Quote of the week

[Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro] possesses, however, few of his predecessor’s resources, lacking not just oil revenue but Chávez’s surplus of charisma, humour and political skill. Maduro, unable to end the crisis, has increasingly sided with the privileged classes against the masses; his security forces are regularly dispatched into barrios to repress militants under the guise of fighting crime. Having lost its majority in Congress, the government, fearing it can’t win at the polls the way Chávez did, cancelled gubernatorial elections that had been set for December last year (though they now appear to be on again). Maduro has convened an assembly to write a new constitution, supposedly with the objective of institutionalising the power of social movements, though it is unlikely to lessen the country’s polarisation.

Greg Grandin
London Review of Books
2 August 2010

Isn’t it all a bit too easy?

Isn’t it all just a bit too easy? Last week the four former Free State University students known as the Reitz Four were found guilty on a charge of crimen injuria by the Bloemfontein Magistrate’s Court for making a video in which they humiliated 5 workers who were probably old enough to be their mothers. The conviction, for the unlawful and intentional impairment of the dignitas of the workers, was welcomed by most political parties.

There was a collective sigh of relief from our leaders and from many members of the public: we can all now get “closure” about this “tragic” or “disgusting” incident, seemed to be the general view. Although the four men have maintained that they did not have the intention to humiliate the workers, they nevertheless pleaded guilty and were given suspended jail terms. But is it not all too easy?

(Searching the Internet, I noted that none of the stories I accessed actually contained the names of the five workers – unlike the names of the Reitz four which were mentioned in every article. Is this perhaps a subconscious erasure of the victims of this crime by the media? Are the victims supposed to remain nameless and faceless because they are “only” black, female, workers and not middle class white men? If the victims were blond, middle class you women, their names would probably have been mentioned in every report.)

Of course, punishing individuals who have broken the law is a good thing. Despite the fact that these men do not seem to want to admit that they really committed a crime and do not seem particularly sorry about what they did, and despite the fact that they will not go to jail (as those convicted of crimen injuria in South Africa are almost never sent to jail), it must give some satisfaction to see the law take its course and the four perpetrators being punished.

But is it not all a bit too easy?

By punishing the four, the rest of us can give a sigh of relief and go on with our lives. We do not have to wonder what kind of country produced these men, what kind of society and family structures, what kind of religious instruction and schooling, what kind of economic system which maintains a stark divide between bosses and servants were in place that made these men think that it was perfectly acceptable to humiliate fellow human beings: woman, the mothers of children.

Unlike us, these four men are criminals. In the words of a wonderful Afrikaans novel by Jeanne Goosen we can nod and say: “Ons is nie almal so nie” (“We are not all like that”) and continue with our lives.

Is this not a bit like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in which “perpetrators” were forced to come and account for their horrible deeds and the victims and families of victims could tell their stories of suffering and pain – as if only a small number of white people in South Africa were the perpetrators of apartheid and only a small number of black South Africa were the victims.

In reality, not only the few thousand victims and families of victims who testified before the TRC were the victims of apartheid. Every black South African who lived under a system that systematically humiliated and degraded human beings because of skin colour and denied human beings the opportunity to reach their full potential as human beings because of their skin colour, were the victims of apartheid.

Many white people do not like to hear this – either because they feel guilty or they are too blind and callous to acknowledge it – but all white people were the beneficiaries of the system of apartheid (and continue to be the beneficiaries because of the head start apartheid gave us) and almost all white people are implicated in the crime of apartheid.

Whether one voted for the National Party or not, whether one once signed a petition to free Nelson Mandela or took part in a march to protest the segregation of university residences, or made friendly chit-chat with the woman cleaning your house – one benefited from apartheid and one helped to prop up apartheid by not declining to enjoy its benefits, by living in whites only suburbs (unlike Nico Smit, a real hero), by going to whites only schools and taking jobs explicitly or implicitly reserved for white people.

Many black South Africans, also, do not want to think too hard about the apartheid days or want to rewrite the history of those years because they feel guilty and humiliated by the past and their role in it. They want to forget how so many collaborated with the apartheid state, became policemen and civil servants and home land administrators and politicians that helped prop up the apartheid system – because they had to get by and because they were scared and because they were not strong enough to resist.

As was the case with the TRC, individualising the actions  of the Reitz 4 lets the rest of us – black and white – off the hook. It divides us between the bad criminals and the rest of us who are good and blameless. It allows us not to think about our churches and our schools and what children learn there. It allows us not to think about family and friends and what we allow to be said or not to be said when we socialise with them (the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, the prejudice against foreigners that trip of their tongues and make us look away without saying anything) and what we allow our children to think and feel. 

It allows us – at least the members of the middle class who are increasingly both black and white – to go on driving in our nice cars and send our children to the best schools and benefiting from an economic system that condemns a majority of South Africans to grinding poverty with very little chance of escape. It allows us to say that there are a few very bad white people in this country (and a few corrupt politicians, too) but that the rest of us are not like them.

Maybe this is too easy.

We live in a rather sick country in which Ministers think that it is perfectly ok to live in Five Star Hotels at taxpayers expense while others are starving. A country in which businessmen and women make billion Rand deals and get huge bonuses and go back to their fortress houses and play with their dogs or even – if the little ones are lucky – with their children, while not far away some of our fellow South Africans do not have money to pay school fees for their children or, worse, do not have enough to eat. We drink Johnny Walker Black or Blue or Gold or sip Chardonnay and drive in the latest cars and deny the structural inequality which all middle class people benefit from – at least for now.

Maybe the stark reality is that that there is a bit of the Reitz 4 in all of us middle class South Africans (of all races) – us people with access to Internet and transport and food and warm and dry houses.

Of course it would be rather pathetic and completely unhelpful to look at this and become paralysed by guilt. Guilt is a useless emotion invented by religious leaders to make us feel bad about ourselves so that we will obey ridiculous rules sold to us as the Will of God. 

Far better would be to say: well, what are we going to do about this? How are we going to improve the schools and address the huge differences in quality of education of most township and most former Model C schools, how are we going to stop corrupt officials from stealing the money that was supposed to be used to build roads and water purification plants and buy textbooks? How are we going to get the politicians to be our servants and not our masters? What are we going to do as a nation to address the vast gap between rich and poor so that no one goes to bed hungry in this land of ours? HOw are we going to address the deepseated prejudices of ourselves and members of our families and of our friends?

Is that not the (admittedly, very difficult) conversation we should really be having? And in the light of these challenges, is the uproar about the Reitz 4 not a mere sideshow to make us feel better about ourselves because we are not like them.

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