Intentions vs Reality: South African Edition
Most South Africans grow up without an innate sense of malice. The genuine, intentional urge to do harm to things and people is not normally there. At least, not in my experience with virtually anyone I have interacted with. So why then do so many of us end up doing so much wrong? We grow up learning not to litter, because it will destroy the environment, not to pollute, nor to be selfish, nor unkind nor violent nor disruptive, and yet that’s precisely what we end up doing when we grow up. At some point we reach the stage of remembering not to litter, but forgetting about the lives we harm through our professional actions.
As kids we grow up in SA with the wildest dreams of becoming pilots and doctors, marine biologists and actors, the most incredible careers we can imagine, and nary a thought that this might be slightly impossible. Somewhere along the line, perhaps high school, perhaps university, perhaps from the parents, we feel this implicit (or otherwise!) pressure to become something purposeful. Someone who will earn a salary, pay taxes, and generally be a responsible human being. Somewhere along the line caring about what we do begins to matter less than simply doing anything, as long as it checks the financial boxes.
In South Africa having any career is a major privilege. When virtually half the country is jobless having any career or job is a blessing, we are told, regardless of the profession. And yet, what kind of moral conscioussness are we breeding as a nationality if this is the mentality? Is anything permissable, as long as you are providing for you and yours? Does that justify the work you do irrespecive of the collateral damage it might create? I think some caution is worthwhile here, even when unemployment is rife and the country is on the border of a catastrophic societal rupture.
I’m sure most kids who are lucky enough to go to university, and even luckier to study law, don’t start intending to do bad. It’s likely a mixture of optimism at defending the weak and downtrodden against monolithic, unfeeling corporations. Or perhaps a desire to influence the structures of justice. Working in the tunnels of the judiciary on Constitution Hill, figuring out how the most important questions of our legal history are dealt with. But the god-awful reality is that all but the most stubborn end up on the other side. The side of the firms who don’t represent the common good unless they absolutely must because pro bono work is enforced. Most of those doe-eyed kids setting out to be rocket scientists and opera singers wind up somewhere on the spectrum between marketeer-peon selling pretty ads for satellite television and chief advocate for the panel of the evil, determining how best to legally disenfranchise entire demographics. This is not a condemnation mind you, it’s just the reality of South African jobs. We cannot afford to be too picky because of the simple fact that there isn’t a market for everyone to be environmental warriors and free-willed poets, scribing truths upon our souls much like Camus did so many years back.
So we chalk it up to experience. It’s a learning phase. After this, we’ll retreat to the morally-clean, consequence-free halls of academia, opting to write non-consequential papers on non-consequential phenomena that have virtually zero impact on the collosal evil being performed outside, unwittingly or nay. And perhaps after this we’ll descend into the arena of the professionals, preaching the morally-good way as if it’s an available path for all and sundry, when the reality is only a tiny minority of the minority have this path available, while the rest of us must content ourselves with watching the world burn, except with a good bottle of merlot at our sides.
So who do we blame for this hot mess? The government? There are bad governments around the world, and even in the most angelic of state systems there is a ripe pool of moral pitch to be thrown about. Are we to blame our society, for their insistence that doing any job is ok, as long as you’re providing? I suppose the latter is ok, since I presume few people would choose a hungry belly and cold back over a steady income and roof over their head. When do we get to be a truly morally-conscious people? Is it after everyone is provided for, or is it when we have sunk so far into the acceptable that any consideration for justice, for peace, and for those opaque and fuzzy aspects of developed society we sortakinda aspire to is good enough.
This website has engaged in many discussions over the past two years over what is good and what is bad. From the government to the police to the common citizen. The distinction between what we can accept as ‘good’ and what we condemn is generally clear, even while we work so very hard in our professions to erode those very pedestals we exalt. Ignoring the softer shades of hypocrisy is palatable for the simple reason that we are chasing dragons of moral decay so large as to overshadow the little sins we commit. And yet, looking at the individuals committing these clear and present atrocities, they appear in education and bearing to be just older, better-tailored versions of ourselves. At what point exactly is that line in the sand where we travel from the smaller transgressions to the truly damnable? I for one would like to know, just in case I crossed it already.