Friends for Enemies

Friends. I’ve always found this to be a quaint notion. Something that offers a sense of endearing companionship while providing a comforting distraction from our isolation in this world. I’m obviously cynical on the subject because I’ve experienced and witnessed true friendship quickly recede when reality became unpalatable. So I wonder if there is really something called true friendship?

I think it’s all about that beautiful old principle about what’s in it for me. More than this, it also relates to our inflated sense of self, and how well the friendship nurtures that self-image. There are memes in abundance regarding the nature of true friends that would point out your shortcomings and not only make you feel good. But there are unfortunately not nearly an abundance of friends who want their shortcomings pointed out.

One of my favourite sayings in this regard has been attributed to a number of different historical personalities, but its truth remains…well, true. It says that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, which in turn implies that the enemy of my friend is also my enemy. I guess that also means that the friend of my friend is my friend and the enemy of my enemy is also my friend. Anyway, point is, those that hate what we hate find a sense of association with what we value, and vice versa. Most would confine the understanding of this with just the relationship that they maintain with others, but I think it goes beyond that. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it is more accurate to view this within the context of our characters, and which good or bad traits we recognise as friends or foe.

Within the above context, suddenly the person that hates my bad traits and looks to encourage me to abandon such traits becomes my friend. However, that assumes that I sincerely want to improve that aspect about myself. It assumes that the bad trait is not something I hold on to as a definition of my self relative to a defence I need to prevail in this world. It assumes that I live with conviction, and that I strive to improve with every day that is offered to me. That’s a grossly inaccurate assumption. I struggle to find people that actively and sincerely seek to better themselves. To recognise their shortcomings and to bravely embrace the changes that are needed to raise the standard of their contribution to this world.

Most are bent on embracing those struggles or shortcomings that resonate with others, and nothing more. When we show the world how brave we are to face off what everyone else is struggling with, it feeds our ego more than it develops our character. It proclaims that we are bold while others are meek, and in so doing gives us the courage to fight that good fight that defeats so many. And so we prop up our egos and assume that we’re sincere about improving who we are, while in the process convincing the shallow ones that we are indeed striving to improve. Yes, I speak with contempt of such endeavours because it only entrenches the insincerity that has eroded the wholesomeness of society and life in this self-indulgent world.

The one who reflects, recognises the ugly inside of them, and then simultaneously celebrates the beauty within, is more likely to demonstrate gratitude for their lot in life than the one who only sees the ugly and tries to disguise it as a noble struggle. Those that live their lives out in the social network limelight need the affirmation that is lacking when they look within. They need to see themselves through the lenses of others because their own lenses offer little or no comfort at all. Their enemies become their friends, and robs them of peace and energy as they go through life painstakingly maintaining the defenses that they need to make them feel whole.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The one who recognises the ugly in me and sincerely advises me about it is the one whom I should embrace. Not the one who convinces me that my darkness within is not a bad thing because everyone else has it. Not the one who tries to convince me that my darkness or my handicaps are not so bad because they want me to pull them closer for making me feel better about myself. They are self-serving at my expense, and I am left wanting because of it.

With friends like these, indeed, who needs enemies. Friends or enemies both offer the opportunity for growth, but only if we are honest in our reflections and introspections about who we really are, and what we stand for. If we’re comfortable glossing over our shortcomings because we’re more inclined to celebrate our few strengths or successes, it will be a short while before we lose our footing and feel the stench of complacency strangle the peace out of our lives because at some point, everyone gets that wake-up call. Everyone has an innate desire to shrug off the yoke that has held them back for so long and to move forward with or without the significant others that pacified them while they carried that yoke around. That’s when relationships are truly forged and defined, or discarded.

But it requires courage, and it requires conviction, and it requires brutal honesty, all of which are in short supply in a world of instant gratification where friends can be acquired and lifetime companions can be discarded in favour of a synthetic life. The more virtual our reality, the less real our lives will be. But death is not a virtual outcome. It’s not the end of a level or the expiration of a time limit on some game with in-app purchases. Perhaps that should read ‘inept purchases’. That is what we do. We sell our souls in favour of short term gains because we lack the courage to forge ahead into the unknown. We seek the comfort of certainty in the outcomes of our decisions, and therefore make decisions when we can rely on the predictable outcome, rather than making decisions because we uphold the principles that we profess to live by.

