Young Academic Opinion Piece: Addressing Black African Poverty in South Africa

As the UK’s national student newspaper, Young Academic is only too aware that the professionals of today and tomorrow need to be heard. Whether it be student news, international news or even an entertainment issue we want to hear your opinions. This fantastic opinion piece from one of our correspondents in the UAE outlines many of the problems that exist in South Africa which result in shocking poverty…

Rural poverty – which will be taken to refer to the general impoverishment of black Africans, be it in rural areas or informal settlements, such as those on the outskirts of cities – has persisted as an affliction faced by the majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with rural poverty acting as a weight that has hampered the development effort of most of sub-Saharan Africa. Rural poverty has invariably led to the proliferation of feelings such as hopelessness and indifference among those afflicted by it, which has often been accompanied by a Weltanschauung – or world view – which is not conducive to development by virtue of it being afflicted by, inter alia, vices such as greed, laziness, lack of communal and social responsibility, and indifference to the feelings of others – as manifested by widespread corruption. Development models such as the Institutional Reform Model, the Constitutional Politics Model, the Power-Sharing Model, and the State Deconstruction Model have all failed to deliver sub-Saharan Africa from rural poverty due to their disregard of the feelings, or emotions, and attitudes of the populace. Stated succinctly, rural poverty has been an affliction that has been the chief bane of most of sub-Saharan Africa and especially South Africa. A number of social ills within sub-Saharan Africa, arguably, stem from it.

Before attempting an analysis, it is necessary to understand how South Korea eradicated rural poverty. Countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan managed to free themselves from rural poverty despite being on relatively equal terms with sub-Saharan Africa in the 1950’s. South Korea did so, despite the devastation of the Korean War, through the adoption of rural village programmes. South Korea initiated Saemaul Undong (새마을 운동), or the ‘New Community Movement’, in the 1970’s while a similar idea, the ‘One Village, One Product’ Movement, has been conceived of in Japan. South Korea’s Saemaul Undong was particularly successful considering the context within which it occurred. Before the initiation of Saemaul Undong by the Park Chung-hee regime, South Korea, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, was ravaged by rural poverty, and, with the majority of the national population at the time being based in farming houses, the effect of rural poverty was huge. The inequality between urban and rural areas caused by rural poverty led to the possibility of urban areas becoming increasingly unstable as much of the rural population swarmed to urban areas. Natural resources could not deliver South Korea from rural poverty, since South Korea is not abundant in natural resources, and neither could the government of the time, since South Korea was a relatively destitute country at the time and with foreign aid not being sufficient. Naturally the rural population suffered from feelings such as hopelessness and indifference. South Korea could only free itself from rural poverty through the awakening and participation of its population, and specifically the rural population; and the government of the time, led by Park Chung-hee, realised this, and subsequently initiated Saemaul Undong, with the hope of inspiring the rural population and thereby to facilitate self-sustained progress within rural communities.

Saemaul Undong emphasised values such as (1) diligence, which it contended would lead to sincerity and the awakening of a pioneer spirit, or the awakening of a strong will; (2) self-help, which it held would awaken a sense of responsibility, and communal, and social, responsibility by extension; and, (3) cooperation, which it posited would lead to dispositions toward unity and efficiency being awakened. The primary objectives were infrastructure building, spiritual enlightenment and social interaction, the improvement of living standards, and income increase. A type of holistic education was hence emphasised.

The Park Chung-hee regime divided the project into three phases, with simple projects being given to villages in the first phase and with a village chief being nominated and projects being pushed through general meetings of villagers, with distribution to individual households being banned – resources were communally owned. Essentially, villages were provided with various incentives to succeed, both communal and individual. Villages that performed well in the first phase were awarded with progressively more ambitious projects and greater resources. Government inspectors regularly visited villages in order to monitor progress. Projects were primarily divided into environment, income increasing, productivity enhancement, and cultural projects. Factories, schools, libraries, and various community facilities, inter alia, were constructed. As villages advanced, inter-village cooperation became necessary. By the conclusion of the project, rural poverty was almost completely eradicated, with the vast majority of villages moving from dependent, to semi-dependent, to virtually autonomous, or self-help, villages.

