Defend Truth


Whites on Main and other development stories

Andrew Miller is a poet and freelance writer. He is also a founder of Unity Design, a socially orientated arts space operating in Newtown, Johannesburg.

Development, upliftment… words that mean a great deal to corporates, but not necessarily everybody else. How sincere are we in our desire to promote growth in areas – and for people – that we really know nothing about?

I recently asked a friend, a Rastafarian of moderately militant persuasion, to write a little story for a publication about a weekend event put on by an NGO operating in the broad Jozi area. The details are not important – let’s call the friend X, the event Y.

The hope was that X would give a local perspective on Y’s activities, rather than the more generic view of the suburban tourist/social observer. X has lived in the area for years and has natural contextual insight, and would therefore, the theory went, be able to offer readers an objective perspective on the Y event.

This is the SMS he sent me on the Monday morning:

I went there on Sunday and I didn’t feel the story – what those guys were doing. So I left them before it started because it was not my kind of story.

Now that’s an intriguing message. I will secure the full details as time passes, but I already know the gist – his sentiment summarises a view of social annoyance expressed frequently nowadays in the city. Often the annoyance hones in on the easy targets – specifically the gentrification of areas like the Maboneng Precinct, Braamfontein and what has become known in certain circles as Whites on Main.

Another example: I saw a Facebook post recently bemoaning the presence of whiteys and their causes in South Africa’s rural areas. Specifically, the post highlighted the inability of people with one limited tongue and no historical/cultural understanding of the region and its people to get anything meaningful done. Subtext: why are we – the locals – not doing this? For how long will we have to put up with ‘them’?

And on it goes. It’s an unnerving fact of ‘development’ life in South Africa; the undercurrent – sometimes obvious, sometimes hidden – that this is not your turf. That you do not belong. That your intentions and your impact might be completely misaligned. In casual conversation people laugh about the NGO colonists. ‘Here they are again,’ someone chuckled recently. ‘Colonising our children. And look, no one else is doing anything there, so we shouldn’t bitch about it.’

Of course there’s a lot of good old South African history behind these statements and ideas. There’s also the perpetual influence of industry jealousies and contests. But to me, the comments and jokes collectively form a subtle resistance to our too-easily assumed ‘good work’.

At the core of the resistance is the understanding that, from the perspective of the man on the South African street, many brands, NGOs, development projects and other socially orientated ‘campaigns’ ultimately emerge as patronising, overbearing and divorced from the daily reality of the people who live and work in an area. My personal experience is that often the annoyance centres on outrageous narrative hype, more than on the activities or failings of projects and individuals as such. In summary: repeat and glowing use of hyperbolic social verbiage appears to be pissing some people off. And once you start looking for such offending verbiage, you see it everywhere.

For example, the text on the Maboneng Precinct web site reads as follows: “Named for the Sotho word for ‘place of light’, the precinct represents an enlightened community in Joburg’s eastern CBD.” 

Much of the ‘enlightened’ claim is true – it would be churlish to say that the impact of the Maboneng Precinct on the city hasn’t been generally positive. Growth (social, economic and otherwise) is occurring in an area where there was little before. But then there’s that unfortunate photo from the beginning of the year showing evicted Jozi flat dwellers living on the street, on the cusp of Arts on Main (you can see the photo and read an interesting comment on the lack of education in the Jozi integration model here, courtesy Derek Smith, education worker, renown local graffiti photographer and general ‘city head’). The contrast between the verbiage and the photo captures quite simply how important perspective and context are in any social scenario. It’s falling-off-a-log stuff to compare the use of the word ‘enlightened’ with the photo, and away we go…  handbags at five paces, again.

One of the deeper issues at play here is how difficult it currently is in South Africa to distinguish genuine independent social development work from straight-out corporate marketing, from government activity, from NGO work. The steady blur between Corporate Social Investment, public relations and advertising that has occurred in South Africa over the last decade sees far too many brands, NGOs, state agencies and others claiming some kind of weird moral/societal triumph every time they step into a township or a city centre (perhaps those involved have a specific mandate to match the ROI Outsurance has famously generated with its own unique mix of marketing and CSI).

