Rudolph and the Illusion of Meritocracy

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.”


  1. Anne-Marie Recour says:

    Julian, meritocracy may have given you a bigger house and a higher income and it put you higher up the social ladder simply because you did not start at the bottom AND because you made positive choices in terms of getting an education, travelling etc. In fact, it was not really a choice, it probably felt like what you were supposed to do.
    I was in exactly the same situation: at 18 it never even occured to me to go working, the most ‘natural’ thing to do was to get a higher education. It got me a job, but thought me nothing. I’ve worked in the Integration sector in Belgium for over 10 years now and learned much more. I see people arriving with no cash, only their talents. They can choose to live on social security or to make a living. Hats of to those who within years learn a language, a profession and raise a family. I often wonder if I could do the same. They have achieved much more than I have, although my house may be bigger.
    The leap that people take to build a brick house and to keep their kids out of harms way is at least equal to ours. They applied their talents, just like we did. One should not compare end results. Meritocracy is just a system. Life is much more than systems.
    I hope Rudolph finds his talents.

  2. dawie says:

    Julian – A compelling and thoughtful post from you . . . Bridging and then crossing the divide is a huge challenge. The initiative, if the will and intent were present, should firstly come from the government of the day. I don’t see much evidence of it.

    The feature of migration to the conurbations is a worldwide trend, which accelerated over the last 40 years. It has created squalor and unsanitary conditions, proliferation of drug activity plus other practices.

    Anne-Marie – An interesting comparison can be made here. I use a contrast of known examples: a Ugandan family encouraged their three children to pursue lives elsewhere. One now practises medicine in Moscow, another is in Munich, and the third is doing robotics engineering in Philadelphia. Other than holiday visits, the parents do not wish them to return. In England, many thousands have found their way from east European countries. They do not want to go back. Several Poles spoken to, pushing prams, have made sure their infant children have UK passports. Getting a British education is top of their minds. On the other end of the scale a Somali community can be found in Kommetjie, Cape. Also, Malawians, Nigerians and others can be found. How did they all get there? Well, most of them walked a lot of the way, crossing porous borders en route. Belgium, too, has its own brand or blend of imponderables.

    Nowhere near enough is being done to inject funds into education, services and other infrastructure. If much of it is siphoned off into flying bathtubs, self-aggrandisement for the elite and similar waste, the building blocks for the nation will be non-existent.

  3. Meryl Bailey Meryl Bailey says:

    Hats off to you guys once again! Sounds tough, enlightening and quite an authentic experience. We would love to know more about your ‘gathering’ this coming weekend and if possible come along…do let us know xx

  4. Meryl Bailey Meryl Bailey says:

    Hats off to you guys once again! Sounds tough, enlightening and quite an authentic experience. We would love to know more about your ‘gathering’ this coming weekend and if possible come along…do let us know xx

  5. Asanda says:

    I have learnt that sometimes the problem is lack of knowledge. Yes,there is fraud and all those things,but take the issue of education for example, some seat at home because they don’t know about avenues like NAFSAS. You find that there is no educated person in the family to pass on that kind of guidance and because no one does, the kids dont go to university and they too dont send their kids.

    I am doing my part in educating (through radio motivational talks etc)starting with where I come from largely. I believe charity begins at home. I am doing my bit to change lives, one soul at a time.

  6. Cee says:

    Such a great piece. I’m English, but spent two years in SA (as my husband is a Saffa) and was shocked by the indifference – and fear – many of the better off held towards the poor. One comment I heard (from a stay at home wife of a mine manager) was ‘ag, they’re just poor because they want to be’. I pointed out that had she been born in, say, Alex to a domestic worker and garden boy, and not in a comfortable Afrikaans suburb, I doubt she’d have been sitting there drinking wine and raising a family in a large home with no need to work.

    The meritocracy idea is something perpetrated by the few to justify the poor conditions of the many. It’s something that took hold in the UK in the 80s with the ascendance of Thatcherism, and is a perfect way of playing divide and rule amongst those who have less. Tehre’s a brilliant book by Owen Jones ‘Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class’, which – though dealing with Britain, can be applied to many economies and societies the world over.

    I am impressed how you are making the effort to experience the daily challenges of the life for many South Africans, and also experiencing the positives and joys such close=knit communities can bring. More understanding across the social spectrums – regardless of race – is needed, and your family are doing a fantastic thing. In order to break the inequality that plagues both developing and developed societies we need to join together and speak up for those in need.

  7. Palesa says:

    Please Economists reading this: we would love to know stats what these stats are! because I believe perhaps your input could give us light to this challenge.

    You guys are my heroes!

  8. Domagoj says:

    My “privilege” is actually past work of my parents, ancesters and society I live in! I have an obligation to them to use that “privilege” to build even better “privilege” for my children and my society. To give away my “privilege” for some sence of equality would be like refusing a gift my parents gave me.

    • Mehki says:

      Domagoj, why it is the “privileged” (a status that you apparently you don’t seem to think you have or should have any involvement in actually creating – it’s just something handed to you) think they are “giving something away” when what is being asked for is not your privilege but changes to laws and policies that will allow others to build a life of “privilege” for their future generations?

      That kind of thinking is what creates and perpetrates poverty and ignorance (that in the end affects everyone with its concomitant drugs, violence, and crime that will eventually encroach upon your special entitled, little world) – and that is the belief that by allowing someone else the opportunity to build something somehow impoverishes the haves when in reality it does no such thing.

      No one is asking you to give up anything that belongs to you. They only ask for changes in laws and policies that will afford them the same opportunities that apparently your ancestors had. For surely any house (or country) divided against itself (the haves against the have nots) cannot stand and will eventually fall.

      In the meantime, while the poor lived jailed within their poverty, people like you live in jails of fear of crime and violence that you helped to create while trying to maintain your privilege and dominance.

  9. sharon says:

    Congratulations on following through with a great idea!! I heard your interview on CBC in Canada this morning and was so impressed. As a white South African living far from home, I wish I had thought of this idea and lived it. What a great way to break down barriers and build bridges rather than wells. Well done!!!

  10. Puleng says:

    Wow! Koedoes is to u!
    Listening to u on 702 right now and this is truly inspiring. I wishwe had more people like you in our country!

  11. Chedieli Mgaya says:

    These family did the one good move to reach and connect to others. I would like to connect to Ena and Julian we share life experiences. I did what they did in a different world and background.

  12. Mariela Covelli says:

    I really like reading your experience and many of the replys.I´m from Argentina where we have similar situations. For me the big problem is that the so called “privilege” society, has no compassion for the rest of the society. They think they diserve the poverty, the drugs, the rapes, the hits…. so unfortunately is difficult to make changes…..the ones who has the tools (education, sometimes knowledge, economical means) to make the difference are indifferent and selfish!

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