Hope, The Beloved Country – Why I’m Still Optimistic About South Africa

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Two years ago I became more aware of South African politics. I noticed that my peers were extremely negative about the country. After some thought, I decided that I didn’t agree with them.

The encounter left me rattled. How could these privileged young men be so negative about the place that has seemingly treated them well? Why were they so desperate to leave?

Naturally, being a curious high school student, I asked my father about it.   

After some discussion, I decided I was ready. I set forth, a naïve but valiant knight of South Africa, ready to defend my views.

We have had quite a few (very heated) arguments on the topic. My naivety was shattered, and I became more aware of the realities of the situation. This discourse has forced me to hone (and often cut large chunks off) my political opinion.

I hope now that I have matured enough to write this. It has certainly been long in the making (relative to my short life).

This blog post is intended as a response to their criticism of the country, and a defense of my desire to stay: an exploration of the psychology behind the negativity, how it is killing the country, and why I choose to hope, despite the circumstances.

Why are we so pessimistic?

The state of the country

The country (at large) is a mess. I cannot deny this.

But I have two qualifications in making this claim:

  1. Many of the parts of the country are pretty great, and the people in them have little reason to complain (elaborated on later)
  2. Despite this fact, it is still in literally everyone’s best interest to have some hope (also elaborated on later)

The state of the country certainly justifies some complaint, but it does not fully account for the crippling negativity of South Africans. What other factors then contribute to this?

Expectations, high and low

The end of the Apartheid era inspired hope in many, and extreme negativity in others.

These high expectations were never going to be met. Our problems weren’t just going to disappear overnight. And when the reality of the situation doesn’t live up to expectations, what you get is pessimism.

Likewise, we observe something similar happening to those who were negative about the country. They see those with high expectations become disheartened, and take it as a sign they were right. They choose to see what confirms their current opinion (confirmation bias, discussed later).

So we see that the almost inevitable outcome of this polarity in opinion was pessimism.

An unfortunate era

Consider this: From the moment I became aware of politics, all around me I saw people mocking our leaders. As a result I (and most South Africans) tend towards a very one-dimensional view; that anyone in the government is corrupt and stupid (a false generalization). This results in a failure to acknowledge good leaders and good decisions, and ultimately in an extreme pessimism.

The last decade or so of South African politics has tinged our view of future leaders, and compromised our ability to assess politicians impartially.

We often don’t know the whole story

It is easy for us to look at something and assume the worst. We do it all the time, attributing everything to corruption or incompetence, not looking at the fuller context.

Let’s take the unemployment rate for example. To most it is an indisputable sign of our ‘third-worldness’, a testament to the government’s failure. But there is more behind the figure of 34.4% than that:

  1. This is only an official unemployment figure. It inevitably fails to take into account many employed in the informal sector (how do you consider those who aren’t registered anywhere). The extent of this is disputed, but it certainly does happen.
  2. South Africa’s formal employment (which is almost always better for the individual than informal employment) is much higher than other African countries. Only about 7.5% of South Africans are employed in the informal sector. Compare this to the staggering 80.4% of Nigeria, and it puts things into perspective (formal employment is usually a lot higher quality)
  3. Unemployment is concentrated in certain demographics, especially poor black youths. The middle class has a much higher chance of finding a job, and can’t take the 34.4% unemployment at face value.
  4. South Africa’s unemployment rate before Covid-19 was 28.47%, significantly lower. And most countries unemployment went up with Covid, not just us. This was quite outside the government’s control.

What I have shown here is that facts and figures have a lot more behind them than we think, and that it is easy to jump to (negative) conclusions about them if we don’t know the full story. (The figure is terrible regardless, but it is also not as bad as you would first think). This results in an unjustified negative opinion in many cases.

Racism

Racism is a natural conclusion for those who do not understand South Africa’s history, and why different continents developed differently. They believe the country was better off 30 years ago than it was now (because of a whole assortment of biases), or at least that the leaders were more competent. They then look at the most obvious thing that changed: the colour of their leader’s skin.

