Ann Crotty Writer-at-large
Alexandra township in Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Alexandra township in Johannesburg. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

What would Factfulness author Hans Rosling have made of the comments of one of the French protesters that after paying for rent, food and petrol she could not afford to take an annual holiday? Rosling — who died last year shortly after finishing his book about how the world is actually considerably better than most of us believe — might have been tempted to remind her of just how well off she and all her gilets jaunes colleagues are now.

Rosling’s book provides a useful account of the progress that has been made by mankind over the centuries and reminds us of how much better off we are now than before.

Just 10% of the global population is living in severe poverty, compared with 85% as recently as 200 years ago; life expectancy has been extended significantly; fewer countries are being run by oppressive patriarchies; and, despite the headlines, far fewer people are being killed in wars.

Perhaps French president Emmanuel Macron, and our own President Cyril Ramaphosa, should consider distributing copies of the book to citizens whenever they take to the streets to protest against their grim lot in life. By Rosling’s definition even the vast majority of SA’s township dwellers exist a few rungs above "severe poverty" and, with access to electricity, education and health services, are considerably better off than they might have been 20, 50 or 100 years ago.

And the French protester’s complaint about not being able to afford a holiday – even a car journey to a nearby caravan park – marks her and her hundreds of thousands of yellow vest colleagues as being among Rosling’s top 50% wealthy in the world.

Democratic capitalism is all about encouraging consumers to need more and voters to expect more

Rosling contends the tendency to believe we exist in a world that is getting steadily worse for all but a lucky handful is a human instinct designed with self-preservation in mind. Journalists, according to Rosling, have aggravated the tendency, presumably because, for example, instead of writing about the tens of thousands of planes that land safely every day, we only tell you about the few that don’t. And we never tell you about the wars and famines that aren’t happening.

As an aside, in the early 1990s the editor of The Star tried to push back against readers’ fixation on bad news. His commitment to giving exposure to some of the many good things going on back then had to be abandoned after a month or so, due to lack of reader interest.

But should the gilets jaunes, or SA’s service delivery protesters, be comforted by Rosling’s long-term picture of development when their own lives are patently not what the democratic capitalist system has encouraged them to expect? Rosling’s data is impressive, but the reality is that the all-important growth needed by the capitalist system relies on people never feeling comforted and instead believing that more is needed. Similarly, democracy involves politicians stoking the discomfort of voters with talk of inequality and promises of solutions.

Democratic capitalism is all about encouraging consumers to need more and voters to expect more.

It has so far proved unable to address the inevitable, growing disparities that make protestors look not to millennia of development, but to those who’ve extracted so much more from the system.