It’s not uncommon to hear adult African blacks, whose formative years were forged in traditional African surroundings, where communal efforts are exalted, lament advent of democracy and its emphasis on individuality. For such people, the idea and philosophy of ubuntu isn’t some academic term to gloat about but a way of life, one that has got them this far(politically, economically and otherwise). The opposite, that is the individual effort, can’t merely be dismissed as a ‘foreign’ idea of selfishness that was vomited by the sea in the April 1652. Because South Africa is a capitalist economy centric country, it essentially means that individualist inclinations have characterized the manner in which we interact with each other, to some degree. For the white community that’s been the norm for some time but for black community (Africans, coloured and Indians) it ‘required’ that they acclimatize to new ways of conducting themselves. This isn’t to say that during pre 1994 the said black people were one monolith that acted and thought in unison but it’s to say they weren’t as upwardly mobile as they are right now and therefore not exposed to as much variety as they are today. It’s the extent to which the individual is willing to go in accessing, satisfactorily, that variety that begs the question: How far reaching are implications of individuals’ choices on the community?
It has to be made mention that a household/community/society is as formidable as its individuals allow it to be. That essentially means that everyone has to play their part in order for the whole household/community/society to progress effectively to a desired stage, if ever. In assessing the impact of individual and their decisions, what constitutes “selfishness” and “self-interest” ought to be clearly outlined because it’s these two cardinal points that will hamper or improve the effectiveness of the bigger picture. We find happiness in a plethora of things and the means to achieve the said happiness also varies but what happens when one’s “self interest” turns into an act of “selfishness”, can is it still be called “self interest”? An example of this would be a situation where “A” goes out for drinks with friends and after one too many “A” decides to get behind the wheel and ends up killing “B”, who is a breadwinner of 5 dependants, as a result of achieving what makes him/her happy in other words after promoting his/her “self interests”, would “A’s” drinking still constitute “self interest” in the context of the example? Certainly not, in fact it’s worse because it has implications for 5 others who had nothing to do with “A” decisions but whose lives are affected as a result. In his The Elements of Moral Philosophy [Fourth Edition] philosopher, James Rachels, explains “selfishness” and “self-interest” as follows:”Selfish behaviour is behaviour that ignores the interests of others, in circumstances in which their interests ought not to be ignored. Thus, eating a normal meal in normal circumstances is not selfish (although it is definitely in your self-interest); but you would be selfish if you hoarded food while others were starving.”
But circumstances about “self-interest” and “selfish” aren’t always as easily explained as the aforementioned examples. Take for instance the recent industrial action by public servants. Their demand for better salary and housing subsidy packages was legitimate act of advancing their “self-interest” but because their labour is a critical component of the service delivery machinery, it led to many, perhaps justifiably so, to describe the disgruntled state employed workers’ conduct as perfidious given the far reaching implications of such deeds. But the workers held a differing view and claimed the government was with being “selfish” in claiming that there weren’t funds to accommodate the desired demands of the workers. That the strike was sordid state of affairs is putting it mildly. But if the workers didn’t advance their “self-interest” and were required to continue working for whatever it is they were working for, wouldn’t their uninspired executions of their duties be insidious towards the bigger picture of an effective and efficient public service machinery? Another prevalent act selfishness and, indeed, illegal is the one where parents with the means to provide for a child, purposely submit inaccurate information in order for the child to also be a recipient of a monthly social welfare grant. Such parents can’t claim “self-interest” in that regard because more deserving people are, at times, forced to wait in the wings for state assistance that could have gone a long way in ameliorating harsh burns of inadequacies that characterize many households that live below the bread line.
The cleavage between what the propertied class and working class take home as living wages is astounding. Even if it may not be illegal as is the case but it may yet hint at selfishness and the blame lies squarely with the governing party and its policies that make it conducive for arrogant opulence relentlessly balloon. A country with the majority of its youth being unemployed can’t be said to be serious about being a developmental state. If the national income was distributed in more appropriate means – not handouts- that would allow for more jobs to be created and people being employed and therefore increasing the tax base for the state to continue to subsidize where necessary. In the same breath, the supposedly broad based black economic empowerment can be said to be selfish because of its seemingly close reliance to the governing party for its functioning. The idea behind BBBEE is commendable but it becomes ignominious when genuine grievances of our political past are masked as group “self interests” while they only serve a few political parvenus, that is an act of selfishness.
It would better serve us as citizens to realize how closely linked to each we are. And that the choices we make in pursuit of whatever it is that makes us happy has an impact on bigger pictures that we may (in)voluntarily choose to ignore. For every public healthcare reliant patient who is unable to get the necessary treatment for TB or HIV Aids, we must realize that it’s a loss to the already strained human capital required to revolutionize the enjoyment of a quality life in a republic. For every time housing contracts are offered to shoddy construction firms that are build houses that don’t even meet minimum standards, it’s the more people will continue to lead undignified lives because to own your a house to have your dignity intact. The interests of an individual ought to not disregard the communal interests. A conducive environment has to be created for all individuals to at least have one chance at bettering their lives which, in turn, will benefit the greater household/community/society.
Perhaps R.H Tawney had our country in mind when he wrote in Equality that:”It is not till it is discovered that high individual incomes will not purchase the mass of mankind immunity from cholera, typhus and ignorance, still less secure them the positive advantage of educational opportunity and economic security, that slowly and reluctantly, amid prophecies of moral degeneration and economic disaster, society begins to make collective provisions for needs which no ordinary individual, even if he works overtime all his life, can provide himself.”