Campuses are always removed from reality. Credit: Roger Sedres/Gallo Images/Getty Images

April 27, 2021   6 mins

The meme of the First World Problem first hit the internet a decade ago, to satirise what pampered pooches we’ve become — “can only get 3G not 4G”, “had to stand on public transport” — when, really, we should all be pathetically grateful for our tech-enabled, progress-enriched lifestyles. Into this category, you could also tip many of the ‘problems’ that have come to dominate our news cycle. How should Afro hair be incorporated into British schools’ dress codes? Is it a ‘sexist’ fabrication that Carrie Symonds tried to get a minister fired — or is it just a fabrication? Should The National Trust celebrate LGBTQI+ culture, or should it perhaps get on with preserving historic buildings?

We spend so much time raking over this kind of tattle because the broader culture war tends to play out through small news cycle flash points. But also because we don’t have to talk about Jim Crow. It is a sign of precisely how well we’re doing.

By that yardstick, nothing should refute First World Problems more than Third World conditions. In the Third World, the obvious answer to the problematising of haircare regimes is: Look out your bloody window”. Who needs micro aggressions when you have macro? Consider the woman begging for scraps at the traffic lights and vomit up your rainbow of intersectional identities.

Yet just as Rambo once became a hero to kids in Angola, so too the West is exporting its culture wars to places it barely understands. This is the emerging story at the heart of Helen Zille’s new book Stay Woke Go Broke: Why South Africa won’t survive America’s culture wars (And what you can do about it).

Zille has dominated South African opposition politics for nearly two decades. Once, she was the crusading liberal journalist who broke the scandal of Steve Biko’s murder in police custody. More recently, she has racked up eight years as leader of the Official Opposition — the Democratic Alliance — and a decade as Premier of the Western Cape. She is also a pugnacious Twitter power user, with over a million followers, and has, the reader senses, swallowed the site’s obsessions more than most.

The book’s extensive subtitle alludes to where the South African state of play is right now: it’s a primer, for an audience who are lucky enough never to have heard of James Lindsay or Robin DiAngelo. Despite the homogenising power of the internet, South Africa has remained insulated from the full depth of the culture wars, by both the deep reality of its problems, and by its standing start. There has never been a culture of “political correctness”. While the racial fault lines are obvious and vast, the conversations around them have always been suitably robust. The gentility and euphemism that characterise First World conversations just don’t exist. It’s much harder to talk of “systemic racism” being invisible yet everywhere, as the Intersectional Social Justice movement does, in a country where only 30 years ago there was a literal system of apartheid.

But as in the West, in South Africa it’s university campuses — and particularly the importation of Critical Theory sub-genres like Critical Race Theory and Queer Theory — that have provided the initial incubator to wokeness. In 2015, the University of Cape Town held an early dry run, with the Rhodes Must Fall protests. Initially focused on a prominent statue of the man who built the campus, soon the protests’ literature began to include phrases like: “the fall of ‘Rhodes’ is symbolic for the inevitable fall of white supremacy and privilege at our campus”. Before long, Critical Theory had usurped the entire movement, to the point where the university hosted a “Science Must Fall” meeting that rejected the white devilry of Newtonian physics, in favour of a suitably decolonised alternative: essentially an African witchcraft theory of causality.

Since then, the stain has spread slowly and unevenly. Universities are elite cloisters, whether they are in Kigali or Copenhagen. They are always First World. But what happens when the Nitrogen of First World problems meets the glycerine of Third World Problems?

Most developing countries are Bosnia to some degree: where there are ethnicities, there are tensions, and where there is fledgling democracy, there is only ever fragile order. The key question is whether identity then becomes the fault line on which all politics is built. For an opportunist as cunning as the South African politician Julius Malema — whose Chavista party is known as the Economic Freedom Fighters — the coming of Woke serves as a rhetorical cloak that speaks to some of his followers’ most base instincts: the belief that The White Man is evil, and ought to be pushed back into the sea. Malema’s lot might not be high theorists, but they instinctively grasp the rhetorical power of problematising. In 2018, while the “H&M Monkey” controversy raged across Europe, Julius and his freedom fighters deployed to suburban shopping malls from Cavendish to Sandton, knocking over rails of H&M clothes in protest — which later had to be picked up by low wage, mostly black workers.

