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?

Order Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton [click image for more]
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.