Still think you have friends? In fact, still think you’re capable of being your own best friend? Go on, be honest. I dare you!

Finding Balance (Part 2)

I need to step back from my life in order to regain an objective view (if that’s possible) of whether or not I am investing my time, energy, and resources as effectively as possible. Recently I’ve been contemplating how easily distracting it is to be coping well while losing sight of the fact that in coping we end up reacting, rather than owning.

Life happens based on what we perceive as being a priority. As we invest in those priorities, be they people or material outcomes, they increase or decrease in value for us. When we find ourselves enjoying success in any of them, we invest more. If we find a sense of fulfilment or joy in them, we invest more. Eventually, we focus on the success and the outcomes and how that makes us feel, while forgetting to question whether or not the investment is still in line with our original purpose for making the investment. In other words, we end up investing in our ego as the priority, with the original objective becoming a secondary concern.

It’s this cycle that I’m weary of. I pause for brief moments at times, and sometimes I’m caused to pause by health or other events, and in that brief moment I notice how little of my life is firmly in hand. Not from a controlling perspective, but from a deliberate investment perspective. How much of what I do am I doing because it is what I intended or needed to do, versus how much of it is purely because I am responding out of obligation or habit?

Part of the challenge of surrounding yourself with people that either don’t know you as well as they need to (often through no fault of their own but because of how inaccessible certain parts of us are) is that we have less sources of objective but meaningful criticism. This is exacerbated when we find ourselves surrounded by those that are at a life stage that we may have passed, or because they respect or admire us so much that they see no fault. When this becomes the make up of our social circles, be it significant others or professional acquaintances, we risk becoming heroes in our own minds.

The balance that eludes me is that despite being significantly productive by average standards, I am nagged with thoughts that I am not achieving nearly as much as I am capable of doing. The clutter, the noise, the distractions, and even the productive moments are so loosely strung together that the thread is almost invisible. Gaining visibility of that thread that pulls it all together will allow me to determine if its my own thread, or am I just a bead on someone else’s necklace? [That’s a weird analogy but I’m going to leave it there for now].

I need my own string of pearls. Costume jewellery (or junk jewellery as I prefer to call it) is far too easy to acquire and model into designs that are sparkly in appearance but lacking in true value. I need to ensure that the design of my life is in line with my understanding of the higher purpose that I profess to serve. Living responsively pacifies the yearning for movement in life, but it does little for the need for purpose. It’s for this reason that we sometimes find ourselves swamped with responsibility and inclusion, with no shortage of social contribution or familial relations, yet feel empty or unfulfilled.

More than being appreciated, I think we each have a deeper desire for leaving a legacy. That legacy is not materialistic in nature. Materialism satisfies the ego, not the spirit. The legacy has to testify to the improvement of the quality of life of others, or else our existence remains a commodity, or entirely inconsequential. Being inconsequential tears away at souls more often than we realise. It comes disguised as lacking in influence, or waiting for love, or even hoping for specific outcomes that are beyond our realistic reach. When our will to acquire that which remains elusive eventually fades, that’s when the feelings of being inconsequential set in; followed promptly by depression, self-loathing, lack of motivation, and often self-harm (not always with a blade either).

To avoid these pitfalls, I need to take time to step back, to observe and to account for the way in which my life is being expended. I see it as a traditional scale with the weight of my contribution to others on one side, and my extraction of benefit or personal gain on the other. The former must always be heavier, but never so heavy that it bottoms out. If it bottoms out, it means that I have failed to show due appreciation for myself, and for the abilities I have to contribute towards others. It means that I’ve become a martyr rather than a champion, or a pawn rather than a participant. And if the latter is weighed down, it means that I have become self-indulgent, quite possibly seeing others with contempt, ungrateful for what I have or receive, and a liability rather than an asset to society.

The quiet moments are needed for this to re-form to a shape that is wholesome and beneficial without detracting from the reality of my life. The outcome cannot be a dreamy one. It cannot be so superficial or esoteric that it offers little to no tangible value to those around me, or me. Instead, it must be substantial enough to encourage a recalibration of those areas of my life that are excessive in nature, or investment. It must provide a semblance of solace, and a tone that harmonises, without detracting from the responsibility that I have to act under circumstances that are not of my choosing nor of my preference.

