I am proud to call myself a patriot. Not the where-do-I-sign-up-to-have-my-brains-blown-out-for-my-country type. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise the flaws in that interpretation of the term. Nor am I the my-country’s-sportsteams-are better-than-yours type of patriot, although I follow the progress of our national teams with great fervour. And despite the fact that if I could live in the bushveld I would, I do not consider myself a patriot because I can appreciate our country’s natural beauty. Aesthetic sensitivity is not the same as patriotism. Simply put, patriotism is not about a place, it is about people. And the people include you. If you cannot love the group you are part of, you cannot fully love yourself.
Sometimes we have the privilege of being able to choose the people with whom we live and interact. The vast majority of the time, however, we do not. One of life’s key skills is learning to work with other people, particularly those we do not like. It is why companies budget sometimes quite frightening amounts to do team-building, and why countless hordes of motivational speakers earn a decent living imparting wisdom that should really come intuitively to us. In life, you have to accept that you will need to interact meaningfully with people you don’t like. We do it because there is a tacit recognition that we are all working towards the same end. We accept this when it comes to the workplace, we accept it when it comes to our families. It is no different when it comes to countries.
In the workplace, more successful businesses realise the power of promoting synergy: that by recognising and developing the unique skills of each individual, everybody benefits. Wise leaders realise that there is an ‘I’ in ‘team’. In fact, if you fail to acknowledge this, you can never achieve your potential. The challenge is not to get individuals (often unwillingly) to chase the company’s vision, often by asking the individual to put the company’s priorities ahead of their own; rather, it is to attempt to align the company’s vision and the individuals’ goals. A good leader will find a way to ensure that the individuals can fulfil whatever sense of mission they might have at the workplace, because in so doing, they ensure that the individuals will be motivated to give their best.
In any team, when the members of that team have clearly defined goals and members of the team do their best to ensure that the needs of the rest of the team members are being met in the process of achieving those goals, that team will thrive. When individuals are empowered, they are free to empower others, and a truly empowered individual will do just that, because empowered people have an innate understanding of the fact that their own needs can be more fully met when others’ needs are being met too.
A nation is just a much bigger family, or workplace, depending on how you want to look at it. You cannot overlook the fact that at the end of the day, a nation is not defined by its borders any more than a family is defined by its home or a business is defined by its buildings. All organised groups of people are defined by the individuals who make up the group, not by the place where the group congregates.
So it stands to reason that being patriotic means caring about the group to which you have been randomly assigned, or to which you have chosen to belong. And you should care not because the group has necessarily merited it – that is immaterial – but because you realise that caring about the group is caring about your own success, and contributing to empowering others helps give meaning to your own gifts.
When a patriot looks at his country, he does not see perfection, he sees potential. He asks himself how his gifts can contribute to making the team work more effectively; he recognises that in order for him to thrive, others must too, because he knows that he does not possess all gifts and talents, but that there are others who can do what he cannot, and so he asks himself what he can do to empower others.
And it is within this paradigm that I consider what is a pressing question for many South Africans: the question of white privilege.
The question is an important one, because the economic disparity between black and white in our country is so vast. It is undeniable that most of our country’s wealth still sits in the hands of a privileged white minority, and that while Apartheid might have ended legally, it has certainly not ended economically. The poor living conditions of many of the people in this country cannot be blamed – as so many white people are wont to do – on laziness. It is a direct result of Apartheid. I am the first to defend those who “cannot leave Apartheid in the past”: how can one be expected to leave something in the past when one is living with the effects of it every day?
That said, I think we unnecessarily muddy the waters when we add “white”. While I do not deny that many white people find themselves in positions of privilege, unfairly gained, and while I acknowledge that what I am about to say sounds easy when one is on the privileged end of the equation, I think if we are really to address the inequality, we need to broaden our perspective beyond mere race. The question is about power and privilege, not about colour.
We all live out our lives against a backdrop of history. Every person has unfairly benefitted or been unfairly disadvantaged because of historical circumstances. It is tragic, but – trite as this may sound – life is inherently unfair. Now before you jump on me, hear me out. I am not suggesting that the privileged should sit back and enjoy the unmerited bonus of the bigger piece of the pie, nor am I insinuating that the poor must suck it up and deal with it.
What I am saying is that one cannot make life fair; tragic as that is, one cannot rail against history and human nature. It is wise to recognise the difference between what you can control and what you cannot. You cannot control life’s unfairness. But everybody has some semblance of power. It might be economic power, it might be a position of leadership in a family; it might simply be the power to choose the attitude with which I face each day. But everybody has power. The real question, then, is not “How do I make everything fair?”, but “How do I use the power I have to empower others?”
If everybody who had real political and economic power in this country – black or white – were to ask themselves that question, we might really start to get somewhere. Instead, we use our power to line our pockets, to hoard and protect what we have and to try to justify having it. We fail to see that when we look only to better ourselves, we actually disempower ourselves. We forget that it takes a team to maximise individual potential.
A refusal to embrace patriotism is a self-disempowering choice. Every thinker ought to be a patriot. I don’t believe Kennedy meant quite this in his famous speech, and I am as cynical about his motivation as I am whenever any politician opens his/ her mouth, but there is great truth in his now immortal words: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.