This causes an even greater negativity regarding the government; one fuelled by racism. It is something I have observed time and time again.

It is not blatant racism, but a rather more pernicious problem; it comes from people who genuinely don’t want to be racist, but, provided with no alternative ‘ultimate explanation’ for the corruption and seeming incompetence of their leaders, cannot help it. In some dark recess of their minds they begin to suspect, at least entertain the idea, that it is the black leader’s fault (and however we may fight it, that nagging suspicion still exists).

This is something I have observed in myself. I believe it to be very widespread (racism in such a subtle form is hard to suppress, and contempt for those different to us is a very natural impulse). It is something that must be acknowledged and solved, even if we don’t want to face it.

Paradise abroad

Many of my peers have this idyllic view of other countries. They seem to think them paradises.

They feel qualified to make these judgements about other countries because many of them are well-travelled.

The fact of the matter, however, is that when you go overseas you are given a tailored experience. You don’t go there to look at all the bad things. No. You’re going to see everything bright and happy; the tourist attractions.

You need to be more attuned to a country to become aware of its problems. And they don’t become a reality until you live there for a few years.

Because of this tourists leave a country, very aware of its material virtues, but even if they are aware of the flaws, these shortcomings do not personally affect them, and they will be inclined to downplay them.

An American tourist can come to South Africa, stay in a 5-star game lodge in Kruger National Park, and think ‘Wow, what a great country this is’. He doesn’t go and see the townships. He doesn’t see the government schools. He doesn’t discuss the reality with locals.

Every country has major problems if you look hard enough. Consider Italy. That’s a great country, right? Right!?

Not particularly, if you look a bit deeper:

Every time someone sneezes it seems they have a new government. They have had one government last the full five years – since 1945! Not to mention their economic recession and rapidly ageing population. And bloated justice system, and horrid corruption (guess what, it isn’t a South African thing! Who would have thought?). Oh yes, and their culturally poor treatment of women. And the North-South divide, a source of great emnity. Let’s not forget widespread organized crime.

In comparing South Africa to these supposed paradises we only accentuate our shortcomings. But the comparison is unfair, and should stop being made. South Africa is a pretty good country all things considered.

I have shown how naturally we form idyllic views of other countries, and how this impacts our perception of South Africa when we compare them. Paradise is something we project onto other countries because of ignorance. It doesn’t exist, sorry to say.

(Not to mention that comparing ourselves to European countries, who exploited South Africa for their own gain, is quiet unfair. They had different histories, and any comparison between the two is flawed without first understanding the past).

It’s easier to blame the government than work

Often people do not accomplish as much as they would have liked to. In my experience, they often resort to blaming the government, simply because it is easier than blaming themselves.

Studying medicine

Many of my peers use the notoriously competitive medical programs as an example of how you cannot get a job, even if you work hard. They blame the BEE policy for this difficulty.

But I want to contest this claim. Sure, one of your cousins got a 92% and didn’t get into medical school. It happens. It sucks. But it doesn’t prove that its impossible to get a job. I would like to point out a few things here:

  1. 13.6%-19% of medical students are Indian/Asian, despite them making up 2.5% of the population. Objectively, they have an unfair advantage.
  2. The average mark of Black Students in WITS is 42.34 compared to the 45.61 of Indian students. The difference is not that great.
  3. A child from a township school getting a 70% is just as impressive, if not more, than a privileged private school student getting a 90%. A university looking for top performers is going to favour the township student, because his mark (despite being lower) demonstrates the qualities they want.
  4. The quota system is needed, to an extent. Certainly it can be tweaked, maybe lessened. But it is necessary if we want to balance out our inequality and maintain our democracy.
  5. There are usually other circumstances surrounding cases like these. Marks aren’t the only thing they look at (for example 25% of Stellenbosch’s requirements for medicine are based on non-academic achievements).
  6. Medical school is a really tough program. South Africa’s is more difficult than other countries, sure. But the fact remains: you’re going to have to give it all you’ve got.
  7. High marks get you automatic offers. Consider UCT: you need 880 points for a guaranteed entry into the medical program. This means scoring a 90% for Grade 11, a 90% for NBT’s, and a mere 60 out of 100 for your letter of motivation.

