There is a narrative of scarcity that underlies human existence. For me, it is scary and depressing, and blights all of human existence.
There’s a phenomenal set of lines in Ridley Scott’s hugely under-recognised epic, Kingdom of Heaven, set during the Crusades. What makes it all the more remarkable is that it’s delivered by Orlando Bloom, who, we can all agree, is the iceberg lettuce of acting – bland and utterly forgettable. So kudos to the screenwriter, William Monahan, because the three hours (in the director’s cut) are redeemed by these few lines.
“It has fallen to us to defend Jerusalem, and we have made our preparations as well as they can be made,” Bloom’s character, a fictionalised Balian of Ibelin, says to Jerusalem’s petrified occupants of mostly women, children and boy-knights. Saladin’s army has gathered a few hundred fathoms from the city’s walls, ready to reclaim for Islam the city stolen by the Christians.
“None of us took this city from Muslims. No Muslim of the great army now coming against us was born when this city was lost. We fight over an offence we did not give, against those who were not alive to be offended. What is Jerusalem? Your holy palaces lie over the Jewish temple that the Romans pulled down. The Muslim places of worship lie over yours. Which is more holy? The wall? The Mosque? The Sepulchre? Who has claim? No one has claim. All have claim!”
I probably should have issued a spoiler alert at the start of this, just in case you wanted to watch the film. But we all know how it plays out. We live it every day; the conflict of us versus them. The lines are drawn in different ways and what we contest is different, but the narrative is always the same. For us to prosper, they must fall. Neither side is prepared to back down because for every wrong we’ve done to them, there is a history littered with wrongs they’ve done to us.
In South Africa, the lines are mostly drawn, ironically, along the same ones as the forms of discrimination prohibited in the Bill of Rights. But when it comes down to it, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, creed and colour are just useful markers to distinguish, arbitrarily, the worthy from the unworthy. Because – and it rocks my optimist planet off its orbital path to say this – human beings default to believing in inevitable scarcity. Land, resources, food, money – none of this has, is or will be enough to go around, so someone will have to go without. And it’s better them than us.
A couple of weeks back a commenter, Ian Shaw, remarked in this column that white people will be “extinct” in South Africa in 30-40 years because of low birth-rates, emigration and, I add, being outnumbered 9:1. So it’s not impossible, ceteris paribus, though I doubt the timeframe. Shaw’s point was who will be left to plunder because redress for apartheid and transformation to him are akin to Saladin reclaiming Jerusalem. And inside the city’s walls, poor, blameless whites who took nothing from blacks, are fighting for their survival.
Setting aside, for now, the notion that redress and transformation are punitive measures against whites, I’ll say again: Race is just a useful marker to distinguish the worthy from the unworthy. Human beings have been making new “races” for millennia. We can descend into a centuries-long intra-planetary orgy until we’re all the colour of sandalwood, but still the distinction between who is with us and who is with them will remain.
It’s already begun to happen here, because poor is apparently the new black.
But this is easy to fix. Change the narrative. Land, food, money, resources and all the other things on which we stake our battles are not scarce. They are, at worst, badly distributed. Let’s redistribute them. Just one minute, though. That nation worked harder to accumulate what they have, so why should they have to give it up? And, while everybody else was sleeping, that group built, so why should they share? And down we descend back to drawing lines to say how different we are from each other for the sole purpose of preserving for us and denying them. This is where this country’s attempt at redress and transformation finds itself.
It’s not so easy, then. I sometimes imagine how an alien race that has lived on a planet of eternal bounty and equity would view us, because presumably never fearing being without, their social structures would lack an “us and them”. That said, I shudder at the thought of the treatment we would mete out to them. DM
Osiame Molefe is a writer with a keen interest in the space where personal and societal ambitions intersect with technology, politics and economics. That intersect right now, in South Africa, has brought him to observing, researching and writing on racial and gender inequality, and how well, or poorly, dialogue around these issues takes place. His column deals with these and issues tangential. When he is not writing news, analysis and opinion, he reads speculative fiction and writes some, too. Rumour is he single-handedly keeps the South African sparkling wine industry afloat. In a former life, he worked as a chartered accountant in New York, Bermuda and Johannesburg, but has since fled that industry in pursuit of a life less grey. He holds a bachelors degree in accountancy from Rhodes University, but don’t let that fool you into believing he has a head for numbers. He does not.
All tortoises are actually turtles. Some turtles however are not tortoises.