Finding that balance, in many ways, embellishes the purpose of life. In fact, without it, there can be no purpose worth pursuing.

Finding Balance

When I was a kid, I remember my only concern when I got sick was how soon could I go out to play again. Recently though, each time I feel a severe illness setting in, my mind wanders towards considerations of this being my final moments. To date, the panic has not yet set in. Inevitability, although I may resist it initially at times, I find myself more inclined to embrace it and consider the options for my response instead.

Often, I try to trace my steps back to where I lost the balance in my life that led up to this moment of disruption. Illness, for me, has always been a sign that something is out of proportion in my life rather than being the victim of some external force in the universe. Yes, there are times when something deliberate external to my being afflicts me, but at those times I find that if I maintain my focus on balance, the impact with which it affects me is significantly less than most others that are exposed to similar circumstances.

More than anything else, I’ve found that acceptance of my contribution, or lack thereof, towards a given situation dissipates the unhealthy internal stressors that threaten my health or emotional wellbeing. The unnatural but common response is to defend ourselves against possible guilt in a negative outcome. So when we find ourselves faced with trying circumstances in our lives, we are most often inclined towards asking that repugnant question of ‘Why me?’. I could never figure out the logic that warrants such a question.

When we ask ‘Why me?’ we automatically imply that we’re underserving of what we’re experiencing, which suggests that we have an assumption of innocence. Worse than this, we also imply that it is perfectly acceptable for it to happen to someone else, because again the assumption is that they must be more deserving of it than we are. It assumes that we’re angelic in our ways, eternally sincere in our commitment to every relationship we participate in, and fully informed of the choices we’ve made, all of which have been made with utmost benevolence and wisdom. Yeah right.

We’re self-indulgent and selfish by nature. We look to the world and demand that it creates for us what we need, without first considering what we need to contribute to the world so that it has the capacity to offer what we all need. Wow, that’s up in the clouds even by my standard, so let me try to make it more practical than that. Choice is that horrible thing we have when it doesn’t work out in our favour, but it’s something we jealously defend when it does. Right there is the crux of balance.

Acceptance of the outcomes of the choices that we make, regardless of how good or bad those outcomes are, determines how healthy our response will be to the impact it has on our lives. Balance doesn’t just come from being a good person while not considering where you’re investing all that goodness. Nor does it come from living passively and waiting for others to uplift you. It comes from appreciating what we have, and then consciously utilising those resources and opportunities towards achieving a better state than the one we’re in. Towards achieving a better state than the one we’re in. That is what is important.

Far too often we focus on utilising what we have to simply protect or defend what we have. Then we bemoan the fact that others keep getting the good breaks in life while we continue to struggle just to keep our heads above water. We embrace fear before we embrace our strength because the repercussions of negativity are always more tangible and memorable than success. When we succeed at something, unless it is of a particularly notable achievement, we assume that it was merely deserved or expected.

It’s as if we have a desired circle of influence that we define for ourselves. The healthier our self-esteem, the larger that desired circle until our self-esteem outgrows our abilities and that circle then reflects our arrogance instead of our influence. This is similar to what we see with misguided political leaders that destroy countries in their insistence to wield the power that they have been flirting with for so long, while refusing to acknowledge that they lack the competence to do so effectively. The same principles apply in our own lives.

Theory aside, balance escapes us when we try to escape reality. The fear of accountability drives our behaviour more than we realise. That fear is not always an aversion to accountability. In fact, I’ve often witnessed it being an inclination to assume accountability for the choices of others. This is a double-edged dagger for many reasons the most important of which is that it results from either a self-loathing, or an inflated ego. The self-loathing drives us to assume accountability for the negative outcomes that result from the poor choices of those around us, leaving us to question our significance in their lives because we couldn’t influence them differently. The inflated ego tells us that we are accountable for the success that others enjoy simply because we played some miniscule role in setting them on the path that they eventually pursued.