Just a quick note: I am not saying that black students are not (often unfairly) advantaged. BEE has quite a few problems. But we tend to overemphasise it’s effect. White and Indian students can compete.

What I have found is that those who don’t work hard at school often point to these problems, in an attempt to pre-emptively justify their failures. It is an excuse for not doing the hard miles.

Much of the pessimism surrounding the country then stems from this simple fact: some people are lazy, and like to imagine that they would have succeeded if their circumstances were different (for example if BEE didn’t exist). This is usually not the case; they themselves are to blame.

Confirmation bias

We know there is a lot of corruption in the government.

But our perception is greatly exaggerated by another bias: the mind chooses to see that which confirms our opinions.

We tend to focus on the negative, and blame corruption (when it might be something out of the government’s control) because it confirms our opinions.

This is amplified by the media, which focuses on the negative (because fear sells), and often fails to highlight positive events.

It’s human nature. But we can attempt to counteract it; mitigate our opinions, and withhold hasty conclusions.

The simple fact is that your opinion of the country is inevitably and undeniably worse than the actual state of things.

I have shown that our overwhelming pessimism is largely a result of human bias and

I am not denying that there is cause for complaint. But these underlying biases result in an unreasonable and unfounded negativity that we must attempt to correct.

Why this is a problem

I see this pessimism as one of, if not the greatest problem South Africa faces.

We are a despondent nation, a country largely without hope. Without hope, there is no trust. Without trust, there is no investment. Without investment there is no growth, only stagnation and corruption. It is a vicious cycle.

People don’t want to build something meaningful here. They don’t want to create, to give back, afraid their investment will come to nought.

They only wait for the supposedly inevitable collapse, and do the best they can to prepare themselves for it, as individuals, not a country united.

Most of my grade’s A-class want to leave the country as soon as possible. These are wealthy, bright, hard-working individuals, all leaving the country. We cannot afford that.

As explained earlier, this negativity culminates in an almost inevitable racism (criticism of the country turns into criticism of it’s leaders, who, surprise, surprise, are mostly black, and so black leaders specifically begin to be associated with corruption). This alone makes it something we need to solve.

Lastly, this negativity is toxic and corrosive. It tears down, but doesn’t replace (an all too poignant reminder of the nature of our politics). This is elaborated on later.

I have shown how pessimism stagnates growth, breeds corruption and racism, drains the country’s skills, and tears down at our unity. If this isn’t a problem, I don’t know what is.

Why I’m still optimistic

In the following paragraphs I want to make a case for remaining optimistic, even if the government gives us little reason to do so, even if the country is a mess and beyond saving (which I don’t believe it is, but we’ll gloss over that). I sincerely believe it is in your, and the country’s, best interest to remain hopeful and supportive. Most of all, I would like to show you that the complaining and negativity is useless, detrimental to every single person involved; a weed we must relentlessly root out.

Discourse on the futility (and blatant idiocy) of complaining

Warning: You’re probably going to find this offensive. But it is something I have to say.

After braaing, complaining about the government seems to be South Africa’s favourite activity. It’s practically a national sport; everyone trying to ‘out-nag’ each other.

For many it’s turned into a habit; a mindless, cancerous habit that eats away at you, little by little.  

Don’t get me wrong, constructive criticism (and even destructive) is often needed. But that isn’t what this is. No. It’s whining. Simple as that. Like an 8-year old who wanted the red ice-cream, but got the blue (because the red was out of stock).

It’s impotent, and tired, complacent and toxic. The same things, over and over, day after day.

You’re not stopping corruption by complaining, do you think they care? You’re not preventing load shedding by complaining (it certainly isn’t going to dry the coal, cough cough). You’re not making the Springboks play better by complaining.

