Rudolph is a really smart guy. He has a matric exemption and a thoughtful, bigger-picture perspective that transcends his context. You would never know this from his appearance though. The mid-morning sunshine is already up in the sky and Rudolph still has his hoodie on. He has sunken eyes, his clothes are unkempt and his greeting is softly spoken outside our Mamelodi shack.
Despite what looks like a tough life, Rudolph refuses to be defined by his situation. He looks at the shacks all around us and says: “These people still have choices to live in these shacks. For most of them this is their second home. They choose to live here because it is closer to work” And to an extent he is right. My landlord is building a brick house in Mpumalanga for his wife and child. Leah has brick house in Mabopane. I caution Rudolph though. “Yes, we all have choices,” I say, “but remember because of my financial situation, I have many more choices than these people do.”
And herein lies another riddle of our country. I worked hard at school. I applied myself at work. I took initiative where I could. In this, it might be comforting to think that I deserved the subsequent merit. But then let’s think back to Rudolph’s case.
Let us stretch our imagination a bit. Imagine if Rudolph’s mum gave birth to twins. His one twin (we can call him Steven) was adopted at birth by a middle class family while Rudolph lived exactly the same life he has lived. With access to much greater resources, Steven would have a much higher chance of benefiting from a good education and obtaining a tertiary degree (Economists reading this: I would love to know stats what these stats are!).
As a black South African with a degree, Steven’s chance of formal employment stands at 91%. (CDE: Graduate Employment in South Africa – A much exaggerated problem). On the other hand, Rudolph only has a 53% chance of being employed. (2011 Census: Black South Africans, Broad Unemployment Rate incl discouraged workers).
I call these odds the ‘Illusion of Meritocracy.’ As much as I would love to comfort my ego by seeing my own success in life as being self-made, I started off from a position of privilege and this made all the difference. My parents could own land, they could live where they liked, they had no restrictions on starting a business. My life was by no means easy, but these opportunities conspired to afford me private education. At university, I still needed a student loan to make ends meet. But again, my parents had collateral to offer the bank that financed my degree.
Rudolph’s contribution to the broader South African society is very negligible right now, but his potential is a different story. The bigger question out of all of this is : How we can create a situation where the Rudolphs in this country are not just surviving but thriving like Steven. This would be to our collective benefit.
The Illusion of Meritocracy is of course not limited to South Africa. Here are some closing thoughts from Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, discussing Meritocracy at the prestigious Ivy League institution, Princeton University
“The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate – these are the folks who reap the largest rewards.”