25 February 2014

South Africa: Middle Class Narratives and the Disconnect With the Poor

analysis

In January this year, between 8-10 protestors were killed by the police in service delivery protests, four of them simply for rising up to demand a most basic right - water.

This is a contravention of human rights on many levels and while it sent shock waves through poor black working class and marginalized communities, the broader middle class did not react at all.

In fact, the silence from South Africa's middle class was resounding and mystifying. Instead of outrage they have chosen to ignore a gross violation of human rights and even blame the poor for these deaths.

Many wrote as much in the comments beneath more progressive articles on the matter and expressed their disdain and contempt for marginalised people in commentary dripping in derision.

Comments, such as this one found beneath an article I wrote in The Star newspaper asking why the middle class lacks empathy for the poor, exemplify the everyday disapproving attitudes that the middle class generally feel for the disenfranchised masses.

One 'Law_of_the_jungle Ash' had the following to say:

Rubbish!!! People are poor because they aren't smart about their life. They have children when they can't afford children, they riot instead of going to school and they look for excuses like apartheid and structures for the reason instead of looking at themselves. There are many black lawyers and doctors etc. that got these degrees in South Africa during apartheid - how do you think they did that? They worked hard and made sacrifices just like anybody else. The opportunities were there for anybody who could be bothered to take advantage of them. They are not victims, they just have a victim mentality and until they lose that, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it, they will remain victims forever and live off handouts.

This is a common response to issues pertaining to the poor. It reveals a total disconnect between the middle class and the economically marginalised - but more tellingly, between history, contemporary politics and poverty. It is as if poverty happens in a vacuum and is indeed an extension of an amoral, over sexualized breeding mass of half-humans who are lazy, take no responsibility for themselves and still have the temerity to blame a system of colonialism and apartheid for their poverty.

Middle class narratives on the poor are highly problematic in a society like South Africa where huge class cleavages exist between the rich and the poor. While this is certainly not true of everyone in this class, for the most part, middle class people buy into the same metanarrative about the poor.

This metanarrative is a storyline that creates a definite "us and them" scenario, which is based on keeping middle class comfort zones definitively separate to the economic hell-holes that marginalized communities are forced to endure. The core belief is that "they" are "lazy" and their poverty is caused by their laziness just as wealth is caused by hard work.

Around this core belief many other secondary storylines are developed and these are steeped in common sense dogmas that sound like truth and are often rendered in reasonable and earnest terms. Yet when unpacked, these common sense beliefs are anything but benign. Instead, they are based on explicit unconstructive racialised and classist stereotypes that contain multiple judgments and untruths.

It would seem that the non-politicised majority in the middle class avoids critical engagement on the structural issues that create inequality and show little interest in understanding the intersections between racism, privilege and poverty.

This is "depoliticized liberalism". It exists in an increasingly capitalised system that claims to embrace multiculturalism, diversity and equality. But this "equality" is clearly not an everyday reality, as racist and classist incidents that oppress the poor continue to manifest on our social landscape.

Such inequality is evidenced in the police killings of protestors in service delivery protests. Here we witness structural racism and the abuse of classist power at its zenith when protestors who mobilise for basic services and the right to claim their dignity, in a system that promises this dignity to all, get killed by the police for doing so.

The larger middle class, seemingly, do not perceive this as a human rights transgression. There is no empathy and outrage for the deaths of people at the hands of the state.

Instead there is a 'culture of consent' in which the middle class will generally agree that the state acted within its constitutional mandate and for the good of the security of the country and their individual safety.

You can be sure though that if the people shot were not poor and black, the response would have been one of outrage and identification, instead of disdain and open contempt.

The middle class discourse is one that utterly believes that the poor need to be policed at every level of their lives, including their reproductive lives. They should not engage in sexual and reproductive activities.

They should not want or need children because they cannot feed them. They should really, it would seem, become extinct so that they are no longer a problem to the hardworking, decent and moral middle class.

In this scenario, colonisers and the history of appropriation of land and resources via apartheid are blameless. Foreign investors are also let off the hook for their exploitation and abuse of cheap labour.

And though government plays into the hands of business, favouring the corporate sector over the poor, they alone, are blamed for bad governance. The only time government will be praised by this class is when they have adequately policed and brutalised the poor.

At the same time, the capitalist anti-poor metanarrative overarches the equality narrative and becomes a new and biased form of human rights.

In this framework, individual bourgeois rights take precedence over the rights of so-called marauding and dangerous poor people. This is the basis for middle-class hegemony, which remains completely separate and insular to poor people's rights.

And contained within this hegemony is a discourse verging on fascism - one that could be said to comprise the makings of a genocidal construct. It is a dehumanizing and dangerous discourse that strips the poor of their dignity and humanity.

It objectifies the poor into empty soulless beings that probably do not have the same wants, needs, desires, dreams and aspirations as any other human being. It is a dangerous discourse based on hate and yet it permeates so-called liberal public spaces, disguised in reasonable and honest terms.

This master narrative is nothing less than a full-frontal discursive war against the poor of our land.

Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

Read more articles by Gillian Schutte.

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