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Finding the Holy Grail?: Making poverty history in the 21st century

Ashwin Desai

University of KwaZulu-Natal

This paper is a summary version of the author's Uprooting or re-rooting poverty in post-apartheid South Africa? published on the SARPN website in May 2005.
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One of the most abiding stories of all time is the quest for the Holy Grail. Through the long twentieth century the Holy Grail was a symbol that was returned to, time and again to make sense of upheavals that accompanied industrialisation, the horrors of war and the erosion of the influence of Christianity.

It was the theme of probably the most popular English-language book of the 20th century, the Lord of the Rings by the Bloemfontein born J.R.R. Tolkien. But in Frodo's hands, the Grail is not the healing, heavenly talisman but powerful, corrupting and malevolent. Poets, too, got in on the act and TS Eliot's masterpiece, The Waste Land, drew from the Grail legend as Eliot responded to the Great Transformation of the 1920s that saw the destruction of the system reliant on hierarchy and tradition only to be replaced by a sense of despair and foreboding. No wonder, since Eliot was a Conservative and a Royalist. Movies followed. John Boorman's, Excalibur, George Lucas's Star Wars, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Monty Python's Holy Grail were obviously re-tellings but there were many others in which the Holy Grail was less a literal artefact and more an almost religiously redemptive state of being to be found in a place, a person or a way of life.1

And with the recent release of the last of the Star Wars episode and the amazing popularity of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, the Grail continues to re-invent itself as representing personal struggle, collective journeying and the need to achieve the ultimate goal which when found will reveal a deeper level of truth and meaning to a dispiriting post-industrial society.

In economics, the quest for poverty eradication often represents the struggle to find one magic explanation solution to bring an end to unnecessary worldly sufferings. Merlin-like characters abound, peddling various potions and expounding all manner of sage-like advice. The last century led to a host of approaches that ranged from colonialism (civilise the natives); the United States (bomb the natives); Pol Pot (exterminate the natives); the Bolshevik Revolution (that ran from permanent revolution to Stalin's socialism in one country and Castro's socialism on one island); the home-grown forms of state led socialism (Nyerere's ujamma); the hybrid of state and market (the Asian Tigers) and the shock therapy economics (post-communist Russia and post-Allende Chile). And social scientists tried to explain the growing gap between the first world and the rest - through modernisation (Rostow's take-off); underdevelopment (Frank's development of underdevelopment); combined and uneven development (Lowy) and the articulation of modes of production (Banaji). The search for the magic bullet that will kill poverty ran, to mix metaphors, the full gauntlet of experiments.


Footnotes:
  1. See Morgan, G The Holy Grail, Pocket Essentials, Hertfordshire, for a fascinating review of the many incarnations of the Grail.


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