Opinionista Vashthi Nepaul 3 March 2014

Response to Mlilo Mpondo: It doesn’t take a saviour

Mlilo Mpondo recently shared some thoughts on the relationship between poverty and dehumanisation. Much of it struck me as correct, but I would urge caution that our context here in South Africa is one more complex than the ugly but simple reality of poverty.

Indeed, as Mpondo stops short of pointing out, poverty is not inherently a black issue. It’s just in South Africa that we created a system where the word ‘poor’ and the word ‘black’ can be used interchangeably, the former acting as a kind of secret, politically-correct shorthand of the other. Look at acid attacks in Afghanistan and gang rape in India and female infanticide in China: the insanity of poverty is all around. It is just in South Africa that we mistakenly associate it with a physical condition rather than a socioeconomic one.

It is also worth noting that South Africa segued out of colonialism and into Apartheid without any respite from the dehumanising effects of either. Whereas other colonised countries on the African continent have had decades to heal and rebuild a new life where people are not regularly compared to animals by those who baptise them, educate them and employ them, South Africa is new to that (still uneven) message.

Our situation here is not just poverty, not just colonialism, not just state violence, not just Apartheid, not just racialised inequality; it’s the toxic mix of all of it. We are inauspiciously unique in South Africa in that poverty and everything that comes with it gives rise not only to insanity, but to a seething brutality and anger that should surprise no one.

It strikes me that there is one big lie some people of other races believe in their more shadowed thoughts: If I went through that I would not be the same as them. I would prevail somehow. My innate characteristics would propel me forward into a future unlike the circumstances black people have wrought for themselves. I am more talented, more disciplined, more rational, more moral, more intelligent and more hardworking. I would not do the things they do, nor say they things they say, nor think the paranoid, selfish, accusatory things they think. I would not make my lot out to be worse than it actually is, as they have consistently done.

It is beliefs like these that make engagement and open dialogue so difficult, and which belies the reconciliation we claim to have achieved. A lot of us are looking right through each other, refusing to see or hear something that we can empathise with. Empathy is dangerous. It forces a legitimacy to things we would easier ignore and makes tangible the daily realities of the people we would rather dismiss; from the petty complaints of our servant underclass to the coloured contempt with which we regard criminals. Mpondo wants a different reality for people currently bowed under the weight of being both poor and black. She rightly identifies it as an esteem problem; hearkening back to black leaders that have faded from discourse, wishing for teachers to help people break the cycle of insanity.

But our schools and classrooms currently feed into the confirmation bias of the stupid black, the untalented black. As I discussed in my first piece for the Daily Maverick, The myth of black intelligence, South Africa’s poverty problem overshadows the true genius and brilliance that every population has. By our refusal to believe in the innate giftedness of black people, especially when that giftedness speaks English with an accent or goes to a township school, we overlook the very catalysts for change that Mpondo should really be demanding outright: the empowered poor black child. The anxious insanity of poverty that she so well described illustrates how scarred many of us are. Can we somehow rally, battered though we may be, to break the cycle for the bright young things among us before they become a racial statistic or another cautionary tale?

It doesn’t take a dead revolutionary or the saviour that Mpondo is calling for – it just takes a willingness to see beyond the racial myth-making we’ve allowed thus far. DM

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