Finding balance starts with being self-aware. That self-awareness must be accompanied by a sense of accountability for the current state we find ourselves in relative to the choices we made that caused us to arrive at this point. Once we get that right, our choices become more informed, and more effective because suddenly we’ll be focused on choosing to act in ways that we have good reason to believe will be effective towards achieving a consciously chosen outcome, rather than simply choosing to respond to avoid a negative outcome.

Our bodies are vessels of expression before anything else. Whether you consider the soul to be independent of the body, or you consider your seat of intelligence to be in the brain, either way, that source of intelligence and intelligent choice directs the body to express in due proportion. When we turn that intelligence into a harsh self-criticism, we effectively instruct our bodies to act against ourselves, which results in ailments that are a result of our own thought processes rather than external interference.

What we often miss is the fact that when we live under duress of our own minds, we weaken our ability to resist the harmful effects of the environments in which we exist. This completely undermines all our efforts to want to improve the state of our lives, while we sabotage ourselves before even setting out, eventually believing that fate dealt us a bad hand. Fate is what we make of it. If we didn’t have the power to choose, or for rational thought, we could justifiably blame fate for every woe in our lives. However, I believe that coincidence is not a chance occurrence. It is the fortuitous alignment of events that result from the collective choices of us, which presents opportunities that we would otherwise not have access to. How we perceive those opportunities, relative to our belief in our ability to influence its outcomes, determines whether they are wasted experiences, or moments that add value to our lives.

Fleeting Thoughts (Take II)

Flirt with fate and abandon your fears. Living safely cheats life, while flirting with fate cheats death.

We may not be able to delay the time of our death, but we can delay the decline of our lives. It’s only through abandoning fear and embracing life that we can ever hope to truly live our own experiences.

We go through life living the experiences dictated by others and forget that we’ve neglected ourselves in the process.

There’s a fine line between sensibility and recklessness. Crossing it requires an absence of logic and reason.

Logic and reason only get in the way of a life well-lived if it’s cloaked in fear. So abandon fear, and instead, live with passion and a love for life.

Don’t confuse your love for this world with a love for life. The two are distinctly different and mutually exclusive.

Loving this world stifles your soul, and if the soul be the seat of life, then abandon that which harms it.

A Brain Dump

Brain dumps are therapeutic, if you do it right. It allows a release, an unstructured release of the clouds that trail you through the day. Life demands structure, and structure demands discipline. Both have their place, but did you notice how beautifully random the structure of nature appears? It has probably the most complex system of checks and balances we’ll ever encounter, yet it thrives if appreciated, especially where such appreciation simply demands that it be left to find its own way.

People can’t function like that. If left to find our own way, most are inclined to believe that no one cares. Hardly anyone recognises the freedom in that. I find myself caught in a health cycle that is unfamiliar to me. Having had an acute focus for many years now on the physiological impact that our emotions and thought patterns have on us, I lost sight of what keeps us above ground when it comes to navigating through that space. It’s so easy to get pulled into the quicksand that we’re always warning others about.

Recurrent failures at building relationships that are not optional can create gaps in your soul that you don’t notice until the possibility of filling those gaps erodes almost completely. The decision on which relationships are optional and which are not is a simple one that is tied to our value systems. My need for authenticity will not allow me to be selective as to when I accept and embrace my responsibilities towards others, or when I set it aside for convenience’s sake. I am perfectly capable of abandoning or morphing my value system into one that is more convenient, but I know that the moment I do that, I will lose any legitimate claim to cry foul when others do the same.

Optional relationships are the ones that hold no yoke over us if we neglect it. If there is no tie of kinship or contract, we are not under any obligation to care for or contribute to such relationships. Communal obligation, that is. Strange though that it seems like optional relationships tend to get the most investment these days. It seems as if these they provide us with needed distractions from the relationships grounded in responsibility and compulsion. There seems to be a demand for attention or reciprocation at every turn, mostly out of obligation rather than passion or purpose.

It seems I’ve even forgotten how to do a brain dump. My health has been less than satisfactory recently, and almost all of it has been associated with a collage of duress that has coloured my life for a long time now. Each tile in the collage stems from an investment I made in others, some in a personal setting while others in a professional setting. Watching trust replaced by loyalty to the prevailing authority is commonplace these days. I’ve had to remind myself often in recent months that more should not be expected from the ones that worship titles and pursue labels and acronyms. But it’s the contagion of human nature. The moment we see beyond the superficial gusto that people present as their armour of confidence, it’s difficult not to sympathise with the child within.

