Saturday 16 August 2008

Ostrich Syndrome

We all suffer from the "Ostrich Syndrome" from time to time. Most of you know what I am referring to. This is the moment that we all experience when it is easier to put your head deep into the sand instead of taking in what is happening around us. It is that moment when we prefer to maintain the status quo rather than be forced to act against things that are happening around us.

One of the most famous and tragic cases of Ostrich Syndrome was the behaviour of the German Jews during the period that led up to the holocaust. It seems that the financial and social advantages that the Jews of Germany were experiencing caused them to ignore the threat and rising strength of the Nazi Party. Those that did manage to overcome the difficulties associated with giving up on a very comfortable lifestyle and separation from their families were those that were ultimately best off. Unfortunately, most of those that behaved like ostriches did not survive the worst case of genocide to befall the human race.

I am reminded of this when I view some of the events taking place in South Africa today. After the tragic and appalling acts of the apartheid government, there were high hopes and expectations when Nelson Mandela and the ANC government were elected to power. These hopes, expectations and potential that were felt then have not materialised in any significant way. It is true that South Africa has experienced an extended period of economic growth, that a new and large Black middle class has arisen, that South Africa will be hosting the 2010 Football World Cup. So there are some good things to show from the past decade.

On the negative side, however, corruption has become endemic in all areas of local and national government and the country's infrastructure is straining under lack of investment and expansion. Most noticeable is the ongoing suffering by the large number of extremely poor people whose standard of living does not appear to have improved at all since the ANC government was elected. This has contributed to the most frightening aspect of society today - the lack of personal security and safety that has become part and parcel of life in South Africa.

Despite the fact that many people live behind barbed wire and electric fences, this does not seem to stem the brutal and indiscriminate attacks that they suffer in their homes. By going out, particularly at night, people take their lives into their hands due to the numerous muggings, car-jackings, rapes and murders that take place on a daily basis. This is surely not how life should be lived? For an outsider looking into South Africa, this is a very frightening way to live one's life.

The South African Whites seem to take this all in their stride as though this is a normal way to exist. This is particularly true of the Jewish community with whom I have most contact. They have taken all the necessary precautions to reinforce their homes and cars, to employ security companies to offer personal protection and know all the right moves when faced with an adverse situation. I get the impression at times that the continued preoccupation with relating one horror story after another about the misfortunes of others gives a common cause to rally around. It almost seems as though people gain a perverse pleasure from demonstrating their ability to survive in such a hostile environment against the odds.

I am the first to admit that there is no such thing as a country with only good things - no Garden of Eden in our world. When giving advice to people as to where would be best for them to settle down, I always suggest that they identify the things that are most important to them in their lives and a find a country that best accommodates these. As part of the package, it will be necessary to tolerate the less positive things that this country inevitably brings with it. In this context, South Africa has both good and bad elements to its package.

On the positive side, it is a country of enormous natural beauty and of huge opportunities. It also offers a lifestyle of great material wealth for the privileged classes, far beyond what equivalent people in other countries can enjoy. This frequently comes with large homes, fast cars, good food and domestic help in the home that is usually only available to royalty and the rich and famous elsewhere in the world. The negative aspects mentioned above, however, weigh heavily against the good things.

I do not underestimate the difficulty of moving from one country to another. The challenge of relocating to an area with a different culture and language is huge. Families with young children and the elderly find it even more difficult. I can personally vouch for this having moved country twice in the past 20 years. Despite this fact, many have demonstrated that, with sufficient will and belief in the reasons for doing so, it is possible to make such a move successful. What is more, it is preferable to make such a move in a planned and deliberate manner rather than being forced to do so during the course of an emergency.

It seems to me that many Jewish South Africans prefer the advantages of material wealth and social status over the the prospect of personal safety. To me, this is a strange choice to make, but everybody is entitled to decide what is best for them in their situation. The problem is that the next generation is being raised in fear of what may happen to them each day. They are also being raised to value material riches over personal safety.

I would like to believe that the decisions that people have made regarding their futures in South Africa have factored in all the alternatives. I hope that they have considered the positive aspects of living in South Africa, and have decided that this option is better than the advantages of living elsewhere.

Unfortunately, I cannot help feeling that Ostrich Syndrome plays a larger role than it should in shaping peoples’ decisions.

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