Of (South) Africans and Entitlement

You don’t come to Africa empty handed. You can try that mess if you want to, but it doesn’t bode well for a good experience. At some point, you will pay for that decision.

It’s one of the themes you’ll often hear foreigners and White folks in South Africa discussing: This damned entitlement culture that grows like a generational cancer amongst the natives.

To my shame, I admit that I willfully participated in such foolish talk during my last visit, decrying the constant requests for this and that and opining – angrily at times – about why these same folks couldn’t employ this or that method to get themselves out of their circumstances. What made them think they were “entitled” to my money, or my shoes, or anything else in my possession?

obI realized as I was sitting at Ocean Basket with my husband and our host that my angst in those moments was most likely borne from the pressure of a sad reality: I am neither God nor Bill Gates, and I was frustrated that I did not (and do not still) have the capacity to solve the problems of the people whom I have since come to call “friends.”

While I have reversed my position on whom is worthy of the negative moniker “entitled”, my husband and my host have not. We discussed the matter over hake and grilled shrimp. Of my two stow away bags, one contained my clothing and the other was dedicated purely for the 8 or so people I had brought gifts for.

“I know that no matter what I bring to the people at Qolweni, it’s not going to be enough,” I said, munching around a piece of fish. “And I’m prepared to receive looks of disappointment.”

“That’s because them folks are entitled,” Marshall said dismissively.

Our host nodded in agreement. He had been working in the SCAB/ASP (After School Program) for the last 2 years, and feeling burnt out, had recently gone on hiatus from the program, leaving Thandiswa and Co to their own devices.

Then there was some talk about poverty in connection to the entitlement culture. This is where I bristled in defense of my southern African kin.

“Okay now wait a minute,” I nearly growled. “There are just as many rich people who feel like they are entitled to one thing or another because their wealth demands it.”

“How so?” the men said in near unison.

Fortunately, I had a recent example at the ready.

Marshall and I were standing in line at the Dollar Tree, buying gift bags for the gifts we wanted to give out. It was the weekend of high school graduation in our county. There was a White woman in a tennis skort, a baseball cap and an expensive looking bag slung over her shoulder was yakking away on the phone, holding up the line and not moving. You know the ones. She probably had a Lexus truck in the parking lot. As I was about to step around her, I thought I should ask her first if she was in line. My tone was direct.

“Yes I AM,” she tossed over her shoulder, not looking at me.

Finally, she moved ahead and told the cashier that she had been their earlier and had left something. The cashier brought it to her and set it down.

“Do you have any shredded paper?” the woman asked, the phone still pressed to her ear.

“In aisle eight,” replied the cashier, who stepped away to retrieve baskets from outside.

The woman stayed in line. When the cashier returned, she asked again about the shredded paper.

“It’s in aisle eight ma’am,” she repeated.

The suburban, be-skorted mom looked frantically at the line forming behind her, obviously not wanting to lose her space in the front of the line. Finally, and much too long a time later, she finally left to go get her own blasted shredded paper.

Marshall and I stepped ahead and checked out our six items. I was congenial with the overweight cashier, who confessed that she was tired of blowing up Congrats Grads balloons, while I confessed to shock and disgust over what had just happened in line.

“But that’s not entitlement,” said Marshall.

“Yeah, I think that’s more of a bad attitude,” agreed our host.

“What?!? How is that not a sense of entitlement? Sure, she wasn’t outright begging for anything, but she was still demanding preferential treatment for whatever reason. She felt entitled enough to think the cashier was going to get her paper, and that WE should wait while she did!”

We debated it a bit more and eventually gave an example from my own childhood, citing times when Americans had come to visit us from the States. I had some expectation that they would leave something behind. After all, they had stayed in our house and gobbled up our food. I had my eye on one girl’s LA Gears, one time.

“Yeah,” Marshall laughed, “that’s because you were a little entitled African kid who figured she could go back to the States and get herself some more LA Gears!”

Finally I decided that it didn’t matter. Things were as they stood, and if one wants to give to the less fortunate, then fine… and if not, that was fine as well. I don’t think you will find a more giving group of people than Africans, west, east or south. After all, the concept of Southern hospitality was brought over by the slaves – this notion that you acknowledge every person’s humanity with simple gestures like looking them in the eye and greet them as they pass you on the road or offer a cold drink when their foot crosses the threshold of your home. How does that compare to offering some trinket in return?

What I realized is that the people in the townships are not just “entitled”. That’s too simple a diagnosis. They work, play, jog, eat and sleep like the rest of us. But what they are is desperate. If you’re drowning in an ocean of poverty and hopelessness, you’re going to grab a hold to whatever lifeline comes floating your way. Whether it’s strong enough to lift you out of your circumstances is not the issue. Desperation will drive you to try the reigns first and see if the results pan out later. The task of the giver (in my case at least), is to know your limitations so that you don’t get frustrated and get sucked into the despair that surrounds you as well.

I think if I had not gone home and come back, that would be the trap I would find myself ensnared in. It may possibly be why so many well-meaning people leave and never come back. They get overwhelmed by despair. I’ll get to that in tomorrow’s post MOM Squad!

  • amma

    there are those who want a gift from abroad because they have so little. and there others who will scoff at your gifts. arghhhh

    • george essah

      I have an aunty who doesn’t have much but doesn’t expect much. I wish I could be more like her.

    • I’m actually reading about that in “We need new names” by Noviolet Bulawayo. There is a character in the book who glowers every time the NGO bus comes to her township and REFUSES to take the food parcels they divvy out, while others complain that it is not enough. It’s a complex issue, I’m sure. Knowing that this is only a temporary fix, people like her would not participate in impermanent programs that won’t solve her problems. On the other hand, there are those who are glad to have the “hand out” because they are living for today. It’s all in the mindset of the individual.

  • Wanjiru Mungai

    What do you think?

    Wanjiru

    Sent from my iPad