Mhambi has been redeployed.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What South Africa could learn from China

Recently Mhambi was following another afro-pessimist debate (What's wrong with Africa) on the Mail and Guardians's Thought Leader blog.

Residents opposed to an encroaching train line in Shanghai were warned that gatherings like the one above could result in arrest. (Ryan Pyle for The New York Times)

The defenders of Africa's problems averred - "Hey! The troubles are because Africa imported western style democracy that's not suited locally". Others retorted that democratic rules had not been implemented properly, and yet others yearned for apartheid.

A friend of Mhambi loves China. He speaks Mandarin and travels there regularly. On one of his sojourns in the poor Chinese hinterlands an incident occurred that clearly had made an impression.

He was buying some food from an old Chinese gentleman, a street vendor. As this deal was in progress a passing youngster started shouting at the old man. "You are charging the foreigner too much! How can you exploit him like that?! What will he think of China!"

My friend was a little surprised but did not really mind the 'extra' expense. The 'dear' food was dirt cheap to his pound based purse.

He stayed in a local In that night. Early the next morning he was woken with a knock at the door. It was the old man who had brought him a free food parcel for his days travels, all the while apologizing profusely.

Last week Mhambi was listening to a report on Radio 4's From our own Correspondent. China has in the last few years been racked by hundreds of mini protests. Many Chinese feel left behind in the countries incredible race to economic riches, there is reports widespread corruption, while there is no democratic outlet for the people's grievances.

Recently the government has clamped down mercilessly on corrupt politicians and businessmen.

But reported Radio 4, there has now been two protests, where the Chinese government has set up dedicated telephone lines to deal with grievances. One of them the International Herald Tribune reported on.Said the IHT:

"under President Hu Jintao's policy of "harmonious development," the state has made tentative efforts to solicit public opinion."

China is now in the midst of an icy weather storm, and reports the BBC:

As China froze, and its electricity and transport lines failed, and millions huddled and shivered in train stations, China's top leaders rushed to calm and reassure their people.

And not only did they apologise - they empathised.

At Guangzhou railway station in the south - where hundreds of thousands were stuck - Prime Minister Wen Jiaobao addressed the crowd.

"Comrades, I'm Wen Jiabao," he shouted through a loudspeaker.

"I am here to comfort you. You have suffered a lot and I feel your pain."

It might be autocratic, but the Chinese government is obsessed with the collective welfare of its citizens. As the population is getting richer, this obsession is driving them to be more consultative.

But it's not just the authorities that feel and act responsibly. The Chinese population themselves are fiercely patriotic and obsessed with the good image of their society.

The result of this and this is the sad fact: Your average Chinese is better off governed by autocrats than your average South African in today's democratic South Africa. The average Chinese seems to feel more responsibility for their society than the average South African citizen.

And this brings me to my point. The problem South Africa is facing is not just one of which rules to implement. Rules will only bring us that far. Our challenge is changing an attitude and culture. We are still looking for Ubuntu.

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