by Piet Coetzer

Blacklists and Hobson’s choice

Some realities, like old habits, don’t easily die

The Law of the Traansvaal
Law of Transvaal.jpg

A dear friend of mine, from the carefree days of our youth when we tumbled together as members of a South African Air Force gymnastics team, discovered, last week, that some times when you fall ill, you end up with Hobson’s choice of what's on a blacklists. And, it turns out, that, in this respect, things have not changed for a very long time.

The situation stirred my curiosity about the origins of both the expression 'Hobson’s choice' and 'blacklist'. It turns out that both have their roots way back in history and, even to this day, when the two converge the results can be deadly.

The oldest is 'blacklist', which goes back to the days of Charles II of England, who reigned towards the middle of the 17th century. History has it that he had a list drawn up of 58 judges and court officers who sentenced his father, Charles I, to death in 1649.

This list became known as the blacklist.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, 13 of these 58 men involved in the execution of his father were put to death. Another 25 were sentenced to life imprisonment, while the remaining 20 either died 'in time' or succeeded in escaping.

Over time 'blacklist' took on a much wider meaning as a list or register of people or entities who, for one reason or another, are being denied a particular privilege, service, mobility, access or recognition.

As a verb, to blacklist, can mean to deny someone work in a particular field, to ostracise a person from a certain social circle or bar them from receiving some goods or services.

In our present day environment the term is best known in the context of people being denied access to credit facilities for not performing well enough with the servicing of their debts.

And, if you think this is something new and unthinkable in the sense of even being refused life-sustaining medical treatment on the suspicion that you will not be able to pay for that treatment, you are wrong.

That being blacklisted because of your financial position can constitute a health hazard was a reality in South Africa more than a century ago. In 1907, three years before the Union of South Africa was established, the Transvaal Medical Union blacklisted patients if they could not pay cash in advance before receiving treatment. But we will come back to that later on.

Hobson’s choice

The expression 'faced with Hobson’s choice' relates to a real historic character, who in modern life, could have been the owner of a medical aid company. Thomas Hobson was, however, the owner of a thriving carrier and horse rental business in Cambridge, England, around the turn of the 17th century.

Hobson rented out horses, mainly to Cambridge University students, but refused to hire them out other than in the order he chose. The choice his customers were given was 'this one or none' – quite literally, Hobson's choice.

The way Mr. Hobson conducted his business took on proverbial status as early as 1660, less than 30 years after his death in 1631. The Quaker scholar Samuel Fisher referred to the phrase in his religious text, The Rustick's Alarm to the Rabbies, published in that year in which he wrote: "If in this Case there be no other (as the Proverb is) then Hobson's choice ... which is, chuse whether you will have this or none …"

It was Hobson’s custom that when someone came in for a horse, he was led into the stable, where there was plenty of choice, but Hobson obliged the customer to take the horse which stood next to the stable door.

The proverb endured over time as a description of someone being confronted with a situation where under any given circumstances, he has no real choice at all - the only option being to either accept or refuse an offer made or something that amounts to exactly the same thing.

The best known example of Hobson’s choice in the 20th century was Henry Ford who, according to legend, offered the Model-T Ford to his customers in “any colour they like, so long as it's black”.

The week before last my friend discovered that he was blacklisted from receiving an urgent medical procedure to clear a badly blocked artery supplying his brain with blood. The reason was that, unaware of the developing medical crisis, he became a member of the fund less than a year ago when joining his present employer.

Now, despite an affidavit from his doctor that there was no way of knowing of the developing crisis six months ago, he has to put some R80 000 upfront before a hospital will touch him. His other 'choice' is to take the extremely high risk of waiting another six months before undergoing the urgent procedure and/or the risk of ending up on a credit blacklist.

It would seem that the 1907, as they say in Afrikaans, wet van Transvaal (the law of the Transvaal; s**t or pay up), is still very much in place with the medical profession and medical aid companies today.

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