To be succinct, during the Saemaul Undong programme the South Korean government assisted rural villages in development efforts by appointing a village leader, giving limited supplies and aid – both material and technical – and by doing regular investigation of progress at villages. The South Korean government, furthermore, provided huge incentives for the village leader and the villagers to perform well. Moreover, if a village was not making progress, aid would simply be cut. Rural poverty was subsequently eradicated in South Korea with rapid development occurring throughout. Importantly, this might be explained as being possible due to the relative homogenous societies of these countries as well as their deeply-embedded cultures of education and learning. However, these factors are not the only factors to consider and can be potentially bypassed.

Saemaul Undong managed to be so successful because the emotions and attitudes of the people were understood and transformed at a grassroots level, through the direct involvement and participation of the impoverished. And, this is where the problem lies, traditionally the African National Congress (ANC) has adopted a top down framework, with programmes such as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) and policies such as GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) due to, inter alia, lack of capacity to implement. Although one of RDP’s principles is that it should be people-driven, in the sense of an active citizenry, this seems to have not been the case, likely due to the ANC’s arguably majoritarian understanding of democracy.

Significantly, Saemaul Undong – a primarily bottom up approach – does not require the implementation capacity that RDP does, with government merely needing to supply resources and expertise, supplemented by regular inspections. Additionally, it is based on the realisation that development cannot be facilitated by simply adopting a constitution and creating new laws and by simply building houses for the populace without any real involvement of the community. By extension, it is based on the realisation that country’s social ills cannot be merely drafted away by the legislature.

It should be realised the under apartheid the family structure of black African families was, in general, broken, and that a number of social ills stem from this. An approach hence needs to be adopted that allows for the re-construction of such family structures, through the construction of healthy and functional communities. The ANC would do well to consider the philosophy of Saemaul Undong if it desires to do so. If it truly wishes to eradicate rural poverty, it should adopt a modified Saemaul Undong-like approach which directly involves the community. The flaw that the conventional development models, as highlighted previously, contain is hence not only a lack of emphasis on feelings, or emotions, and attitudes, but also a lack of regard for the constructive role that something such as the notion of the Polis, or city-state, perhaps in an adapted manifestation, as in the case of Saemaul Undong, could play.

To understand why Saemaul Undong was so successful, an Aristotelian reading of it might be proposed. The logic of the transformative process of Saemaul Undong can perhaps be best understood via the adoption of an Aristotelian vocabulary, as read by preeminent political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, particularly Aristotle’s virtue ethics, teleology, and understanding of the Polis. The adoption of an Aristotelian vocabulary, in other words, can allow for an understanding of how Saemaul Undong managed to transform those who participated. It is recognised, however, that not all aspects of Aristotle’s ethics and politics will conform to the logic of the transformative process of Saemaul Undong, with the emphasis rather being placed on specific aspects of Aristotle’s ethics and politics.

Aristotle’s virtue ethics is essentially concerned with the cultivation of character. Aristotle argued that there are certain excellences, or virtues – or Arête – which pertain to the practice of being a human. Aristotle argued that humans, like all other things that constitute the Cosmos, have a certain potentiality and that in order to fulfil this potentiality humans need to achieve Eudaimonia – the state of having reached a type of non-subjective non-pleasure-based happiness defined by moral, prudential, and intellectual excellence and other virtues that are a mixture of the aforementioned, such as moral courage – which requires habituation. Aristotle argued that the virtuous character, the character which has achieved Eudaimonia, is defined by attitudes such as empathy and compassion, forgiveness and understanding, temperance and moderation, self-respect, and remorse – and all other attitudes and emotions associated with the golden mean. It is important to note that Aristotle’s notion of potentiality is based on freedom and participation in the Agora life, which implies that only those who are free can achieve Eudaimonia, and through this achievement conform to the Aristotelian notion of Megalopsychos, or the ‘great-souled man’, the archetype of goodness and virtue.

