Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Fire Power

One of the consequences of growing up in Apartheid South Africa was that I wasn't often exposed to huge 'class differences'. I don't like the word class and was brought up by parents regularly enforcing ideas of equality. The people who weren't of similar economic standing (not much better)... The people who didn't have as much fire power, were in servant roles - Gardeners, domestic servants, cleaners, lolly-pop men (helping cross the road), petrol attendants (servicing cars and filling them up), shopping bag packers. Not the stories of opulent colonial living I had heard of elsewhere. There weren't butlers etc. but there were lots of people in 'under roles'. Life was comfortable, and the poverty was hidden over the hills.

There wasn't aggression in my bubble, and relationships were or seemed good. There was an overwhelming sense of order. Schools had school uniforms. Short back and sides haircuts. Teachers were greeted with 'Morning Sir' or 'Afternoon Maam'. Everyone was polite. The naughty boys were the ones who didn't polish their shoes or tuck their shirts in. Even the bullies tend to only threaten to hit people... they seldom did. Lots of bark, not much bite.

As Apartheid ended, and the school I was in (very) slowly transitioned, things didn't change that much. There were some culture clashes. I can remember a difference in noise levels causing problems. Imagine people having loud conversations in a London tube and you will get the idea. Mostly, there weren't 'class clashes'. The guys entering my school had to be able to afford it. School fees rose quickly and there was a constant conversation about 'maintaining academic standards'.

South Africa doesn't have any city with an established underground system. Johannesburg has recently gotten the 'Gautrain' which connects the airport to the city, but the ticket prices still keep it segregated. The taxis and buses were (and are) not something my bubble are power users of. So what ends up happening is you drive from place to place, again with fairly limited exposure to people with different means, who aren't servants. I was told about gerrymandered districts in the US which look like barbells, the two ends connected by a highway, allowing people who agree with each other to drive from bubble to bubble. The same effectively exists where you drive from home, to work, to friends or to your watering hole of choice. Apartheid doesn't need laws, it needs cars.

My first real exposure to class issues actually came from living in the UK. The idea that there are people with very real differences in financial and social fire power, living right next to each other. Walking next to each other. On the same public transport. There is more visceral interaction between people who aren't in service roles. There is also more aggression. Those social clashes that get spoken about in South Africa are very real elsewhere in the world, and in many cases that I have been involved in are very raw.

I hesitate to say this, because I find it an embarrassing feeling. But I feel it. So here it is. One of the consequences of the massive poverty in South Africa is that the quality of beggars and 'do it yourself' workers is higher. By 'do it yourself', I mean the kind of job for job's sake work you don't get elsewhere. In South Africa, there are lots of car guards. People who watch your car for you while you are away. People who put petrol in for you. These are jobs that aren't, or shouldn't be, necessary... but with >25% unemployment, they get done. Quite often a conversation with a car guard will lead to the discovery that the person is an Engineer, Doctor, or teacher. Sometimes from the Congo or other war torn areas. Beggars are often sober, well educated, and desperate.

As I travel, all of the wealthy countries I have been to still have issues with homelessness and people with mental health challenges. On average, I feel far less comfortable around these down and out people than in South Africa. In South Africa, while there are still people who have the substance and other issues, there are more 'but for the roll of the dice, there goes me' people.

Here in Seattle, I counted about 15 absolutely hammered people on the street the other day that I walked past. Admittedly I walked about 20km, so most people wouldn't see as many as that in any given day. I have had friends as drunk as that. I have been as drunk as that. Not knowing where limbs are going. The star of a one man show. The difference is, my friends and I tended to wake up the next day with a 'I am never again in my life drinking' epiphany and crack on with life. There is more permanence to this checking out of life. There were similar issues in Chicago. I wrote about the experience I had in Edinburgh. When I lived in Bermuda for a while, they also had their challenges. 

It stands in stark contrast to other scenes. Walking past the University of Washington with their banners saying 'who we are is why we win', I wanted to go back to formal studies. A beautiful campus with students in libraries, or gyms, or coffee shops, or sitting in parks reading. Students live notoriously simply, but lots of people looking back on student days as some of the best of their lives.

South Africa shows that you need some of the basic financial fire power to crack on with your potential. Some of the wealthy countries in the world show that fire power is not enough. There are some deeper, tougher issues we need to wrap our heads and hearts around.
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