Imagine If It Were Normal To Say: If You Don’t Work, Don’t Eat


In 1973, a teenager named Jong-Dae Park landed in Nairobi, one of a family retinue moving up in the world. Jong-Dae’s father was a South Korean diplomat who had just been posted to Kampala; Kenya was an alluring visit en route.

On their brief holiday, the Park family was ‘struck by the orderliness, cleanliness and level of development of Nairobi compared to Seoul’.

Uganda exhibited more of the same excellence at a street level and the young Park received a quality high school education there, including remarkable English and French training that he would come to depend upon. For young Park grew to follow his father’s footsteps, working his way up to be an esteemed diplomat for South Korea, serving in East Asia, West Asia, and Washington DC. In 2010, J. D. Park, now a father himself, would apply from Rome to return to Uganda after 36 years away from ‘the pearl of Africa’. He got the post. ‘It was a dream come true’.

Then the plane landed and Park took a ride from Kampala airport. The traffic jammed 10 kilometres from the capital. Taxis, on two wheels and four, broke rules, swamping all intersections. ‘I have not seen such chaos in my life.’ He had a lot of time to look through the window at what it had become. ‘I sensed that something must have been going wrong for a long time…’

The feeling never left him. He would keep up the diplomacy – he is now the South Korean ambassador to South Africa – and come to feel that he knew the answer. Approaching retirement, he has put that answer down, word for word. The sum is contained his his book, Re-Inventing Africa’s Development: Linking Africa to the Korean Development Model.

 The title is as dry as much of the text, which is mostly written in the formal style of a career diplomat who remains honour-bound to keep the juicy secrets to himself. Imagine a sketch-artist searching for the balance between hard realism and a persuasive soft touch who ends up drawing one jawline three ways and leaving them all on the page. This is something like Park’s modus operandi, repeating himself  on key points now and then to varying degrees of courtesy. If nothing else, it gives one a sense of the life of a diplomat.

And yet, despite the restraint of his sometimes repetitive textbook-style, there is an evocative power to this analysis that is defiantly focused on ‘something’ which is neither ‘politically’ nor ‘diplomatically correct’, the problem that he will not obfuscate or excuse.

This is the first table in Re-Inventing; it is Park’s problem statement, a kind of open secret. I find it hard to look at for more than a glimpse without finding it impossible to look away.

Park has spent his life hobnobbing lobbyists, journalists, magnates, and politicians and is extremely well read. Thus equipped, he soberly analyses arguments to the effect, for instance, that donors are to blame (over $1 trillion has been injected), carefully finding the merits and demerits in several sub-points among the head wonks who push the blame out of Africa before dropping into the first person. ‘But the way I see this issue is that aid is only as good as the recipients’ ability to make use of it…The correct assessment would be that Sub-Saharan African countries are experiencing problems in spite of aid, not because of it.’

Park then repeats the exercise, meticulously addressing each node along the gamut of orthodox explanations for Africa’s failure, by and large, to produce at tempo – geographic determinism, ethnic determinism, and colonial (legacy or reincarnated) determinism. Patiently and gently he analyses these explanations into pieces. In short, Park spends the first hundred-plus pages convincing the reader that it is worse than you think. The ‘winds of change’ started to blow across Africa where the above graph starts and most of the continent was liberated by the 1960s. And then the promise broke. Development arrested. The insult to injury – with the usual excuses debunked – is this: no one knows why.

Park then turns inward, at the level of nation, to tell a story you think you already know. It starts with colonialism, this time Japan’s subjugation of Korea. The allied victory in WWII brought liberation, and, with it, strife. Korea was split in twain by a line so arbitrary it is called ‘the 38th parallel’, along the divide of the Cold War.

Then, behold, a miracle. From the ashes, South Korea’s GDP would catch up with Africa’s domineering powerhouse, South Africa, by the mid-1980s. Today South Korea has a GDP five times the size of ours. It is, Park argues, the most concentrated and egalitarian economic boom anywhere, ever. In addition, you can see the difference it made from space … from a satellite made in South Korea and launched from its spaceport, Naro.