Too many times have I witnessed people reaching an old age while still not yet having achieved the state of being a fully formed adult. The difficulty lies in the rarity of adults. Most are overgrown children waiting for some childhood need to come to pass, while grudgingly accepting the responsibility that accumulates with the years. All the while, the essence of our lives are spent in waiting for others to do right by us. It rarely happens.

Those that have crumbling spines suffer from a deficiency of bone density because they lack the courage to build what only they can build. The more we tell our bodies that we’re not good enough, the less our bodies will respond favourably when we need it to. If it is true that the soul is the seat of intelligence and the body merely a vessel for expression, then it stands to reason that we have the power to enable our bodies for good, or to turn it on itself in order to express the weakness we harbour within.

I’ve been waiting with warranted hope that some relationships would have finally blossomed into the beauty that it once promised, but I forgot along the way that I was not the defining influence in those relationships. What contaminated it from without, I assumed to be a deficiency within the relationship, when in fact the only deficiency was that I held others to a standard that they did not subscribe to for themselves.

The contention built up within me, slowly sapping my clarity of thought, then my energy, then my creative expression, gnawing away at my memory, and finally imposing the weight of its imbalance on my body which eventually caved in under all the pressure. It sounds like a dramatic description of the flu, but the reality is that it takes a chorus of failed expectations to wear me down, never just a single one.

Those that succumb to a single betrayal have invested too much in a single part of their life. Worse than just the investment, they divested from their own lives. They assumed that entrusting another with more than their affection, in fact with everything they needed to breathe seemed like the ultimate expression of commitment to an outcome desired by both, but invested in by only one.

Ill health is a sign of imbalance in the way we live our lives. Disease stands a greater chance of invading our bodies when our immune systems are focused on fighting the disruption we’ve created within. When we live under duress, we become easy pickings for our enemies. Be they disease or spineless creatures, the net effect is the same. We succumb to circumstances that would otherwise be opportunities for growth. The answer is so simple, yet so elusive.

The Desire For Excellence

Achieving a state of excellence in at least one sphere of our lives, I believe, is a universal yearning. It allows us to leave our mark or establish a legacy so that we may believe that we won’t be easily forgotten when we’re gone. It also feeds a need to constantly improve where we’re at in life. Aspiring to a new level of achievement in at least one sphere in which we believe we have a unique talent often gives us reason to face a new day.

Some start out in search of fame and focus their efforts on doing what they believe will be admired by others. So focused are they on what their intended audience wants, that they easily forget where their passion lies. The old adage of not going out in search of your love, but instead doing what you love and letting your love find you echoes through the air. But again, we’re so lacking in self-worth that unless there is visible acknowledgement and appreciation for what we do, we often abandon important pursuits because we thought no one cared.

The pursuit of excellence cannot be relative to the whims or dictates of others. It has to be more sincere than that. The conviction to achieve that excellence must be grounded in a heartfelt passion to improve the state of something that you personally experienced and wish to improve for others. If such a pursuit is directed at an outcome that benefits only you, you will be left wanting when you’ve achieved it, only to lament the time wasted in getting to a point that promised fulfilment but instead only fed your ego.

The ego. We keep getting back to that thing that robs us of so much. What could be wholesome is often discarded if we don’t see a benefit in it for us. Worse than this, we sometimes discard efforts simply because it may benefit someone that we believe is undeserving of such benefit. When we do this, we need to realise that it’s not excellence that we pursuit, but gratification.

Gratification is the outcome of a pursuit, not the purpose. Like I mentioned before about humility and happiness being an outcome of something else, so is gratification. The moment we enter a cycle looking to get something out, we lose sight of our true potential to contribute towards something that is larger than ourselves. Live with conviction, and ensure that your conviction is well-informed, and you’ll find that every outcome, no matter how insignificant it may seem, will leave a legacy of benefit for everyone that came into contact with you during your lifetime.