All of which speaks to something the founders of Critical Race Theory never seemed to have taken into account, from their privileged positions in the rich West. Ordinarily, the pyramid of victimhood that puts Black at the top depends on Black being a minority, and so perhaps in need of special protections. So what happens when the “system” from which systemic racism is supposed to emerge has been run by an entirely black cohort for over 25 years? To really root it out, what should you do, in a country where the oppressor with the foot on your throat is actually only 7% of the population?

History is unfortunately replete with examples. From Amin’s Ugandan Asians, to Zimbabwe, to the expulsion of half a million whites from Mozambique, nationalist rhetoric has done just fine without “Woke”. But as the West is now finding out, it can be a fantastic way to put yourself into reverse gear, re-racialising, driving that initial wedge. Its logic pushes that wedge ever deeper. This is perhaps the best way to think of Woke in the Third World: as a new tool in the arsenal of power; a justification for retaining power for your racial in-group, rather than the First World ideal of giving it away.

In the 1990s, the ANC government implemented wide-ranging Black Economic Empowerment laws, which were designed to redress vast imbalances of opportunity and wealth. These were initially conceived of as temporary measures: affirmative action and share giveaways designed to build a black middle class. But since then, the Black Economic Empowerment laws have become little more than a mechanism for securing cascades of patronage by the kleptocrats at the top. ANC cadre can gift shares in various state monopolies, mining companies, and the like; who gets them is a function of whomever controls the BEE system — just so long as they happen to be black. It is also a dead cert they will also be rich and well-connected. In this new world, then, oppression is only real if it is racial, yet the poor and the needy are just as excluded as they ever were under the National Party.

And just as in the West, wherever diversity becomes the cardinal value, competence inevitably suffers. In the First World, this might only mean a slightly lower standard of ITV comedies. But in the developing world, the margin between getting by and cataclysm is simply much finer. Zille picks out the case of Mpho Letlape, the former Human Resources Manager at Eskom, the state electricity monopoly. Letlape’s official target specified that one in every two hires had to be a black woman, to meet “representivity quotas”. But because the skilled locals who had applied for these jobs refused to be the right colour or gender, Letlape reportedly spent a small fortune recruiting more than 300 black Americans in 2006/2007 who, through some privilege equivalent of the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist, could be made to count under the quota.

Most of them didn’t stick around: it wasn’t long until only 68 of the 300 remained in Eskom’s employ. It is perhaps not a coincidence that in 2009 a disastrous wave of rolling blackouts began to affect the entire country, crippling industry. A decade later, these blackouts still roll on and on. 

The story of the country’s economic woes is of course vastly more complicated than this simple vignette, but it does speak to a thread that unites Wokeism in the First and Third worlds. In the same way that you can’t get a permit to sell fruit in Tunisia without paying baksheesh to someone’s cousin’s brother’s uncle who’s in the cops, lately in the West, it is becoming harder and harder to do business with large organisations, both public and private, without first paying tithes to their diversity systems, their climate goals and all manner of gestural politics, rather than their basic economics.

Inevitably, whenever an organisation ceases to be interested in its core mission, and instead becomes wrapped up in side-quests like race balancing or “decolonisation”, its output begins to sag. Today, that everyday Third World issue, the detachment of efficacy from employment, is beginning to visit itself upon the First. For those in the West who like to lean into their White Guilt, it might even be inspiring to know that — just by wandering through yet another listless art exhibition made to serve political ends rather than cultural — they too can experience a very common kind of Third World problem.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.