November 1, 2011

Corruption or Culture?

Westerners are often appalled by the corruption and cronyism they encounter in Africa (and of course in many other places as well, but my blog is about Africa). The pattern is always the same: Somebody comes to power, acquires wealth, and then peddles his influence and shares his newfound riches freely with friends and relatives, without much regard as to how this might cheat the taxpayer. Corruption, right?

But I wonder if it doesn't depend on your point of view. If you come from a culture where the community stands above the individual, where there is a prevalent sense of  "we're in this together" (something they call "ubuntu" here), where one person unquestioningly helps another and feels responsible for everyone in his or her community, where "the village raises the child" - if all this is in your DNA, wouldn't NOT sharing be viewed as seriously corrupt instead of the other way around? Wouldn't it be expected from you, who made it in the world, to help your less fortunate family and friends by providing you with a job or a contract if it is in your power to do that? 

Don't get me wrong, I hate corruption, and, perhaps even more so, inefficient and uncaring public service. There are plenty of people here, just like everywhere else, who don't seem to care much about ubuntu once they've made it to a better station in life, living and enjoying the high life instead. And I know I might get chastised again for making excuses for black people while holding whites to a higher standard. But that is not my intention. I simply wonder if corruption isn't such a clear-cut thing as we make it out to be. Yes, a purely tribal way of life is pretty much a thing of the past and so we are likely destined, for better or for worse, to live in the modern society we've created. But I do think that culture is a powerful thing and as an expat (or really, any citizen of the world) you do well to try and understand it before making judgments.

Culture, or perhaps more accurately the loss of it, is a topic explored very thoroughly in Cry, the Beloved Country (Kindle edition), a book I highly recommend for anyone wanting to learn more about South Africa. It is just a great book, right up there with The Grapes of Wrath.

In fact, Alan Paton is often compared to John Steinbeck or rather modeled himself after him. The story is set in pre-apartheid South Africa, sometime in the 1940s, but the shadow of things to come is already looming. The mass migration of black laborers to the "Witwatersrand" following the discovery of gold there led to a loss of identity and belonging for many of these laborers who gave up their tribal culture in favor of life in the city. Without their families and ties to traditional values, their lives often veered towards tragedy, and this book highlights one such life and the efforts of a country preacher to bring it back on track and make sense of it all.


Jenna said...

It's extremely interesting the role which ubuntu plays in corruption and governmental politics - and while I definitely do think that there is something to say for ubuntu in terms of family member sharing their own salaries with their family members - it infuriates me when they steal other's hard earned money for their families when they are already sitting on massive pay checks. Especially when I drive on the N1 and see all of the tolls that they're putting up on the countries largest freeway. Haha can you tell I'm upset!?

On another note, I loved Cry the Beloved Country!

ps I met up with Martina and Rob on Sunday and they mentioned that you'd be going to their housewarming on the 19th - looking forward to meeting you!

Conrad said...

Interessantes Thema, interessanter Gedanke! Dazu komnmt die Dimension Zeit: noch vor nicht allzu langer Zeit war ubuntu auch in der westlichen Welt akzeptiert. Aber das, was akzeptiert ist, ist eben einem ständigen Veränderungsprozess unterworfen - denke nur an das Thema Rauchen.....

Sine said...

Jenna - it's a small blogger's world:-). Looking forward to meeting you too.

Sine said...

Conrad, Was meinst du - das rauchen frueher akzeptiert war und jetzt nicht mehr? Da hat sich die Einstellung ja tasaechlich sehr geaendert.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sena
As a South African working in France I have thus far enjoyed reading your interesting observations about my country from an outsider's perspective but feel compelled to respond to this article on corruption visa vis culture. For me as a South African the culture of Ubuntu is not necessarily exclusively African but rather global thus the first assumption you make in your paragraph already indicates the misconceptions that you have about so called "African culture".The desire to do good and to share with the have not's cannot possibly be limited to Africans surely and this is what Ubuntu is about! I say so called because like other cultures in the rest of the world African culture is not homogenous and numerous proof exists in this regard. The long and the short of it corruption is corruption and people in Africa recognise that it is something to be purged just as the rest of the world does. I t may well be that in terms of statistics it is higher in some parts of Africa than others but this does not mean other parts of the world at one time or another did not experience it one only has to go to the previous administration of your country to see this. My dissapointment with your article is the fact that it seems to demean the intellectual capability of africans to distinguish between right and wrong!Maybe the root of the problem is that as large and diverse a continent as this is most people have the tendency to lump it into one yet when speaking of Europe refer to the French, English, German rather than Europeans, keep this in mind and hopefully you will be enriched by the diversity that will cross your path in our beautiful country.

Sine said...

Hi Ingrid,

I’m sorry my response took a little while, I was just trying to get my bearings between endless visitors and end-of-school craziness, but didn’t forget you.

You’re absolutely right that my observations are limited to South Africa and therefore making observations about “African culture” are as much incomplete as you, living in France, could claim knowledge of a “European culture.” And even in South Africa, my observations don’t mean any of this is the truth, if you can even find truth in such things, but a gross generalization. I believe I said as much in my blog post. However, if I were to not write about such topics until I’ve reached a point where I can comprehensively talk about it would mean that it would never be written, which to me would be more a sign of cowardice than wisdom. It’s what political correctness does to people – makes them too scared to say anything. My blog definitely doesn’t aim to be politically correct, on the contrary, it thrives on differences in behavior across borders, which is what makes some of the things happening to me so amusing. It’s all about writing about things as I observe them, and perhaps getting it wrong every once in a while. That’s why I’m grateful for reader input!

As for Ubuntu, I do think that it is not merely the desire to do good, but perhaps my definition of it is wrong. I see it as something you are born into and grow up with, and that is a cultural thing. Yes, we Westerners can perhaps learn it and practice it, but taking a genuine interest in someone else’s life, troubles and all, is something that will never come as naturally to me as it does to Africans I observe around me every day. I suppose we could have a whole different discussion just about Ubuntu.

Lastly, I did not mean to demean the intellectual capability of Africans, as you put it. I was just trying to paint a picture that is much more complex that a Westerner, raised purely on Western values, might understand at first glance. If someone, say, chooses to use his influence in the government to get members of his larger family job opportunities they might otherwise not have, I don’t mean to say that is because he is stupid, on the contrary. He may have many other factors to consider, favors to pay back, expressing gratitude to someone in his past who helped with his education, whatever. If this is the culture you grew up in, you may not be able to just shut it off like that, even though on a different level you know it is wrong.

I have a feeling you might not like another post I’m working on which will be about patience versus respect, but I’ll plow ahead anyway and see what my readers say:-)

Anonymous said...

What did White people do in the last 3-4 centuries ?

Didn't they use "Ubuntu" to take "care" of their people, while stealing and looting non-white people's resources.

Maybe things changed in the last two decades, as White people are so rich, they can afford not to steal to same extent they did.

The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do —— The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 51.

Non white people are usually patient to listen to this "Holier than thou" attitude of europeans.

But they know in their mind, the real history..

I dont think they will take this anymore and going to speak up through blogs and maybe even "educate" white people about things they want to forget.

W. A. Jeffrey said...
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