Arrested Development: The Rise of Infantilism in South African Society

By Dale T. McKinley · 7 Oct 2009

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Picture: jmsmytaste
Picture: jmsmytaste

Since the birth of a democratic South Africa in 1994, there are a range of ‘isms that have had, and continue to have, varying degrees of currency and impact on our society. The favourite of the privileged classes and political-economic elites has, of course, always been capitalism while for a sizeable portion of the poor, alongside a few intellectuals and political activists (even within the South African Communist Party) socialism remains the preferred alternative. Some in our midst clearly still hanker for the repressive certainties of fascism and/or monarchism, while others endorse a more traditional communitarianism. Small but increasing numbers have embraced environmentalism. But the one ‘ism that has witnessed the most rapid growth over the last fifteen years in South Africa won’t be found in the textbooks or in our political/economic discourse and debate. It’s called infantilism.

Unlike the other ‘ism’s, infantilism does not represent a coherent body of thought/ideas or particular philosophy…Rather, it has to do with individual and/or collective human behaviour and/or character.  Despite this difference, its currency and impact can, and does, have systemic consequences. While there are several more specific physiological dictionary meanings that have nothing to do with our discussion here, the general (social) definition adopted for our purposes is one of ‘arrested development in an adult’.

It is somewhat ironic that while our post-1994 ‘transition’ has centred around various aspects of advancing South African specific ‘development’ at the socio-economic and institutional levels, there has been far too little attention paid to the development of our own individual and collective human behaviour and/or character. The result is, borrowing an oft-used phrase within our political discourse,  that a ‘Chinese Wall’ has been erected between these two ‘sides’ of our societal development. The development of anything, and even more so when it comes to human beings, must be accompanied by consistent and meaningful attention, effort and solidarity. Unfortunately in respect of South Africa’s developmental coin, the one side gets constant attention and effort, the other is either lamented or relegated to our individual or collective social ghettos.

We might have one of the most lauded and supported liberation struggles of all time, one of the most progressive Constitutions in the world and some of the most globally venerated leaders/writers/personalities but we also have one of the most socially dysfunctional societies in the world.  Such dysfunction cannot be fully understood and/or explained by citing the litany of horrific crime statistics, inequality indexes or poverty measurements nor by constant reference to historical factors. These, and even then only partially, constitute the tragically predictable ‘outcomes’ of a wider range of both inherited and created dysfunctions. 

So what are the key characteristics of the infantilism that has developed so rapidly in the midst of our celebrated ‘transition’?:

1) Instant gratification reigns supreme and is quickly followed by instant rejection/replacement. When it comes to material things, you expect or demand whatever is part of the latest trend but it soon loses its allure and gets discarded - to be replaced by the next item.

2) You always have to say something in order to draw attention to yourself and what you want. You usually say it very loudly and crudely and with little or no regard for context, place or impact.

3) You ‘cry’ and throw a fit when you don’t get your way – in the firm belief (often encouraged by others around you) that doing so will result in getting your way.

4) You lie when it suits you and/or those around you (your buddies). Even when your lies are exposed you usually continue to protest your innocence and/or try to defend the lying as a means to an end.

5) You call people names and strike out at them personally (usually overlaid by emotive appeals to people not understanding, not caring, having hate-filled intent etc.) when you are confronted about your attitude/actions and/or your lies are exposed.

6) You rarely imagine offering, not to mention practically giving, an apology for anything you have done which has negative consequences (unless forced/coerced to do so).

7) You constantly want to be the centre of attention and find that the best way of doing this is to draw attention to yourself through various acts of self-promotion, screaming/shouting everyone else down or disrupting things you are not part of etc.

8) When you and your buddies get caught doing something wrong, you generally deny any association and when one or more of them say otherwise, you respond with great indignity and often end up physically, or emotionally, confronting them.

9) You are rarely willing to listen to anything that is contrary to your own opinion, perspective, feelings - unless there is the overwhelming threat of sanction/ punishment or, conversely, reward. 

