Being uninformed is so last season
15 December 2017 20:07 (South Africa)
Opinionista Sisonke Msimang

Cry me a river of crocodile tears

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

This week, one of Anene Booysen’s killers was found guilty. A man has confessed to killing the Mali cousins. But these are hollow victories. Until middle class people get angry about the inequality that kills poor people’s children, the society we have created will breed more killers and more victims, and rivers and rivers of crocodile tears.

It is March. Anene Booysen is mutilated, murdered and raped. We are shamed into action, shaken by the brutality of the crime. We imagine our own seventeen year olds and we pray that her soul rests in peace.

It is October. Zandile and Yonelisa are murdered in communal toilets in Diepsloot. We think about our own babies, fat and brown swaying precariously on newly found feet. We wonder what their mothers would have felt. We want to weep.We are outraged.

In both cases, our outrage translates into action. We tweet. We write. We call into our favourite radio stations. “I can’t believe this.” “Bring back the death penalty.” We talk and we talk and we talk until it is clear that they will have to take us seriously.

Our outrage propels the system. The police catch the suspects. For Anene there is a smooth and swift trial. Justice is done.

Except it isn’t, and middle class people know it. We know it because even as we have poured out our outrage on Facebook and Twitter and in newspapers and on radio, our children have been playing behind sturdy doors and electric fences. We worry about them, but we know that they will not die in a toilet, on a dirty street in a dirty place. Our real fear is that our children will die randomly in our homes, on an otherwise quiet night, victims of a robbery gone wrong after someone has scaled a formidable fence.

This fear is the basis of our connection with the mothers of poor children who are the victims and survivors of crime. Just like them, we fear losing a child. But we also know very well that our odds aren’t even. We know, just as they do, that our tears for them are actually tears for ourselves.

If we were crying for them we wouldn’t absolve ourselves of responsibility for changing the social circumstances in which poor people live and die in South Africa. If we were crying for them, we might want to talk about the role we play in keeping poor people poor by paying low wages to domestic workers and hair braiders, petrol attendants and shop assistants; all the people who make our lives more convenient.

The truth is that even as middle class people tweet and write and complain to their friends about the killings of the toddlers, about the mutilation of Anene, we are seldom angry about the fact that our maids, who clean the many toilets in our single family dwellings have to shit in fields everyday.

We have folded our arms and decided that these women - the ones who live in places like Diepsloot - are good enough to wipe our children’s bums, but are not good enough to have earned our political respect. Why else would we refuse to stand beside them to organize alongside them in protest?

We don’t like to admit it, but middle class people are inequality’s winners. We like it. It works for us and so we prefer not to talk about it. We prefer instead to talk about our human connection to the dead children of poor people. We ignore our economic symbiosis with the poor. We refuse to accept that it is the children of these people whom we publicly mourn on Twitter. We are modern-day funeral criers, our sound and our fury signifying nothing.

What might it look like if we didn’t do this? What might it look like if we addressed the structural inequalities that amplify poor people’s vulnerability to crime and stopped pretending that our concern was motivated only by altruistic human feeling?

For one, it might look like civil engineers and town planners standing beside unemployed people in Cape Town to throw poo together. It might look like senior counsel standing in solidarity with the survivors of rape by boycotting court, marching in the streets.

In the last few years the middle classes have taken to the streets everywhere in the world except South Africa: in Egypt, Tunisia, Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia, the United States even. Here, we have stayed firmly away from the street even as the street has been exploding. Instead, we have decided to make a pact with the state, a deal with the devil as it were.

The deal is this: middle class people have watched the state struggle to provide short-term relief to the poor (social grants, sub-standard housing, public works jobs, etc.), but we have not pushed for genuine economic justice. We have complained when the policy choices of our government (e.g. building communal toilets and refusing to invest in proper public transport) have resulted in women and children being raped and murdered, but we have not questioned these policy choices.

We have been outraged enough to shed tears, to seek long prison terms, but we have not admitted our own complicity in the economic and social circumstances that create these situations.

Most importantly, we have not taken to the streets to be mown down like miners, to be shot at like Andries Tatane, to be belittled like ‘dirty voters’ of Bekkersdal. Perhaps this is simply because in South Africa, even protest is unequal.

One of Anene Booysen’s killers is behind bars. A man has confessed to killing the toddlers. These are hollow victories. Until middle class people get angry about the inequality that kills poor people’s children, the society we have created will breed more killers and more victims, and rivers and rivers of crocodile tears. DM

  • Sisonke Msimang
    sisonke-new-photo-02.jpg
    Sisonke Msimang

    Sisonke Msimang is currently working on a book about belonging and identity. She tweets @sisonkemsimang.

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