No, all you’re doing is demoralizing yourself and the country, bashing a team that works tirelessly to represent us.

So what do we accomplish by complaining? Nothing. Absolutely diddly squat. We complain because it’s a habit. We complain because it’s comforting; blaming others for our unhappiness, when it is in fact our own fault.

If you’ve ever been on Twitter, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Under every one of the president’s tweets (even the most inspiring) is an endless string of criticisms and complaints. They’ll look at a video of the President talking with a shop owner after the riots and say something idiotic like: ‘do you think this makes up for all the money you’ve stolen’, or ‘do something useful and stop load shedding.

But don’t think you’re not guilty of this as well. We all are. I do it too. Admit it, and try to be better. That’s all we can do.

I genuinely don’t understand why you’d want to be so negative all the time. You’re making yourself unhappy. You’re making people around you unhappy. You’re hurting the country. I genuinely don’t see the appeal.

That got very negative. But it had to be said. I hope you and I can now move on to better and brighter things.

The power of hope

Hope in the face of hopelessness | The Guardian Nigeria News - Nigeria and  World News — Sunday Magazine — The Guardian Nigeria News – Nigeria and  World News

Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies – Andy Dufresne (The Shawshank Redemption)

Hope is a powerful thing; that keeps people going in the most terrible conditions, that allows them to face prison despite being innocent (Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption), or to brave the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.

It uplifts our spirit, and carries us forward, despite adversity we may face. Hope is the seed of joy; something we would all do well to cultivate in ourselves.

My plea to you is this: have some hope. It doesn’t have to be realistic. It just has to be there.

Don’t expect everything to get better. But hope that it may:

Plan for the worst. But hope for the best.

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.

Reinhold Neibur

All we really have is hope, that we may plant the seed for a better South Africa for generations to come.

Stoicism, and making the most of it

Most people have little chance of leaving the country. Fate (or the hand of God) has placed you here, for better or for worse.

But whether it is better, or worse, is your decision. It all depends on the mindset you choose to cultivate, and the actions you choose to take.

The choice is simple: You can embrace the situation, making the most of your circumstances. Or, you can choose to complain about them, refusing to see the opportunity, and denying yourself happiness. I’ve certainly had harder decisions to make.

Since I’ve already descended into using cliches, here’s another: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade (or, if this escapes you, learn to like the taste of lemons).

Okay, let’s get a bit more philosophical here and leave behind lemon metaphors (however appropriate). Let’s discuss Stoicism:

We should always be asking ourselves: “Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?”

Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.

If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now

If you decide that you cannot control the situation you’ve been placed in (South Africa), accept it. Don’t be dragged along, but embrace it. Take what South Africa has to offer, and stop lamenting for things it cannot give. Let fate lead you along; let your limitations shape you into something unique.

Your situation does not dictate your happiness. Your judgement and expectations do:

A wealthy person might be unhappy because they earned R80 000 in a month. But one less affluent would be overjoyed. The event has no inherent good or bad connotations. It depends on the judgement and the expectations of individuals.

You can choose to be content with you situation. You can choose to be glad that you are not worse off. It will be hard at first, but you can work at it, and change your mindset.

The realization is liberating. You are in control of your happiness. Not fate, not the politicians of the country, but you.

I highly recommend you check out my blog post on Taoism, an ancient Chinese school of thought that teaches us to live like water flows; accepting our limitations and constraints.

The hedonic treadmill

In 1978 a study (Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman) compared the happiness of two groups: victims of paralysis and lottery-winners. While short-term spikes were observed, in the long-term both groups’ happiness balanced out. They were more or less even. Why?

This is because of a phenomenon called the hedonic treadmill, which countless studies have been conducted on.

The basic premise is that we’re on a happiness treadmill, never moving forward; as our circumstances improve, so do our expectations of life, and we’re left where we started.

It is likely possible to ‘step-off’ the treadmill, but this cannot be accomplished by changing by our external environment. The generally accepted (but probably inaccurate) estimate is that 50% of our happiness is genetics, 10% is circumstances and 40% is due to your attitude.