10) You often take things that are not yours when no-one is watching/paying attention if you feel you can get away with it. However, when you yourself are unwilling/unable to do so, you turn to others to carry out the act (plausible deniability in case of bad outcome, but claim sharing of ‘spoils’ if successful). 

11) When you are away from your own environment/home, you always expect and often loudly claim/demand the right of equal sharing of goodies/things but when you are back in your own environment/home you claim sole prerogative of choice and/or ownership of goodies/things.

12) When bad things happen as a result of your actions you ignore them and/or pretend they did not happen/do not exist. If confronted to ‘own up’, you express incredulity and proffer hardly believable denials. You always proclaim your innocence when you are caught doing things you should not be doing.

13) As a general rule, you don’t take personal responsibility for anything you have done (or been part of) that does not make you look good, does not work out or results in negative consequences. Instead, you present yourself as the innocent bystander and/or victim and as being incapable of engaging in the kinds of actions attributed to you.

Infantilism cuts across race, class, gender, nationality, ideology, ethnicity and all other societal divisions - it is after all, about human behaviour. As is quite clear from the characteristics identified, infantilism is a social ‘condition’ in which there is an underdevelopment of basic human ethics such as honesty, respect, empathy, responsibility and generosity (amongst others). Developing such ethics – and putting them into practice – is precisely what growing up as a human being should be all about. We learn and adjust our behaviour as we move through life. It is axiomatic that there are those who simply cannot, due to various disabilities, fully develop. For everyone else, and noting that there are some who have much better conditions and contexts within which to ‘do’ such learning and adjusting, there comes a point in each of our lives when we can no longer shift responsibility and apportion blame for our own actions and choices and be taken seriously as adult human beings. That is one of the crucial differences between being an infant and being an adult.

Of course, we can (and should) expect that those who voluntarily place themselves in positions of varying societal authority and influence (whether personal/familial or institutional) adhere to the kind of basic human ethics enumerated here. At the same time we are no better than rank hypocrites if we then do not have the same expectation of ourselves and if we adopt double standards/categories. In other words, we cannot say that the occupation/holding of different positions and/or varying identities and social divisions (whether politically, economically, socially or culturally ‘determined’ ) means that there are different human ethics that apply. If we do that then we are saying/accepting that human ethics are nothing more than functional expressions of societal and/or personal ‘location’ and exigency (read: infantilism).  

South Africa is certainly not unique in experiencing a rise in infantilism but we have had a somewhat unique way of getting to this stage. Those who inhabit this beautiful country are more than capable of addressing and changing this specific social condition as well as the full spectrum of our social landscape. After all, ‘we’ are society and the myriad ‘units’ that make up our society reflect us collectively, our own state of mind, our own attitudes, our own basic human ethics. In the immortal words of comedian Bill Maher, “grow up or die.” 

Dr. McKinley is an independent writer, researcher and lecturer as well as political activist.

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6 Oct


I agree, and as valid as all the points are, it is point 9 that dismays me the most.

There is ZERO attempt to listen to the other side of the story and, if there is absolutely no way to avoid avoid it, there is no attempt to understand it.

I read articles and blogs and want to weep. From the 1st comment to the last, in virtually every forum, that same tendency is apparent.

What to do? I don't know. But growing up would be a good start.

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Martin Dolny
6 Oct

A Dig at the SACP?

Part of me does wonder whether there is a veiled dig at the SACP here, given the author was recently mentioned by them as being part of the sectarian left. But, if I park that thought for a moment, I have to agree with so much of it.

It also raises questions such as, how did South Africans become "arrested" - is it something that was copied from Americans and what can be done to "free" the said infantiles?

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6 Oct


I just love this article! I was a seminar last week where aid money was blamed for poor and corrupt behaviour in Africa. Money is inanimate and can 'do' nothing - It is the people who give it and the people who receive it and use it whose behaviour must be addressed - and there is so much infantilism where this is concerned!

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