To Serve or To Be Served in SA

April 6, 2009

In 1832 a brilliant aristocratic Frenchman began his travels around the New World chronicling what would become one of the classics of Western political thought. Democracy in America was published in 1835 in a long work that was part sociology and part political science. Alexis de Tocqueville’s insight and unique view as an outsider into the ethos of the newly developing nation of America has been oft-quoted and imitated, but never with the same long-lasting impact as Democracy in America.

It has been a long time since I have read DiA and I don’t have my marked up copy here with me to quote from, but among the many important themes that Tocqueville develops is an observation that Americans participate in the surprising and widespread establishment of associations based on common interest and common good. Tocqueville noted that these associations were both public and private in nature and were completely independent of government. That these flourished all around the new nation was remarkable to the young Tocqueville. Another key theme that emerged in his observations of the nation was the importance of religion as a unifying factor and an important part of the establishment of associations. The notion of “doing unto others” greatly helped to motivate the establishment of associations.

One can argue that the establishment of associations is not nearly as important 180 years later. Many live in a “virtual community” of interest rather than an actual community of place and time. Associations across the globe can exist in cyber-space in social networking sites, and there are certainly troubling trends that Americans have become increasingly self focused in a consumer society. The importance of Christianity is also obviously significantly less important in 2009 than it was in founding of the early nation. The primary point that I am observing is that associations of all kinds–large and small, and the underlying motivation of a Judeo-Christian worldview of serving the common purposes of others was deeply woven into the DNA of the early American experiment and those genes still carry to the modern American psyche.

That DNA never existed in South Africa and may be the key to understanding some of the South African mindset. I have now met several dozen Americans working in South Africa to make it a more equitable and just society. They run the spectrum from devout evangelical Christian to self-described secular humanist/atheists. When I have asked them what they think of South African society the adjective that almost every one of them has used is “strange”. One clarified by saying “strange bad in some ways and strange good in others”.

I think the thing that has struck all of us and prompted us to call the society strange is an apparent lack of concern displayed by literally millions of South Africans towards their fellow countrymen who are destitute and in great need. There is remarkable apathy in almost everyone that we meet. Perhaps the needs are so great that it is easier to just ignore them, but there is a palpable lack of concern for anyone outside of ones immediate friends and family. This mindset is particularly troubling in that most South Africans would describe themselves as Christians.

Obviously these are very broad brush strokes, but in our three months here, the only organizations that seem to be thinking outside of the box and trying to make a difference are run largely by Americans. There are a few Canadians and Australian’s thrown in as well. What is truly amazing is that we have only encountered two South African conceived and run organizations that are really making a difference in the townships. Why?

One could argue that America has nearly an order of magnitude larger population than South Africa, so of course statistically there might be more Americans involved in social concerns. This argument does not logically follow in that we have seen almost no associations designed to help South Africans by South Africans, and the number of Americans here in South Africa is a tiny fraction of the population. Another argument could be that the Americans that we have met are self-selected; i.e. if they were not already interested in social concerns they would have stayed in America. That is a better argument, but it does not explain the dearth of South African associations run by South Africans serving South Africa. There are certainly more than an order of magnitude more of such organizations in America run by Americans.

A hard question is, should South Africa expect the US to send missionaries, Peace Corp volunteers, Fulbright Scholars, NGOs to address South African problems. It seems that South Africans have left the solving of social problems exclusively to the government, and the track record of the government solving problems has been mediocre at best. Most of the solutions have been window dressing for political points scored, without any hint of sustainability. By nearly all accounts, the plight of poor South Africans is getting worse, not better despite sustained economic growth over the last decade.

A notable exception of South African’s serving is the example of David Alcock working in rural Zulu communities by installing ram pumps that he designed to deliver water to the fields of poor Zulu families and helping them to set up community gardens that provide much needed food and profit by selling the excess produce to local grocery stores. His family has been tightly linked to the Zulu families that worked on his farms since the mid 1800s.

David asked me this telling question. “Why is it that the only volunteer help that I can get to work with me are American college students?” He continued, “I have given up on white South African college students, they could care less about the plight of poor, rural Zulus. What is even more disturbing is that I cannot get Zulu engineering students to volunteer in Zulu communities.”

There would be no comparable Democracy in South Africa by a young Tocqueville today.

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One Response to “To Serve or To Be Served in SA”


  1. […] David is a tinkerer. He likes to design and build things. Not exactly an engineer, but someone with an engineer’s heart and mind. He has designed a ram pump for delivering water to rural communities. It took fifteen years to perfect. It works on the pressure differential created by drawing water from a higher elevation than the pump. This produces the ability to gain a 10:1 mechanical advantage which can be used to pump water any distance from the pump. The genius of his ram pump is that it is designed and built from off the shelf parts, and the diaphragm in the pump is the only part that needs replacing–it can be made by cutting out a section of a used tire.This pump is not flashy. It is not something that you will be reading about in an airline in-flight magazine. He has had several taken out by international aid agencies looking for something with a little more glamour. He has also returned the next year after the photo ops were over to replace them when they were too complicated to operate by the locals, or parts broke and they could not afford to replace them. The Alcock Ram Pump does what it was designed to do…pump water, 24/7 with no external power source and with almost no maintenance required. A complete system generally costs less than $3000 to install providing enough water to irrigate (by hand so as not to waste water and irrigate weeds) a three acre farm. The cooperative farm for this particular pump is now supporting over 30 families with their own food and enough to sell to the neighboring grocery stores at a profit.He has partnered with the Johns Hopkins University (Maryland) Engineers Without Borders chapter who has been sending students for the last several years to help install these systems during their summer break and learn about sustainable design in impoverished communities. What he cannot find are South African engineering students, black or white, to volunteer their time …. […]


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