The interested social investor

We’re living at a time pleasant in its emphasis on societal wellbeing and on everyone “mucking in” for the common good. Well, not everyone, but lots of people, either through their churches or in voluntary work in community organisations, NGOs, and that sort of thing. The luckiest of people wanting to “save the world” or at least improve it are, you might think, to be found doling out cash on behalf of companies, philanthropic foundations, or governments.

But to do that properly is, I suggest, something that needs a certain set of skills that are often lacking in South Africa. Specifically, it requires people who are interesting, and interested in humanity in all its nuance. This quality is far more important than any training or experience in theories of educational change, or “best practice” systems management, or being au fait with the latest thinking in working with orphan-headed households.Good as those things may be, they are easily learned.

The good social investor is pretty rare in understanding a basic but complex thing: that people/societies muddling along en masse are straightaway interesting and that pretty much everything revolves around their freedom and dignity. They don’t go for the comfort of the prejudice and pre-cooked answer. That makes them inquisitive – another rarity. It’s a good time to be curious, I should think, for people willing to be excited, unsettled, intrigued by the facts and consequences of pretty rapid change .

Basically, it seems to me that, in the main, people tend to try to the achievement side of where they find themselves – whether in love, parenting, work, jolling. When looking at South Africa, simple “sunny side up” or “doomsday’s coming” approaches aren’t simply false – nearly always – but boring for their shallow anti-people disrespect and dishonesty – and thus limiting and distorting “insight”.

Wherever I’ve found myself in so-called “specialist” social investment areas, I couldn’t but notice that many black colleagues had little grounding and thus interest in global history, or SA history before apartheid, as though we’re all now afloat without foundation and without anchors to reassurance and meaningful myths.

Worse, given the work, many whites above about 23 years old seemed curiously settled in their convictions about self, country, others, culture, and basic expectations. It’s not that senior white colleagues seemed to be out of kilter when in townships or the like – they often struck me as blissfully out of touch right at home base, the office, and happy in their ignorance of this. From top down, socio-economic-political interest in our changing society there was little, and even less of any depth.

Now I can’t be totally sure, but I imagine that to be black in SA is, pretty often, to be spoken past or through, even without injury being overtly intended. That annoying Claudia Browde from Wits a few years back may well have been onto something with her theory of “subliminal racism”, even if she ended up a tool of others.

Does any of that matter? Of course, but not as game-changers. It strikes me that South African blacks and whites are basically humorous and steady and I think their pop culture is bringing them closer to each other in ways that will be profound in a decade and two.

The game-changers are in whether we succeed in the obvious economic and political ways, and whether we do so in celebration of the worthy, clear, choice-driven achievements of black South Africans and in witness of a restoration of black self-esteem. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this restoration – one that today has obvious political signs and less overt but critical cultural and popular fashion expression and that is seen in everyday on-the-street interaction. It is the steady and varied erosion of minority rule’s obvious, deep core, sometimes poisonously effective idea – that blacks are stupid – too stupid even to have the key say over their lives.

Even before ideas of how to better society, the social investor worthy of the name should be interested in South Africa’s various post-apartheid achievements across society, and indeed across all races. The facts is that South Africa is allowing herself the chance to willy-nilly pull off a sophisticated success and to lay the foundation for much more still. Yet these achievements, across income, housing, electrification, basic education, health, and more, are poo-poohed or simply ignored by some people whose job it should be to keep tabs on how we are progressing, or otherwise, as a people. In part this is a consequence of not paying attention to socio-economic trends, or being so much in the silo of CSI and its equivalents as to miss a bigger picture of quite rapid change for the better. That obviously results in not adapting strategies to make the most of new trends in ways that hurry the best of them along – a series of lost opportunities. But that isn’t all that is wrong with operating in basic ignorance of the whole.

For the cumulative effect of mindlessly repeated attacks on the idea that measurable progress is happening, even when it is; along with uninformed sneers that are blindly blanket, is to once again “talk past and through” South Africa’s greatest victory and the foundation of all hope: the restoration of dignity by and of black South Africans these 20 years. These attacks and sneers have no racial preserve – they sit comfortably across the chattering classes.

We’ll never build a good South African future without a healthy sense of self. But building self-esteem can’t be given – it can only be deservedly earned to be believed. Which is why ignoring achievements that are legitimately immense and to ignore trends to goodness on all sorts of societal spheres – personal, private, communal, state – isn’t just to despair to darkness in our future – it is to will the future to fail. For why bother building a society or business or school or whatever with someone who has no interest in factual truth, but is dogged in assumptions based on your being a sure failure as a man?

As with individuals, so with societies and their constituents. That’s why telling the bigger picture truth matters – and isn’t it amazing how it always does? Anyway, constantly writing off a country self-evidently full of South Africans is boring and unconvincing.

We work hard. We also tend, right across race and income, to be polite and kind, religious and relaxed in purpose. And let’s not forget that the savvy little ones will grow up and insist on building a place of excellence in the world. Being well aware of how this is coming to be is to allow oneself to work to best possible outcomes using the resources to hand. It is to be interested, and so to do things that are effective, and interesting.

Paul Pereira