Culture Headspace People


A friend remarked over dinner that, if we were in London (his home town), power outages such as those experienced in Cape Town of late would result in marches and the like. This may be true, and I can’t help wondering if my feeling that there would simply be no point in marching is a) true or b) an indication that he’s highlighting a deep-seated apathy that Capetonians (maybe South Africans) are prone to.

I’d imagine it possible that living in an authoritarian society for so many years could lead one to think that complaining over dinner is the most one can do, and that it’s only once something becomes authorised as a “cause” that change is possible. How something becomes a cause is of course a related problem, in that the ordinary person doesn’t feel that their complaint to the press or radio will have any effect. And that same person is unlikely to be able to motivate a few hundred others to march in protest. But if one listens to CapeTalk in the afternoons, one can imagine Lisa Chiat’s painful earnestness being exploited in order to organise a march or two.

Anyway – it’s clear that those responsible for our power supply issues should resign, and would likely do so even in anticipation of the public outcry in a city like London. It also seems clear to me that Alec Irwin, our Minister of Trade and Industry, should resign after his blatant lies around this issue.

And finally, back to the Krog/Watson thing: just like the Bristow-Bovey case, it’s clear that this one will make no difference, except to be a point of reference in future plagiarism allegations. Some people now believe that Watson is a prick (or have had that belief strengthened) and that Krog has been wronged, and others believe that Watson is a principled, courageous man and Krog a plagiarist. But the same 100 people who buy books by South African authors will keep buying the books of the authors they have always bought, and no-one in the former camp will campaign for an apology, and no-one in the latter camp will boycott Random House, or protest when Krog is appointed to a post at your University.

I love the world of theory, but sometimes – just sometimes – it gets too damn theoretical.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

2 replies on “Apathy”

Yes, the apathy around the electricity problems is strange. I’ve always thought that people generally will be spurred on to action ONLY if a matter touches them directly or if it is about penguins. Here then was an actual issue touching all Capetonians (and people in the broader Western Cape), and yet… Could it be because we see the issue not as a social or political or environmental issue? Instead, we see it as a consumer issue. And the South African consumer is a notorious dinner-party critic (myself included); i.e. will not complain about bad service to the relevant party and rather hold it over for dinner conversation.

As to the recent plagiarism contoversy: One way in which to read it is that the ball is really in the Krog court. Either she sues for libel or defamation (challenges the accusation) or she lets it die down (accepts the accusation?).

But it seems like the general tolerance of plagiarism in South Africa is merely the literary or cultural equivalent of all forms of corruption in South African life. And in some ways Watson’s Accusation (sounds like a Beryl Bainbridge novel, doesn’t it?) should cause reflection also on the ways in which universities – the place where ‘tomorrow’s leaders’ are trained (god help us) – have tolerated plagiarism among students (admittedly universities are acting on it now, from what I hear, but belatedly, in my book). Just imagine, all those plagiarists, who got firsts and slipped the broken net, now in office or captains of industry…

And then again, the idea ‘South Africa’ has been a corruption, really, since 1652. In Watson’s Ph.D on South African poetry, for instance, the ‘imaginative and metaphysical deficiencies’ (8), and the ‘spiritual malaise and spiritual poverty in the poetry itself’ (290) appear as the literary parallel to ‘a kind of deficiency which is also present in South African culture as a whole’ (19). (1993. ‘Bitten-off things Protruding’: The Limitations of South African English Poetry Post-1948. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Cape Town). Surely he should not be surprised and so exercised over plagiarism occurring in our cultural vacuum?

Perhaps these two observations about two subjects are united in the geography and psychology of Cape Town – we have a visitor mentality, always talking (sometimes bitching) but are comforted by a sense of not having to stay, so it’s someone else’s problem. How to address this (palpably false) notion is a subject for the dinner table.

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