The toxic stuff we breathe: South Africa, 2017


A community outside of Cape Town is outraged after a teenage black girl was allegedly assaulted in what is claimed to be a racial attack. Police have confirmed they are investigating the matter.

A community outside of Cape Town is outraged after a teenage black girl was allegedly assaulted in what is claimed to be a racial attack. Police have confirmed they are investigating the matter.

We are the most unequal society in the world. The country we live in is inordinately violent. We remain an extremely stratified country. Bessie Head once described the country as "a situation where people are separated into sharp racial groups ... one is irked by the artificial barriers.  It is as though, with all those divisions and signs, you end up with no people at all.’ 

We have come a long way since Head’s indictment of the colonial and apartheid pathology and its impact on people in South Africa. But in some respects we have not overcome the habit of categorical thinking, or of the unequal distribution of power in line with those "artificial barriers". 

We no longer legislate "race", and officially police every aspect of life in line with such prescriptive categorising in South Africa. We abolished that elaborate formal structure in 1994. But old habits die hard. Additionally, other, perhaps even older and more entrenched divisions, artificial barriers which have come to be seen as natural such that we no longer even see them, remain mostly unaddressed, despite our aspirations to do so, and despite the constitutional compulsions that are supposed to shape our society.

Class is one axis along which much that ought to have changed in the post-1994 settlement has yet to be addressed. It remains part of that bundle of issues we have inherited from the past that Terry Bell and Dumisa Ntsebeza have elsewhere called "unfinished business".  The crimes committed in the past have not been fully accounted for, and this in a society where there are many calls for us to move beyond that past. Memory of oppression, we are told, ought to be nothing more than that: recollections of the past. Those who resist such calls to "move on" often draw attention to their scars, some literal, but many metaphoric. 

But scarring was not only the consequence of institutionalised racism. Colonialism and apartheid, and many of the systems they engendered as "indigenous African culture", also institutionalised specific arrangements for distributing power among people in this part of the world, but also violently displaced older arrangements by which men and women, older and younger people, insiders and outsiders in polities, among others, related to one another. And while much of that which has been so violently displaced by colonial conquest and its avatar, apartheid, survives in multiple sites, there can be no return to some pre-colonial wholeness for those of us who live here and now.

But the way we live now is not only explicable by what is going on here and now. Our past, and all its unfinished business, includes specific articulations of sexism and heteronormativity which benefited some but not others. The value placed upon some people rather than others, the infantilising of black women in legislation and political practice, the reduction of black men to labour units and the figuration of their bodies as threats to the imperial and apartheid order, and the organisation of legitimate and illegitimate desire in relation to the earlier imperial and later white supremacist nationalist project affected all of us, and in many respects, affect us still.

This is not to excuse the inordinate violations those with less power routinely suffer in contemporary South Africa. It does go some way towards understanding some of the social dynamics which contribute to that violence. Can a society with South Africa’s levels of inequality – material and symbolic – really expect to be more peaceful? 

Men and women in this society, despite the hard work done by many and despite the provisions of the Constitution and the political economy it is supposed to frame, are not fully equal, and are not equally valued. Everyday sexism is real. Some of us can expect to navigate our day in public without being reduced to objects of someone else’s unwanted and incontinent professions of sexual attention. The majority among us, women, have no such guarantees. And the boys and the men learn every day what is allowed, what is tolerated and what is encouraged, and what they will be able to get away with, because they are boys, or men. It takes a lot of work to unlearn those habits, and goodwill among us, as men, is not enough.

Similarly, the privileging of heterosexuality (or what is read to be such, or those versions of sexual expression which closely mirror or deliberately imitate it) cannot be denied. Though it is harder for many people to admit that habits of mind and being founded in heteronormativity and homophobia are as destructive of the humanity of those subjected to such prejudices, but also of the humanity of those who have such habits of thought and behaviour.

Our contempt for poor people outstrips our contempt for poverty in South Africa. How else explain our failure to undo the effects of those old divisions by which the current distribution of material resources from land through income, from nutrition to education, from employment chances to recognition of talent, can hardly be seen as accidental except by the wilfully blind? History has not been undone over the last 23 years, and while it would have been insane to expect such to have been possible, it ought also to outrage us at how much progress we could have made in the last near-generation since the abolition of formal apartheid.

South Africa hates womenIt hates childrenIt hates the poor. South Africa’s record is clear on this. And poor, black children who are girls are least valued  How we came to this state is hardly mysterious. Devaluing those with less power is a longstanding habit of thought. Whole systems were dedicated to ensuring that the material reality matched the ideas, and for centuries.  And some of those systems actively taught such beliefs about the world and the value of various people in it  Worst, many of those systems remain active today.

Look to university campuses where young men can indulge in belittling the women around them as part of a ritual by which they get to become part of the organisation. Listen to people who use phrases like "man up" and "don’t be a sissy". Observe the pigmentocratic standards of beauty by which the advertising and entertainment industrial complex’s South African chapter configures desirability. Remind yourselves how adults relate to children in schools and churches, on buses and taxis, in trains and planes, in parks and sports grounds. 

We all need to listen to ourselves, to watch ourselves, and remind ourselves why we are the way we are. We need to change our habits of thought and being, thoroughly, and it may help many of us to remember the deep histories of some of those habits. We have unfinished business. Despair and hopelessness are not enough, and neither is hand-wringing. Nothing can bring back the lesbians killed, the children murdered, the woman violated, the poor people dehumanised and deprived of their lives because they were inconvenient in a society where it seems increasingly that we have ended up with no people at all. We must do the work of mourning them, certainly, but we also owe them more.

Violation and violence, the stuff we breathe. We need fresh air, here and now, not elsewhere.