MacDonalds, for example, currently have a freaky advert running on our screens, where a bunch of black orphan children rush into an old age home to feed elderly white ladies ice cream. The not-so-subtle subtext is that good old South African staple of ‘nation building’. Quite how the nation is built through this activity is left to our imagination. Similarly, KFC has playful street kids dancing insanely against an urban backdrop as part of their CSI/advertising campaign. FNB bombed in their attempt to rescue us all with the kids reading political statements thing but really, wherever you look nowadays, brands are in the thick of heavily hyped social upliftment activity. In 2013, social business is good business. No one wants to be Lonmin.

When you step back from the specific and look at the broad South African communication landscape, it is understandable that some individuals are beginning to get annoyed with ad infinitum claims of social development triumph. MacDonalds is surely as frustrating as Maboneng, it’s just that when everyone is drinking beer in the city, Maboneng is easier and more fun to lash out at.

Embedded in this curious scenario is a funding paradigm where NGOs and funded organisations are compelled to seek funding, and report on achievements, within a self-justifying outcomes framework. If an organisation can’t put together a narrative that delivers clear outcomes, via crystal clear outputs, supported by many spreadsheets and digits, the money will not be delivered. And if the money is not delivered, the staff will have to go and get real jobs… and, well, it’s easy to see how the story takes shape within the minds of militant Rastafarians and artists and activists.

Having recently been hammering out thousands of words in various funding applications, I can personally attest to how easy it is to slip into the verbiage of social triumph. Whether you’re applying for a bank loan for a property development, pitching for a new communications campaign or applying for exhibition funding, the entire system is geared to feed off articulations of great social change and/or innovation. More considered and balanced narratives just don’t compete. Once the application is done, it’s a quick hop to cut and paste the verbiage into a brochure or web page (because who wants to re-write and re-write?) and before you know it, your website is claiming a radically positive alteration to the fabric of the universe.

The more prosaic truth of development work, in my experience, is that many of the most powerful achievements are personal and intimate and embedded in the small details of relationships. Just because a learner is given a certificate doesn’t mean he or she has qualified to do anything real, or meaningful. Equally, when a street kid skips over the wall at the shelter and goes back to the glue, that is not necessarily a defeat or a failure – much can have been achieved in that individual’s life which is impossible to explain on a website or in a report. Our proposals and reports and funding mechanisms are ill-equipped to deal with this nuanced and complicated reality, however, and so we knee-jerk our way around the system with repeat claims of victory.

The debate can, and will, go on as to the hows and whys of strengthening our rotten social fabric – a task that will surely stretch beyond all of our lifetimes. But for now it could serve all operating within the broad ‘development’ ballpark to recognise that we (all of us: black and white, suburban and urban, male and female, rural and peri-urban) are frequently seen by others within our society as unknowing propagandists for shallow ideas. As lazy people in love with their own words and ideas of themselves. As capitalists on the make, in NGO disguise. As people unwilling to look seriously at where and why and when they choose to do what they do.

This view is not accurate, of course. It veers directly into the path of stereotype and cliché. Nonetheless, it exists, and my experience is that it grows a little, year on year. We can ignore it, or we can take notes. 

We need to ask what lies behind the view. We need to question what we can do, within our own spheres of operation, to deal with it. To write it off as irrational or objectionable is a quick fix that denies the complexity of how we all relate (or not, as the case may be) in this strange country.

These are very challenging questions, of course. To me, the initial answers lie in the realm of self-expression and articulation. I believe activists, developers, NGO bunnies and brands, and state agencies should claim less and do more – throttle back the verbiage and increase the humility (actual humility – not the use of the word in brochures).

Fine, write the funding request and create the report back in the hyped-up language of the industry. But be careful about cut-and-pasting those claims into wider circulation. Because anyone can see that the struggle ain’t over yet. In fact, despite the spreadsheets and matrices and cost per impact studies, it often looks like it hasn’t even started. DM


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