Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cultural Bias

Recently, I read an article about white poverty in South Africa. Yes, it exists, and, as one friend said, "It is the saddest form of poverty." While many blacks are accustomed to being poor, the experience is new to some whites.

The article explained that as the South African economy boomed in the early twentieth-century, white poverty became a problem for the white capitalist elite. They feared poor whites would band with their black socio-economic peers to disrupt the capitalist agenda. Apartheid was then introduced as a way to eliminate the rise of communism, particularly in the white community. During apartheid, the government essentially became an employment agency for white people. At its height, the apartheid government employed 40% of white adult males. These men frequently had little skill and were unemployable in other sectors of the economy. Also, the economy's growth was limited by the relatively small number of people who sought employment outside the government.

Of course, when the apartheid regime came to an end, so did many of the perks of being a white, particularly Afrikaner, male. The presence of white men in government has declined drastically in the last fifteen years. Those who thought they had jobs for life suddenly have no jobs at all. Black economic empowerment programs aren't exactly helping white men find jobs either, regardless of skill or lack thereof. While whites qualify for the same welfare programs as black, they sometimes suffer a dramatic reducation in circumstance, moving from their comfortable homes into dirty, cramped caravan parks.

It was at one caravan park, in Klerksdorp, where photos accompanying the article were taken. Most were of the usual, generic and sympathic variety. An old man, sitting on the ground outside his tent, having a smoke and staring into middle distance. Young children, clothing tattered and dirty, playing in the mud. A middle-aged woman, cooking a paltry meal on a single hot plate. The final photograph, however, missed its mark entirely. It showed four girls, arm in arm, happily skipping to school in tidy green school uniforms. They were barefoot, which the caption did not fail to point out.

I'm going to assume, dear reader, that you are American. Coming as you do from a place where "No Shoes, No Service" signs are almost as ubiquitous as the shops and restaurants they occupy, you may be thinking, "No shoes! How shocking! How sad!" If so, you have never been to South Africa.

Shoes are the merest suggestion here, particularly among the Afrikaner population. People don't wear shoes at home, they don't wear them walking down the street, they don't wear them going to the store, they just don't wear them. Young, old, rich, poor, shoes in South Africa are optional. In fact, straight from an Afrikaner's mouth, church is the only place where shoes are required.

So unless those girls were headed to church all dressed up in their school uniforms, the presence of shoes is a poor indicator of poverty.

Lesson: The norms of your home country are not universal. Think critically, not conventionally. The conventional wisdom frequently does not apply.

This lesson was brought to you by a journalist of dubious quality whose name I can no longer remember, but Google can probably find.

Finally, the weather... Loopeng is interesting. It's hot whenever the sun is out. The difference is when it's not. During the summer, nights and early mornings are still pretty hot, but during the winter the temperatures drop into the forties. We're not there yet, but I've adjusted too well to the heat and anything below eighty calls for a sweater to me.


  1. Great history, economic and cultural lessons! Thanks, Kelsey!

  2. I found the article at http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2010/07/poverty_within_white_south_afr.html

    The Boston Globe site may require membership to open the file directly. If so, put 'poverty_within_white_south_afr.html' into your search engine and search for the document name. The resulting link probably will work.

    I looked at the photos with your comment about shoes in mind, Kelsey, and found that older people generally were more likely to be wearing shoes than children, but that lots of barefooted-ness was evident in the photos, if one knew to look.

    This situation is eerily similar to that of the Soviet middle class after 1989. From the end of the USSR until roughly the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, economic, financial, social, political readjustments left many previously состоятельный (financially well-situated) people with their family garden plots standing between them and real hunger. When we visited Russia in 2000, a teacher was paid about $35 per month. Pensioners received more like $20 per month. Bread cost about $0.15 per 1 lb. loaf, but that was a huge increase from the price of bread under the Soviets (4x?). The cost of manufactured goods went through the roof when the Russians devalued their currency in the late 1990's. This had one good effect: the design and manufacturing concerns that had been put [almost] out of business when the exchange rate artificially favored the ruble regained the opportunity to earn market share. It took a while for all of this to settle out.

    I haven't been in Russia for nearly 3 years, so have not got recent observations to report. Our kids, Natasha, Tanya, Masha, Nina, et al., are doing well, which is a hopeful sign.

    The photos also remind me of the pictures of the Okies during the Dust Bowl, and of my Piney relatives during my childhood. The conditions do not look that awful to me: it's the loss of security, status, expectation, etc., that seems more problematic. And lack of medical care? Probably.


    Thanks, Kelsey!