Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Opening my eyes to South Africa

Whoever watched Louis Theroux's excellent documentary on crime in South Africa a few weeks back, will have been absolutely shocked by the levels of poverty and lawlessness in the area. Undoubtedly a country racked with problems, South Africa, in particular parts of Johannesburg, has issues that are at the very core of the country - the police force, the ‘community’, the legal system et al – and the people have no notion of what we, as western citizens, perceive to be ‘normal’. The slums of Johannesburg are a truly terrible, poverty stricken, crime ridden place, yet they are also emblematic of a system that has left the country in economic and social turmoil. The documentary allows us to surmount a greater understanding of how very lucky the majority of us are – we live in relative calm, and secure safety in contrast to these pitiful peoples. Sad and tumultuously terrifying, I can’t even begin to empathize with these people, nor begin to describe the horrific struggle and unstable turbulence of day-to-day living in this environment – thankfully; though with that admission is the twinge of guilt alongside the dark warmth of appreciation.

Image stolen from here, sorry, thanks...


Jervis said...

very interesting

LaRubiadeLaDisco said...

Another interesting issue you've picked up on; I assume from you having mentioned this blog on Facebook that you welcome comments, so I'll add one.

I don't think I'm wrong in understanding that the contrast you make between the lawlessness and 'community' mentality in Jo'berg and the Western approach to management of society is giving preference to Western standards.

I would say that what we as 'Western citizens' consider to be the norm, should not be taken as a benchmark; that what our society has advocated and actively promoted throughout history is little less ugly than what was shown on TV.

The poverty depicted in that programme was grinding, that is indubitable. There are few people in this country who suffer such material hardship. For this there is reason for thanks. Yet, our Western standards ought not be, and aren't, aspirational. I should say that I'm using Western to mean, primarily, western Europe and USA, rather than the Western hemisphere, which would change my meaning.

The British have blood on their hands (I avoid the unifying pronoun 'our' for no reason) over the situation in which so many African nations find themselves. Thabo Mbeki recently said, after deviating into elements of Sudanese history:

"In reality, it was also an excursion into our own, South African, colonial history. The same British names also appear in our colonial history.

When these eminent representatives of British colonialism were not in Sudan, they were in South Africa, and vice versa, doing terrible things wherever they went, justifying what they did by defining the native peoples of Africa as savages that had to be civilised even against their will.

Our shared colonial past left both of us with a common and terrible legacy of countries deeply divided on the basis of race, colour, culture and religion".

I saw the programme and I felt deeply for the people it depicted. Living with a nailbitingly poor family in Cuba for the first half of this year, I felt similarly; the legacy of Spanish colonialism and US neoimperialism in the form of the embargo manifests itself cruelly in the daily lives of the people there. The average wage is $10 a month. But they do not want to be us.

I felt deeply and yet I didn't watch the show and feel thankful for the fact that they are there and I am here. I'm ashamed of our system and what it does, and what it has done in the historical sense, to the world (the world Louis visited for a couple of days). I don't use the term Third World, a concept which drives distance between 'them' and 'us'; there is only one world and responsibility for the desperate state of so much of it, of Sudan, of Johannesburg, of Cuba, of Iraq, of the rest of them, rests on our shoulders.

You say that you cannot begin to empathise with them, and that's ok in the physical sense; no-one is asking you to relinquish what you have and take to the streets and reduce yourself to mud and rags. That wouldn't be helpful. But equally, it doesn't make much sense to me to condemn 'the system that has left the country in economic and social turmoil' and then conclude with appreciative sentiments directed at that system.

Latin America is what I know far more about, and the following, whilst in some regards specific to latinoamerica, is far reaching and definitely relates to the South African case. Perhaps you'll give it a listen! .