Aristotle furthermore held that, like humans, the Polis has an intrinsic potentiality and the ability of humans to fulfil their own potentiality is directly correlated to the achievement of the potentiality of the Polis, which is dependent on the degree of the achievement of justice, or Dike, which is dependent on a life centred on the Agora and the spirit which it encapsulates, that of deliberation, which implies an effort to facilitate mutual understanding and the advancement of mutual understanding, such as in the Gadamerian dialectic. Notably, Aristotle’s Polis plays a significant role in combating Akrasia, or the weakness of will, among the population, and, instead, fosters temperance, or self-mastery – notably, this belief runs contrary to the notion held by Plato that Akrasia cannot exist.

Saemaul Undong can be understood as being a reflection of the emphasis that Aristotle placed on the Polis and the potential of the Polis to habituate a virtuous character within its members. The villages that were involved in Saemaul Undong acted in a very similar way to the way in which the Polis, as envisioned by Aristotle, acted in habituating a virtuous character within the rural population, primarily through the transformation of the attitudes and emotions of the rural population. Saemaul Undong inserted, inter alia, emotions and attitudes such as hope, courage, diligence, compassion, and camaraderie and feelings of communal, and social, responsibility within the rural population. Through participation in communal activities – something which was emphasised – the existence of a something akin to the Agora in the sense of the general meeting hall, general meetings, and communal facilities, the villagers of successful villages could, through development towards Eudaimonia in the sense of developing the following: (1) courage and values which act as the conditions for courage, such as persistence, integrity, vitality, and bravery; (2) wisdom and knowledge, and, by extension, creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love or learning, perspective; (3) humanity, and, by extension, love, kindness, and social intelligence; (4) temperance, and by extension notions such as forgiveness and mercy, humility and modesty, prudence, and self-regulation; (5) transcendence, and by extension, an appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humour, and spirituality; and, finally, a sense of (6) justice, and via this an understanding of fairness, what citizenship means and requires, such as active participation, and the qualities of good leadership. Villages, moreover, played an important role in (1) combating Akrasia – the majority of villagers understood what kind of life they should live even before the introduction of Saemaul Undong due to the massive influence Confucianism had on the Korean peninsula, but lacked the will to live this kind of life – and also in (2) instilling and reinforcing a communal identity, something which is essential if something akin to the Polis life, and the benefits thereof, is to be enabled, and in (3) providing villagers with practical skills, a process which both allowed for character development and economic progress – and through this dual process allowed for the development of a character among villagers that understood the position of the Oikos, or household, and the necessity of thoughtful consideration in regard to its welfare, and, hence, furthermore, the embracement of the concept of Phronesis, or practical wisdom, or practical philosophy, in both the micro-context of the household and also the macro-context of the village with the village chief acting as the Phronimos at a macro-context and the household head as the Phronimos in the micro-context.

Naturally the six aforementioned concepts are based on the understanding of a character which is attuned to its emotions, one which embraces the concept of emotional intelligence – an idea which features strongly within Saemaul Undong doctrine and Aristotle’s ethics and politics through an emphasis of our situatedness within emotions and the impossibility of emotionless reasoning, or, stated differently, the embracement of the notion that the world is understood through emotions and that reason functions as part of and within these emotions, not separately, as argued by Robert Solomon in his lecture series entitled Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions. An embracement of the concept of emotional intelligence implies a character which is defined by adaptability, assertiveness, low impulsiveness, self-esteem, self-motivation, social competence, effective stress management, emotion regulation, optimistic, cheerful and satisfied, and capable of communicating their feelings to others and to influence and understanding the feelings of others. Essentially, Saemaul Undong, like the Polis, allowed for the awakening of the understanding of individuals of their role and function within a communal context, and through this the awareness that they have, or should have, a certain kind of relationship with the ‘Other’ and that their being can only be satisfactory if they embrace this relationship with the ‘Other’, and through this understanding the Aristotelian notion, or understanding, of friendship and the types of values associated with it could flourish.

