social cohesion and mutually beneficial human solidarity, and therefore the most fundamental condition of the existence of all human beings, namely, the mutually interdependent human relationships without which the individual human being cannot exist.” as Mbeki further stated in the memorial lecture.