It is a story worth telling well, coldly and quite as thoroughly as he does. One way that Park’s story diverges from the regular rags-to-riches Cinderella fantasy is that he respects the slog – walking the reader through a ‘miserly’ journey from raw agrarian desperation through light manufacturing, wigs, fabrics and shoes, to heavier manufacturing and big bets made on steel, nonferrous metal, machinery, shipbuilding, electronics and chemical engineering, pausing along the way to dig into key moments.

The ‘unique and unmatched’ growth in manufacturing – averaging a 17% annual increase in value added through the 1960s and 16% annual growth in the 1970s – fuelled the world’s most radical economic transformation. After the hard work came more hard work. Even after more than a decade of manufacturing radical economic transformation on a world-beating scale, Koreans were living harsh and basic lives. In the 1970s, 80% of homes had simple thatched roofs, while only 20% had electricity. ‘The situation in Korea back then is comparable to or even worse than what most Sub-Saharan African countries face today.’ Toil, sweat and tears brought scant reward beyond the reward of more of the same.

There was blood, too – 5 million souls lost in the postcolonial Korean war. The South’s first leader, a despot of sorts, would be deposed in 1960 in a deadly student-led revolution. The next government was knocked out a year later by military coup. The coup’s leader took over until he was assassinated in 1980 by his aide, the chief of intelligence. Then came the ‘Seoul Spring’ and another military coup, states of emergency, martial law, union mass actions, cascading uprisings. Finally, in 1993, Korea became a credible democracy.

Then, the Cinderella ball? No. More pain. In 1997, the government went bankrupt and had to turn to the IMF for a bailout, a humiliation which required temporarily sacrificing sovereignty. In 2008, it was hit by the global financial crisis like the rest of us. Only South Korea recovered faster from crisis, a knack to remember.

Big business and big government had got too close and cozy, however, and in October 2016, the first woman president, Park Geun-Hye, was accused of corrupt dealings on credible evidence. Protests started. After that came more protests, by candle light, in a freezing winter deep into the night. By December, two million people were marching in the streets. President Park was impeached, tried and convicted in a transparent rational process, and sentenced to 25 years. She is already in detention. Former president Lee was tried and convicted, too, and given a fifteen-year sentence.

The Rise of South Korea is not a fairytale. It takes place in a harsh mountainy place where vegetables grow only under artificial covers produced in the ‘White [plastic] Revolution’. There is a barrel pointed at its head, really megatons of regular artillery arched at the capital – which goes unmentioned, like the nuclear arsenal that puts all those souls a button-push away from annihilation.

Park loves his country. It has liars and crooks and gladhands like everywhere else. There, some good ideas have turned out to be bad, like everywhere else. There was destruction, the 1950s war knocked out an annual GDP’s worth of infrastructure, schools, hospitals, sewerage, so it started with next to nothing. In the 1950s, illiteracy among adults was ‘a staggering 77%’, so in terms of human capital it started flat, too.

So what is there to love? Change. Try as he might to write in the style of a dispassionate diplomat, Park makes the impression that his nation’s tale of bearing relentless hard knocks is itself a knockout.

It knocks out self-pity and complacency and scapegoating. Re-Inventing is mainstream heresy because Park thinks people matter more than anything else. ‘If people were to ask what the single most important root cause is of underdevelopment of Sub-Saharan Africa, the best answer I can think of is the “mindset”’. Not the past, not others, not technology, not institutions or ‘systems’ that are often so vaguely defined as to be meaningless – Park thinks the things that matter most are minds. He wants to change them.

‘[A] strong government initiative bringing on board various political, social and regional leaders and groups could foster a sense of nation and development-mindedness. This could be done by national campaigns spearheaded by political leaders’. There is a trite veneer to this but Park scratches it back to show the mettle he means to evoke.

He cites Sung-Hee Jwa, for example, an economist who reckons the secret to Korean success was ‘sangpilbhur, a Korean axiom meaning ‘reward good deeds and punish wrongdoings’, which he termed ‘economic discrimination’. Park argues for ‘economic discrimination’, a key to incentivising innovation and excellence.

Park goes further, arguing that ‘Africa’s ills can no longer be blamed on its colonial legacy’, and celebrating others willing to make this radical claim like (former) Kenyan prime minister, Raila Odinga. ‘Transformation’ and ‘empowerment’ are conventional ideas that Park supports forcefully but not in a conventional way. ‘Empowerment’ to Park means investing your own resources. ‘Transformation’ means increasing productivity. ‘Land reclamation’ means replanting forests wiped out by war. 21 million people planted over ten billion trees in South Korea with their hands to ‘reclaim the land’.