So how do we change our happiness then? Research suggests a habit of gratefulness, meditation, a positive attitude, spiritual practices and increasing the effort you put into relationships.

The science then points us to this conclusion: that through a change in our mindset we may shift our ‘happiness set-point’ over time, even significantly, but that a significant change in your external environment will not raise happiness over time.

Moving to another country isn’t going to solve your problems. But finding happiness in your current circumstances can. 

I want to make a difference

There are no great men. There are only great challenges which ordinary men are forced by circumstances to meet. – Admiral William  Halsey

I want to make a difference in the world. I want to leave my mark. Fleeing adversity isn’t going to get me anywhere. Conquering adversity is.  

South Africa presents an opportunity. It is a land with many problems, all waiting for solutions, for people to rise up and meet the odds.

In Australia there are thousands of great doctors. You’re just another unit there. But in South Africa, in public hospitals, you, as one of the only experts there, have an opportunity: to make a real difference, to be indispensable, to save the lives of people with no other alternatives. You mean something. You are their last hope.

This applies to every field. Where everything is sunshine and roses, there is little opportunity for improvement, and therefore no room for greatness.

You can choose to be great, to face up the problems of the country. Or you can flee them.

Personal growth

Do what is easy and your life will be hard. Do what is hard and your life will become easy. – Les Brown

In South Africa I face many challenges. I am forced to work harder, to be better, to push myself.

I might struggle to enter competitive university programs. But struggle is the seed of growth. Only through struggle will I grow as an individual.

Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors – an African proverb

Responsibility, and the social contract

In Plato’s dialogue ‘Crito’ Socrates finds himself imprisoned unfairly. His peers urge him to escape, saying that since he was put in prison unjustly, he has the moral right to do so.

But Socrates disagrees: By undermining the laws of the state, he weakens it. This is the state that facilitated his birth, nurtured him from a young age, made available to him all its resources, and protected him from injustice.

This is the first mention of a social contract; that by accepting the resources of the state we now have a responsibility towards it.

Leaving the country breaks no law, but it does undermine South Africa.

I am privileged. The country has invested so much in me. If I am to leave the country, it’s resources would have been wasted.

Certainly a life overseas might be easier. But where is your honour? Do we not all have a duty towards this country, that raised us, and shaped us into the people we are today. Or would you slink away, like a thief in the night, taking what the country (impoverished and beaten down as it is) has to offer and leaving with it.

Yes, it might be naïve, impractical and quixotic. But it is noble as well. I am a (young) man of principles, and giving back what I receive is certainly one of them.

I feel a responsibility towards the country, born out of honour, but also love for the country that raised me.

Privilege

I feel I am almost obliged to remain positive because of my privilege. Let me explain:

My peers (many very wealthy) like to complain about the typical problems of the country; unemployment, inequality, poverty, healthcare etc.

But what gives them the right to complain about inequality, when they are the ones that benefit from it? (I must once again make this distinction: there is a difference between the ‘whining’I am referring to, and complaining to raise awareness, or constructive criticism). How can they moan about how bad public education and healthcare is, when they can afford private schooling and private hospitals.

What right do we have to complain about things that do not directly affect us? None. But yet we continue.

Not just another third-world country

Much of South Africa is a decidedly third-world. But again, much of it isn’t. What separates us is a strong industrial economy, a lot of formal employment and a wealthy middle class. Other African countries simply do not have this.

We could all use a reminder of the good things the country has to offer, and stop focusing on the bad ones. So here’s a short summary:

First of all, space. My living room is as big as most peoples houses in the UK, but my entire home likely costs a lot less. I have a massive, and beautiful, garden and a veritable forest for a backyard. We don’t live in little boxes stacked next to each other. That’s a positive if you ask me.

Great education. Before you laugh, let me explain: If I lived overseas I would have to attend a public school (since private schools are extremely expensive). Instead, I have the luxury of attending a Model-C school, something quite unique to South Africa. Public schools abroad are generally not great.