We all desire excellence, and to be associated with excellence, but we’re often too distracted to notice how our chosen path detracts from that excellence that we desire. We must be willing to contribute selflessly towards the outcome of something that won’t benefit us directly before we can hope to benefit indirectly from the fruits of such an effort. The irony is that we lose both when we start out with a selfish end in mind.

The moment we demand to be served with excellence, a moment’s reflection on the motivation of the one that serves us will reveal that they do so out of obligation or perhaps even fear. That leaves empty the need for significance as a human being. It only fulfils the desire for authority or the imposition of our will. But imposing our will on others is never fulfilling because we know that without such authority or power, we will be neglected or discarded because the value of our contribution will be insignificant. For this reason, among many others, the need for acceptance and appreciation as a human being, independent of any authority or political influence that we may yield, has driven many to do dastardly deeds in moments when they gave up hope of being appreciated simply for who they are.

The desire for excellence has to begin with the desire to perfect our contribution to this world. If it is tied to a clearly envisioned higher purpose, it makes it that much more powerful. However, many struggle to see their contribution as relevant within a context beyond their immediate lives. If this is true for you, then start by ensuring that you do not leave anyone or anything in a state worse than what it or they were before you touched them. Excellence is the habit that prompts us towards the elusive goal of perfection. It’s the pursuit of it that inspires us to be more, while its attainment (if indeed it can be attained) makes us complacent.

Seek to ensure that whatever you touch, or whoever’s lives you impact, you leave it in a better state than it was before you got there. And if you are unable to do so, then at least do not incur harm instead.

History Lessons

A long walk through Berlin can be quite revealing. Without looking for the prompts, political themes start forming familiar patterns in your mind. My trip started with a security alert I had received regarding attacks by extremist youth groups on people of colour in Germany. Oddly enough, that security alert rated Berlin and Johannesburg on the crime level, while Abu Dhabi was a point lower. I read the alert with annoyance as I saw the desperate attempt to single out Abu Dhabi. Berlin had the extremist groups, and Johannesburg had the high rate of violent crime to justify their ratings. Abu Dhabi however, had just a single incident of an American tourist being stabbed in 2014 as the basis for their alert. What I found ridiculous about this was the fact that they needed to identify a single isolated incident from 2 years ago for an Arab country, but had to mention trends of current crimes for the other two cities. It was this same bias and paranoia that started my journey on the wrong foot.

Being Muslim, I’m painfully aware of the stereotyping being done by the American government and their European allies which leaves me very much weighing in on the unfriendly side of the spectrum. Such irresponsible and opportunistic politicking has unfortunately become the hallmark of statesmen throughout the world, with very few exceptions.

With that playing in my mind, I started out my week in the capital city with a sense of restraint and trepidation. My usual routine would be to arrive, check in, and explore the surrounding area on foot looking to enjoy my first local meal. I didn’t do that this time. Instead, I ordered my first meal in the hotel at a ridiculous price, and stayed in until the next morning despite having arrived in the early afternoon. I stuck with the group from the conference I was attending for the better part of the week and felt no inclination to explore this immense city.

As the week dragged on, I looked for opportunity to believe that I was going to be treated as a stereotype but each time I was disappointed. I was treated as warmly or as dismissively as everyone else. The defining factor was the attitude of the locals that we encountered and not how I looked.

Eventually I shrugged off the paranoia, acknowledged that if I was to be the isolated incident there was nothing I could do to avoid it, and set out to explore the city on my own. Rather than use public transport or private taxis, I chose to walk. I needed to walk through the areas that the locals frequent if I hoped to get a sense of the real city instead of the tourist spots. I generally avoid the tourist spots except to see what is its appeal, before leaving to experience something more real.

Tourist spots are insincere. They’re deliberate shows of how the city wishes to be perceived, but rarely reflect what the city is truly about. It reminds me of a time when I visited Nice, France on a business trip. We were staying on the beachfront in a rustic but upmarket hotel, and everything was pristine. Buildings were well maintained, sidewalks were hosed down every night to get rid of the affluence of the pets of the affluent from the previous day, and it all seemed so idyllic. One morning I decided to take a different route to the conference centre and instead walked through the residential area just one or two blocks away from the beachfront. The contrast was amazing.