A major contributor to the ‘mindset’ shift that drove ‘transformation’ in South Korea was the Saemaul Undong [tse-mowl oondong] movement that started in 1970, also known as the New Village Movement. It was a ‘national campaign spearheaded by political leaders’ which involved talking up economic discrimination, diligence and hard work. It meant ‘learning that “nothing is free”’.

It also meant stoking competition. Rather than have government build things for villages, raw materials were put to the locals to make infrastructure themselves in their spare time. A year later, officials would come back and reward the villages that made the most of it, also giving points for hygiene and cleanliness, with prestige and more quality raw materials of their liking. Many villages failed but some succeeded. And then next year again, with former slackers given opportunities to catch up and shamed and encouraged into doing, trying, with hard-won winners given prized extras. And so the competitions went.

The incentives were right, but so too were the attitudes of the preponderance of people. To this day, according to Park, it is common practice at slick Seoul office parties for bosses to say, have fun, ‘push it to the limit’ and don’t worry about coming in late tomorrow. Then, tomorrow everyone shows up on time and no excuse for tardiness is allowed and the people slog.

South Korea proves that people can volunteer to go the extra mile as a norm and this is not mere anecdote. When the government went broke and had to call in the IMF, 3.5 million ordinary Koreans voluntarily donated a collective 227 tons of gold to help pay back the money. Ten billion trees. What changes everything? People.

Park’s central claim that social forces apart from governance and economics are hugely underrated in general and in particular by outsiders who try to understand or emulate Korea’s success chimes in with some of the most exciting work to come from the US academe this millennium.

Leading US political theorist Philip Pettit’s work on The Economy of Esteem finds that no social science rigorously analyses what Park calls popular ‘mindset’. Curiously both he and Park find it helpful to draw people’s attention to the point that there is more to society than money and power through scatology. Pettit frequently notes that hidden cameras in public bathrooms (the experiment was first done in New York) show that men and women are much more likely to wash their hands if someone else is in the facility even if it is a stranger who cannot see them from behind the stall. The background norm programmes for hygiene. Park tells the story of a UN conference whose moral was to ask the locals what they want, rather than impose.

‘Another story was about young women shunning newly built pit latrines in or around their homes. It is said that women do not feel comfortable either sharing or being seen using the same latrine with other family members or relatives…’

The background norm at work here programmes either against hygiene or efficiency or both and the UN presenters implicitly upheld the norm, criticizing “Westerners” who came in with their own ideas of where to put latrines. Park thought it was very enlightening until later in the day he realized he was being asked to be an agent for the ‘status quo’. But Park wants to be an agent for change and he wants us Africans to be agents for change, too.

His confidence that these social forces can have drastic, national and even continental impact is in line with the world’s leading philosopher on race, Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah argues that a mindset shift like those Park describes in Korea also brought about, among others, the end to footbinding in China and slavery in the UK empire in a period as rapid as South Korea’s manufacturing eruption.

Re-Inventing Africa’s Development is the most radical invitation to rethink SA’s orthodoxy since Ramaphosa’s election. Park seems geared to bet his retirement on ramifying Saemaul Undong movements from Uganda and Rwanda to South Africa and beyond. His critical appraisal of the pilot programmes indicate room to grow. But can it really work?

That will be up to you to consider. Park notes the ‘can-do’ spirit was partly developed in the hinterland under 1930s colonial oppression through the Canaan Farmers School which inspired Seamuel Undong and ‘specializes in mindset change and agricultural programmes’ to this day. This is hard core.

‘It tries to instill the “I work first, I serve first, I sacrifice first” mentality in people, with the motto of “let’s learn until we know, let’s devote ourselves to work, let’s serve in humility”. It has an eye-catching slogan that is emblematic of its ethos: “do not eat to eat, but eat to work. If you don’t like to work, do not eat. Work at least four hours for each meal”.’

Can you imagine a South Africa in which that is a normal, likeable, lit thing to say in public, on TV, on radio, on social media, in print? ‘If you don’t like to work do not eat. Work at least four hours for each meal.’

Gabriel Crouse is the George F D Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a liberal think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).


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