In conversation with Trinidadian Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul in 2009, South African writer Rian Malan reflected on the state of his country,
‘This is a history of victims. There are no real heroes aside from Mandela, who suffered nobly. There is no-one who will spell it out. Apartheid is over and you have the abyss before you, and the only thing that will get you out is work, work, and work’.
Malan’s perspective on the immeasurably worse situation faced by the people of South Africa offers insights that might be applicable to the situation faced by the people of Ireland.
Victimhood has been a major component of Irish history, centuries of control by the British followed by decades of control by the bishops followed by being lured into the massive Ponzi scheme that was the Irish property market.
The last heroes were ninety years ago. Politicians were distinctly unheroic in their dealings with the bishops and were collaborators in the inflation of the property bubble.
No-one now will call things as they are. Malan points out that apartheid in South Africa is over – it can no longer be blamed for the ills besetting the country. In Ireland the desire to blame someone persists, someone else should take responsibility for our problems. Yet attribution of blame, while it may be cathartic, achieves no tangible results. The banks are bust; the developers are bust; there is no-one with funds to redress the multiple grievances felt by hundreds of thousands of people.
No-one would have doubted that the overwhelming majority of the people of South Africa suffered colossal injustice, but what Rian Malan is suggesting is the need to face the abyss between perceptions of how things should be and the everyday reality faced by ordinary people.
In Ireland, the sport of recrimination persists, the newspaper columns, the letters pages, the phone-ins; the message is consistent, someone should be responsible, something should be done, someone should pay. Except there is a vast abyss between many people’s notions of how things should be and how they will be. There is no magic wand, there will be no instant transformation. Grievances may persist, but to dwell on them only causes a deeper sense of hurt. (Having seen my chance of retiring at sixty disappear, to be replaced by the earliest prospect of retirement coming at the age of sixty-eight, the anger at the pension fund managers has still not entirely dissipated).
Malan says the only thing that will work in his country is ‘work, work, and work’. Frustratingly, his diagnosis seems as applicable here as it is there.