On Fast Trains, Status Anxiety and Things We Don't Really Need

By Saliem Fakir · 13 Oct 2010

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Picture: Hembo Pagi
Picture: Hembo Pagi

Two more passenger “fast-train” routes are being mooted, one between Johannesburg and Durban and the other from Johannesburg to the north of the country.

Ordinary citizens may wonder if we need to spend scarce money on new rail infrastructure. Is South Africa’s money not better spent on improving freight rail that could take lots of trucks off our roads by transporting goods safely and easily to and from our harbours? And what about public transport for the poor?

Have we not learned anything from the World Cup and the Gautrain?

The public usually gets carried along for the ride when extravagant ad hoc decisions are made about national priorities, making it important for us to understand the psychology behind such decisions and their cost to the nation.

Many of these ambiguous decisions can be explained by the psychological concept of the “mimetic impulse.” One of the great dangers of the mimetic impulse is that one is driven by what one sees in others, only to avoid what one doesn’t want to see in or understand about oneself.

The mimetic impulse stems from status anxiety. In his book titled, Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton described it as “a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.” 

Chasing an image has very little to do with ground truths about one’s self and is more about aspirations that are based on false needs and impressions of oneself in relation to others. At the most basic level, we all know that keeping up with the Jones’ comes at a cost.

“Like all appetites, its excesses can also kill,” warns de Botton about the mimetic impulse.

At the level of national status, the question emerges as to whom exactly this image is being pursued on behalf of and what class of people they belong to.

South Africa’s national status has a peculiar characteristic that is rooted in the dreams and aspirations of our cosmopolitan elite class, which seeks to keep pace with the global cosmopolitan class.

White South Africans have conventionally drawn inspiration from the world of their ancestors on the European sub-continent. In this way, they have a mimetic fetish, which seeks to create a developed and first world economy.

The new black elite has fallen into the same mimetic trap believing that its sense of self worth can only come from how it imitates the trappings of the advanced Western World.

In this regard, it also doesn’t help to have commentaries floating around that are less than complementary and always posing the same question about the new power holders: “Is this government fit to govern and maintain our developed world image?”

Thus, new elites may seek to distance themselves from the first world, but still reproduce themselves in its image, ostensibly due to the expectation that a lowering of standards would result in a poor estimation of their inheritance of power.

However, the scope of the impulse is no longer limited to the Western World. The problem of our self-image lives an extended life because we are now in awe of the Asians as well. We don’t want the Chinese and Indians to be here, but we admire what they have achieved.

South Africans also want to grow fast, leapfrogging out of our hovel with little means while earning the gaze of the world and being much talked about like China and India are today. It is one of the most common desires of all humans to be the centre of attention.

But, if not done in good measure it can also be the source of failure and like India’s shambolic hosting of the Commonwealth Games - because it too sought worldly status - end up being judged harshly. The Indian media have called the Common Wealth Games India’s greatest shame.

Thus, the poison chalice of the mimetic impulse is that it traps us in a status anxiety bubble, which reinforces itself as part of the national culture.

The soccer World Cup comes to mind as one of those things that was largely driven by status envy. The failure of the first bid did not make us pause, but only drove the desire for status.

Doubts about our ability to pull off the soccer fest only made us feel more and more that we had to prove the world wrong. These are important emotions, but perhaps driving the wrong issues.

The merits of hosting such an event have been argued ad nauseam. We are just beginning to see, now, the costs of the unaffordable national spectacle. 

Clearly we did not need the nine stadiums that now stand dejectedly unfilled. And, in the meantime while they are not being used, somebody has to pay the cost of their day-to-day running.

FIFA didn’t help us set up a special fund to maintain our short-lived global status. The City of Durban now has to fork out R20 million a year to maintain the Moses Mabhida stadium. Worse still, the private company managing the World Cup stadium in Cape Town quickly decided that there was no money to be made and cut their losses now, rather than later. Even the outsourcer sees no hope in rescuing a white elephant.

The fact that these issues have come so soon after a mesmerising event demonstrates the power of status. Its lure overwhelms reason and common sense. 

A similar scene prevails over the two proposed fast-rail systems. Once you have political momentum behind things, no other force or voice of reason can dislodge such a momentum. Political weight and momentum will soon vanquish common sense and reason.

Some will get praise and get to cut the red ribbon; others will be smiling all the way to the bank, still some others like one or other foreign country will boost its exports and extend its economy's life.

There are also other examples to learn from. The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) was somehow going to make us a leading nuclear energy provider and solve all our energy problems for years to come. Well, such dreams of status and grandeur cost us R20 billion of wasted public money. The PMBR has now ground to a halt because the South African government doesn’t have the money to continue and the promise of overseas investors pouring cash into the PBMR has not materialised.

The people bearing the brunt of such political foolhardiness and exuberance are present and future citizens.

That’s the tradeoff we make to pursue status. Some may be our own doing and some; we may have to bear because of our powerlessness despite that fig of a thing called the ballot box.

In the final analysis, there are still people with public influence making decisions that will come to haunt us in the future, because they have a psychological problem -- the stumbling block of status.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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13 Oct

Let's Get Down and Dirty!

This is an excellent piece of analysis. In the final analysis, this is the only logical explanation that I can find for our world cup folly. Our world cup (mis) adventure employed massive energy and resources, directed at achieving no tangible outcomes and benefits for ordinary people and our country except to claim our

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15 Oct


I dont know why I have never heard of this site before. Your writing is excellent and a very neat way of putting down the facts and putting everything into perspective.

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17 Oct

We All Suffer from the Mimetic Impulse

Thank you for the article , I think you've one of the few people that understand the nervous conditions of South Africans. However when you spoke about China and India and how we aren't inspired by them, or something along those lines , I just wanted to add my five bob. I've been working in Japan for the past 2 years and I've been travelling around East Asia alot. Through my travels and many encounters , I've found that South Africans also share the same conditons as Asians thats is aspiring towards European /First world statuses. Even a country like Japan which is well developed and seemingly embraces its own unique culture they too aspire to replicate themselves into a European/Anglo-saxon model and this is evidents in many aspects of their society...And since Japan is touted as the ideal developed Asian nation, many Indian and Chinese that I've met have aspirations for their countries to be the next Japan. So in essence I think all non- European/Anglo-saxon countries suffer from mimetic impulse.

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