In some sense Saemaul Undong allowed for the fostering and reinforcement of a communal identity, in the sense of Aristotle’s understanding of the Polis and its relation to moral and social development, implying that the nature of humans should be understood as conforming to the notion of Homo Sociologicus, as opposed to Homo Economicus, which implies in a very Aristotelian sense that the being of humans can only be manifested within and through the community.

It must be noted, however, that the villages involved in Saemaul Undong differed from Aristotle’s Polis in a number of ways. Firstly, there were no slaves. Secondly, women were seen as the equals of men. Thirdly, the concept of Agora found within the Polis and the level of deliberation it involved as well as the contents of its deliberation differed to some extent, though not tremendously, from that found in the public sphere of villages involved in Saemaul Undong.

Naturally, it is recognised that due to relative homogeneity, something which is almost absent in SSA, Saemaul Undong might have been easier applied to the context of South Korea, and that a lack of homogeneity might pose a major obstacle to the implementation of Saemaul Undong. However, as stated previously, Saemaul Undong might contribute significantly to identity creation, or at least allow the space for it. Saemaul Undong is, however, no quick fix solution and depends greatly on the political will and integrity of the leadership of a state and also the true belief of participants that government has integrity, for it is only then when such a dialogue and the creation of a developmental narrative is possible.

If the ANC ever wishes to eradicate racism, reduce criminal activity, combat corruption, and so on, it needs to transform the emotions of the black majority and to create healthy, functional communities and through this the re-construction of the black African family structure. If the ANC truly desires to witness the African Renaissance dreamed of by Thabo Mbeki, it should start by eradicating black African poverty, although this should not be taken to imply that white African poverty should be ignored. For it is only in a society where blacks and whites are equals that racism can be eliminated to some extent. The ANC needs to adopt a more pragmatic approach in other words – something more substantive – and should hence find a balance between idealistic rhetoric and pragmatism.

Importantly, and almost as a concluding note, if the ANC ever wishes to facilitate an African Renaissance it should revitalise the use of indigenous South African languages within communities. It should be noted, that this does not mean that English should be discarded as the lingua franca within South Africa. African languages are an important component to any such transformation since, firstly, a type of dialogue is required between those participating and the state, and, secondly, because an African Renaissance should, normatively speaking, occur within the framework – or Weltanschauung – of African languages if it is so be truly African. A type of pride should be instilled within African communities for such a project to be successful, and merely adopting English and looking towards African-Americans as role-models will not allow for any such revolution to occur. It is only when such a pride is re-instilled that success can follow, even within the field of sport.

It should be noted that what is being proposed is a type of radical communitarianism with an Aristotelian departure point – and hence an Aristotelian vocabulary – and not communism. A type of communitarianism which is liberal and understands the individual as an individual within a community, as opposed to an individual isolated, and an individual with a responsibility towards both him/herself and the community is being proposed. It is only when the recognition which accompanies responsibility is achieved that crime and racism may be combated – with a crime such a rape sometimes stemming from the desire for recognition from either another ethnic group or even members of the same ethnic group, or even society as a whole. When the individual is understood as an individual within a community – that is intimately connected with the community – that desires a sense of belonging and something from which meaning can be derived – a desire which allows for the creation of a sense of responsibility – it allows for the creation of a conceptual framework which can, to some extent, explain responsible and irresponsible behaviour by emphasising the role of the community. To reiterate a point made earlier, one of the reasons why so much irresponsible behaviour is witnessed in South Africa is possibly due to the breakdown of the black African family. It is recognised that for this type of radical communitarianism to function properly it should function within the context of the liberal tradition – which emphasises the importance of embracing modernity – which allows for deliberation, and hence dialogue and the creation of certain narratives and narrative identities, or even the creation of the liberal ironist, as described by Rorty. Of course, for any such dialogue to be effective, sincerity is required.

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