With the xenophobic violence now having largely subsided, leaving government in competence at dealing with the problem as the only major outstanding scandal (and it is not really that scandalous, given the background noise of ineptitude against which it is cast), I have only one last set of thoughts on the matter to share.
The motivation for this post comes from a workshop I did with a group of schoolkids from various Johanensburg schools, where we discussed the socioeconomic divide in South Africa (it is um… large), and to what extent the dire poverty of the lower end of our economic classes could have been the fundamental cause of the recent unrest. What was troubling was the near universal response of the kids in the workshop that they were of the opinion that the poor are largely only in that state because of their own laziness, rather than any structural/systemic defects in our society, and that were it not for their selfish desire to have stuff handed to them, they too could be happily middle class. What was even more disconcerting was that of the people I have shared this discomfort with, far too many of them have failed to see how this view might be a rather shallow and patronising analysis of poverty in the country. Or worse yet, have endorsed the notion strongly themselves – usually with some anecdote about how foreigners will work harder for less money, while the lazy local will sit around and complain.
Now, while I am happy that South Africa has produced such an ideologically loyal generation of capitalists (god knows it is better than the intellectually depraved socialist options), I am concerned that perhaps this overwhelming attitude of “it is the poor’s own fault” may be setting the stage for a future, and possibly more angry, repetition of what has recently come to pass. I had always presumed that there were a few fundamental axioms to poverty – most notably that its persistence is largely influenced by certain systemic factors, such as how we distribute wealth, whether the poor are able to be aware of and access opportunities, etc. It is also not a massive cerebral leap to assert that as long as massive inequality persists, social unrest is a likely result.
If those fundamental understandings are correct (or at least largely correct), then it should stand to reason that to try and defuse social unrest in the country (current and future) – it is in our interests to try to undo (instead of perpetuate) the parts of the system that are contributing to keeping people in poverty. It would also seem reasonable to assert that it is in the interests of the classes-who-own-stuff (i.e. middle and upwards) to assist this endeavour.
Instead of showing ana awareness and willingness to address the issue of how we happen to have a society that structurally enforces economic divisions, it appears that our moneyed classes instead prefer to think that the poor are entirely responsible for their own predicament and not in need/deserving of intervention by those with capital. This is a dangerous attitude to take en masse, however, as it shifts the responsibility of the poor being poor from society onto their shoulders, reasoning that if they are not ‘willing’ to uplift themselves, there is no reason for society to take on that burden. To take this attitude fundamentally misdiagnoses the reason that so many people are poor (I am quite sure it is not mass laziness), and society’s responsibility for finding a solution. Combined, these two attitudes serve only to preserve the current economic divisions – divisions whose existence has been responsible for the recent violence and which, if it remains unaddressed – will be responsible for more.
If this poor-are-lazy-and-undeserving attitude persists and we deny the real causes and our responsibility to create a more just system, then I really do think that we are going to find ourselves back again here in the future. We will wonder why the poor got so angry and rampaged once more, oblivious to their frustrations. If we are lucky, when this repeats we will not suffer too much as a nation and may even get a chance to look at the problem properly at that juncture and realise that simple explanations about laziness and getting what you deserve are incorrect and need urgently to be more informed by the real world.