It’s often said that the ‘true’ African mode of living is one that emphasizes and exalts communality and not so much the individual. The idea of placing greater focus on an individual was/is perceived as an import that washed up on our shores in the 1400s. While it’s true that many hands make light work, the opposite is just as true that a chain is as strong as its weakest link. Essentially there’ll be no propitious returns on communal investments if the state and capacity of individuals that make up the said group are found wanting. I think there’s a difference between the recognition of the power of individual agency as a means to personal development and being individualistic. The latter, although it recognizes the value of personal effort, it’s also premised on the winner-takes-all mentality. More often than not the lines between the two do blur but that doesn’t negate the importance of the individual. Jill Scott put it aptly when she said “one is the magic number”.
So often when we are confronted with challenges we want to abdicate the responsibilities of finding solutions to the government. Do we really want to be governed by a nanny state? It’s as if along with majority electoral mandate the governing party has received at the polls since 1994, we’ve also handed it our personal thinking capacity. Is it necessary for the government via the ministry of transport to tell us that we ought to not drink and drive? Surely any considerate driver ought to be alive to the fact that drinking and getting behind the wheel endangers that person and many other road users. Must the president personally ensure that everyone who’s had one too many gets home safely just so the carnage our roads is averted? What becomes of personal responsibility in all of this?
If South Africa is to realize the extent of its productive capacity and rival the likes of South Korea; Turkey; Singapore and its BRICS allies then the schooling machinery needs to be attended to urgently but of equal importance, if not more, is the health state of the populous. The greatest threat to economic development is an unhealthy human capital. What use will it be to have an efficient schooling system whose products’ abilities are impeded on by illnesses? It goes without saying that there’s constitutional imperative on the state to ensure that health facilities are well equipped and accessible to the public (which isn’t always the case). There’s, however, a responsibility on individuals to ensure that they don’t expose themselves to illnesses that bedevil our population such as the HI virus. The extensive damage that HIV has caused in this country is well documented. In certain instances it led to the mushrooming of child headed households as a result of the deaths of parents and guardians and that burdens the older children as they juggle the demands of school and makeshift parenting. Do we expect those children to do well at school? How many young people have we seen go way too soon to their final resting place because this disease? But we seem to have an attitude that only a certain ‘type’ of people will contract HIV. In her book, Khabzela: The Life And Times Of A South African, Liz McGregor writes as follows on the late Y-fm dj:”It is safe to say that Fana Khaba(Khabzela’s real name) was fantastically promiscuous. Fana himself was entirely open, not to say boastful, about his exuberant sex life. When I had lunch with him six months before he died, he told me he had frequently had three women queuing up outside his bedroom door to have sex with him. There was an unashamed, if slightly unhinged, tone to his other boast to me:”I drive around Soweto and look at all these women with their HIV-positive children and think: they’re all mine. Mine and God’s.” Despite the fact that there are freely available condoms, we refuse to heed the call to play it safe. How many times do we put ourselves in compromising sexual circumstances all because the guy/girl didn’t ‘look’ like they had HIV or we simply took each other’s word for it or that unwrapping the condom would’ve ‘killed’ the mood? In 21st century South Africa, we must accept the bitter truth that to choose to have unsafe sexual relations with multiple partners is perhaps the most selfish and individualistic form of exercising our constitutionally guaranteed liberties, especially when we take into account the fact that such conduct has ramifications that affect not only the immediate circumstance of the individual but also has a bearing on the national budget. Life-prolonging drugs have made sure that test positive for HIV isn’t a death sentence but that shouldn’t give those aren’t infected the carte blanche to act recklessly.
By the time the rest of the world was dragged into the black hole of the American-created recession of 2008, South Africa had been plagued by unemployment and the “Great Recession” compounded what was an already gloomy picture. The worst hit by all of this are younger citizens especially those from township and rural areas. So dire is the situation that some commentators have termed this the “unemployable generation”. I appreciate the gravity of the challenge of youth unemployment but I’m not sold on the defeatist approach that just says “that’s it! You’ll never be productive in your lifetime”. Again the role of individual ability ought to be assessed because although the grim unemployment figures may give us a perspective of the enormity of the task at hand, it isn’t at all cast in stone that it shall remain so forever. What are we as individuals doing to try and better our circumstances? Do we attend relevant gathering and workshops that may yield favourable outcomes and most importantly do we read? Reading has the ability to broaden one’s scope so as to understand in greater detail how to innovatively overcome what seems like insurmountable circumstances. Mpho Muthubi, in his frankly written book Voetsek: Lamentations of an Owl’s Eye, singles out the indifference towards reading as a symptom of self-imposed poverty. “If we can find time to watch our daily soapies for a solid four hours- we can find time to read. If we can find time to listening to music from 07h00-14h00 in the afternoon and watching soccer, rugby and cricket from 15h00-19h00 in the evening- we can find time to read…If we can not find this elusive thing called ‘time for reading’ some people who always find it will entrench their perspectives about life and make rules we can not challenge because we would have no informed perspective of our own to counter theirs.” Muthubi further says.
If indeed this country is to realize the potential it abundantly possesses then there has to be a shift in how we as individuals that make up this animal called South Africa view ourselves. We ought to be alive to the impact our daily decisions have on the sum total of what becomes of the republic. Individual agency is the corner stone to the developmental aspirations of any society and if we as a society value our lives then it’s critical that we encourage personal improvement as national imperative because the dividends of that kind of investment are invaluable. How are the opportunities of the much talked about “economic freedom in our lifetime” going to be exploited if necessary personal preparation hasn’t taken place? We can’t do so from our death beds or prison cells as a result of contracting avoidable diseases and ignorantly-made choices because we didn’t have time to read. Economic emancipation isn’t given to people, it’s contested and claimed. Malcolm X reminds us that “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today” and that requires individuals to play their respective roles.