Pristinely maintained buildings gave way to unkempt apartment blocks with plaster peeling from the walls, and a healthy dose of graffiti to express the heartbeat of its residents. That felt more sincere than the polished facade of the beachfront. And so it was with Berlin. After having walked many miles through the city to see the usual attractions like the parliament buildings, Brandenberg Gate, and so on, I finally found myself walking through the back streets finding quaint little corner shops that weren’t unlike the ones we have back home, privately owned and owner run. Finally, I felt like I was closer to experiencing Berlin as a local.

Seeing people making their way home with shopping bags, and getting the whiff of the city’s bowels that made me gag every so often, I knew that Berlin was not as polished as its masters would like us to believe. But in that I found a distinct parallel between Berlin and Johannesburg, or even Cape Town. There is the side that gets all the attention to lay credence to our claim of being a world class African city, and there’s the real Johannesburg with its downtown slums that once used to enjoy the prestige of being the night life of the high life, and its neglected townships that dot the periphery. Sandton with its richest real estate in Africa is really on par with what the upmarket spaces of Berlin have to offer, but there is a grittiness to the in-your-face attitude that South Africans have that prevents us from selling it for more than it is.

All of this aside, the underlying human history (for lack of a better phrase) appear like sisters with Berlin, and pretty much every other foreign city that I’ve visited. Social classes exist, politics drive preferences, and business in the tourist spots are disproportionately valued compared to the townships or suburbs where real life happens. Every few generations witness the emergence of elitist leaders that have an emboldened conviction in driving a supremacist agenda, like Hitler in Germany, and apartheid in South Africa. Following on from the survival of those eras of stupidity we see the emergence of the opportunists that consistently lay the blame for their incompetence at the feet of their bigoted predecessors.

Occasionally I get a sense of a collective pride in what the locals feel about their city or their country. It’s similar to the annoying pride that Cape Townians have about Cape Town. But even with its recognition as the most beautiful city in the world, the elitism and the social class systems based largely on economics rather than race, also presents the lipstick on the proverbial pig. Berlin is no different, and so is every other city I’ve visited internationally. Some struggle more than others to keep us focused on the lipstick instead of the pig, like Delhi for example, but the unwillingness of the locals to believe that their idealism is a far cry from the reality that they avoid is consistent throughout.

We all have a need to be associated with something we’re proud of. When we’re disgruntled or excluded, we find it easy to focus on the pig while ignoring the lipstick, and vice versa. Everywhere I go, I see the same themes. Egotists pretending they’re better than others because they’ve accumulated more trinkets than the next. Meanwhile, the only difference is really the amount of generations that passed down the wealth that either made it old or new money for the current generation to control, or squander. South Africa is very much caught in the throes of the new money. And as is the case with new money, there is an inclination to flash it at the old guard more than there is to appreciate it and put it to good use for the future generations to come.

As old as Germany is, it was a somber reminder that awaited me at the Topography of Terrors Museum that confirmed that human degradation transcends wealth and race. All it needs is a collective sense of superiority coupled with a collective sense of fear, add some autocratic power, and you have the makings of another disaster. South Africa is on the brink of the same insanity, and it’s only a matter of time before we see leaders either rising up to stem the tide towards the abyss, or we witness the first inevitable fall from grace of a gluttonous government that is so self-absorbed in their struggle rhetoric that the squander of the promise of a decent life for all is a small price to pay for their 15 minutes of new money fame that they can wag in front of their colonial masters, as if that is a token of success.

History, if nothing else, has proven that success is far from the accumulation of wealth or power. Both have come and gone only to be replaced by a new wave of self-enrichment. There will never be a shortage of such beings. The ego of the nation will forever echo in its leaders. So it was with Germany when Hitler architected his popular revolt to drive forward a warped agenda, and so it seems it will be with South Africa if we don’t dig our heels in and resist the tide that is slowly steering us towards the annihilation of everything beautiful that South Africans subscribed to and aspired to achieve when apartheid fell. Unfortunately the elders that lived through that struggle failed dismally to establish an appreciation in the generations that followed of the values and the higher goals that drove their actions, and instead have created a generation of black colonialists that now threaten to do exactly what they despised about their colonial masters. But it seems it’s the African story, and South Africa will not be denied.