South Africa has an unrivalled selection of wildlife. We have the third highest biodiversity in the world, despite occupying a tiny fraction of it. Everywhere I go, I am surrounded by nature. There are few countries quite like us.

I don’t fancy being cooped up in my little box for half the year. I’d quickly get tired of: “Oh look, its snowing. Guess we’re stuck inside. Again”. We have a pretty great climate if you think about it.

I know, there’s always something to complain about in South Africa; always some scandal, a catastrophe, a terrible story. But we don’t have to let these bad things define our lives. We can acknowledge them and move on, choosing to focus on our blessings. South Africa is a beautiful country. Stop complaining and enjoy it once in a while.

An essential part of moving forward is letting go of the widespread, overwhelming and cancerous negativity the past decade has brought on. It doesn’t mean expecting everything to be all sunshine and daisies, but it does mean kindling hope in some deep recess of your heart. We must each tend to this little flame of hope, shielding it from the cold winds of negativity and complaint. And one day it may grow into a great bonfire, one that warms and enriches your life, and reinvigorates the country. This is something we must work on every single day.

This blog post has hopefully convinced you of this:

  1. South Africa’s overpowering negativity is largely based on biases we must seek to correct.
  2. Pessimism itself is a root of many of our problems, that creates a vicious cycle which we may only escape through hope. Negativity is our country’s greatest problem, that is preventing us from moving forwards.  
  3. Hope doesn’t have to be naïve; it has very real benefits for you, and you can still expect, and plan for, the worst. It is a delicate mindset, but one worth cultivating. Even if the country is beyond saving (which I highly dispute) it is still in your best interest to have hope. Think about that for a moment.
  4. The alternative to hope, total negativity, has no real impact, other than making you miserable. In fact, it is rather more impractical than hope.
  5. Only be embracing your situation, making the most of it, will you grow as a person, and achieve greatness.
  6. (especially if you have read my other blog post) That South Africa’s condition is perhaps not as dire as we think; there is still opportunity to make something of it.

The take-home message is this: You can remain negative about the country. But please, stop focusing on it so much, and stop advertising it to everyone. Stop to appreciate the good once in a while, and if this blog post has not incentivized you to have a little hope, maybe the beauty and latent potential of our country will.

This is all I ask.  


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Brian Scoles
1 month ago

Louis,

This was a truly outstanding post. There is much that I could say in response, but my time is limited and so I will make four points.

1) My knowledge of South Africa is minimal. My reading regarding your homeland consists of Paton’s novel and a biography of Nelson Mandela. This being said, I thought that your analysis was well-reason and articulated. In addition, your appeal to optimism, duty, and perseverance was both heart-felt and eloquent.

2a) Your post brings to mind the American theologian/ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr founded what is called the Christian realist school of political ethics. Here is a link to a New York Times essay that provides a very good overview of his approach:

https://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/18/books/review/forgetting-reinhold-niebuhr.html

2b) Two books that sum up Niebuhr’s approach are:

  • Moral Man and Immoral Society
  • Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.

2c) As I think about your post, two quotes from Niebuhr come to mind:

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  

Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. 

Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. 

No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

This quote comes from his book, The Irony of American History.

It is the sad duty of politics to establish justice in a sinful world.

Here we see Niebuhr’s Christian realism condensed to its essence. The pursuit of justice is never-ending in the here and now, this due to sin, both at the personal and the systematic level.

3) Your post makes me think of my own beloved land. Many Americans are deeply disturbed by the state of our nation right now, and for good reason, myself included. Sometimes it feels like the U.S. is coming apart at the seems. Meanwhile, I continue to be grateful for the wisdom of America’s founding fathers who devised our cumbersome federal system with dispersed power and many other checks and balances built in.

4) Your post also has me thinking of something that Martin Luther said:

Send your good men into the ministry; send your best into government.

4a) Once again, I am deeply impressed by this post. Have you ever given any thought to pursuing to career in civil service?

Sincerely,
Brian