What will it take to build a culture of compassion that sees every victim in the same compassionate light that we see Reeva Steenkamp – where every murder and violation is an equally great tragedy?
Every morning – in buses, taxis and trains heading in the direction of suburbia – domestic workers share stories about their madams, their brats and ill-treated husbands. They share stories even about how to discipline these brats they look after.
But you know, these white children bruise easily. They are fragile. You have to be careful when you spank them. They are not like our children.
There is a sense that these women treat the white children and madam’s husbands more sensitively than their own. But this is not strange, outrageous or offensive. We’ve always regarded white people as weaker than us – less resilient, even.
We’ve grown up with that understanding of whiteness. It’s fragility – the blood red cheeks as pain swells into the body of a white person – evident and unmistakable.
Over time, our empathy has become institutionalised. At a queue at the Department of Home Affairs, the discomfort is heightened when a white body sits in the heat and fatigue, and among other compatriot bodies.
As we watched Oscar in that dock, with head bowed. When we saw that global giant of an athlete, fragile, with voice lowered: “Not guilty, my lady”.
That child who bruises at the spank, the husband who blushes at the hounding of the unreasonable madam. There, it all came back. It invited a well-known treatment of compassion. “Not guilty, my lady.”
Oscar, although reviled by some, enjoys the kind of compassion and pity few would enjoy in his position. Not quite the same as William Nkuna, who murdered Constable Francis Rasoge. Not even like Thandi Maqhubela, convicted of the murder of her husband. Oscar enjoys “the universal sanctity of the white body”.
But the resentment of this sanctity has begun to rise as we watch the Oscar trial. It is reaching our consciousness that we are imprisoned in a double standard. Even of the African National Congress Woman’s league, demonstrating outside the court house – in the cause of justice for Reeva. That beautiful young woman with flowing blonde hair, rosy cheeks and a captivating smile.
We want to see justice for the angel she was, as her neighbours, friends, and even former school teachers have testified to journalists roaming the place where she grew up. Reeva is human. She’s not a statistic of the all-too-well-known incidence of femicide in our country.
But what kind of woman was Francis Rasoge? Did she like to laugh? Was she a good student, a dedicated police officer and public servant, perhaps? We wouldn’t know. She was always Francis Rasoge. No endearment that comes with being referred to on a first-name basis.
But what hullabaloo am I making? Surely it shouldn’t matter. At least we are outraged now. At least the ANC Women’s league is starting to recognise this horrendous sickness in our society and is doing something about it.
It surely must be true that all human beings deserve the fairness in law and empathy in humanity that is being afforded to Oscar. And all human beings deserve the outrage – the bleeding hearts and the remembrances – being afforded to Reeva. This must be the standard we live by in a society which is humane.
But we are moved by the double standard and the hypocrisy. Why so much attention to Reeva and to Oscar, when black women are killed by black men regularly?
While our indignation makes some sense, there is something unsettling about the notion of consciously withholding outrage and compassion in opposition to a social deficiency – that we should not respond so aggressively given our levels of response when a black body is violated.
It is true that the reverberations to the violation of the white body are felt much more than when it is a black body. But it should not mean reducing the outrage for a black body. It should tell us to increase it for black bodies too. And not just in special cases, such as Marikana or racially motivated assaults. As Professor Njabulo Ndebele has observed, “I am bothered by the tendency that when a black body is dragged down the road behind a bakkie, we see first proof of racism rather than depravity and murder; as if, if the causal link between racism and murder could not be established, the gruesome killing might not attract as much attention. When we give to racism in Africa this kind of centrality of explanation, we confirm the status of the black body as a mere item of data to be deployed in a grammar of political argument, rather than affirm it as violated humanity. The inherent worth of a black body does not need to be affirmed by the mere proof of white racism against it. The black body is much more than the cruelty to which it is subjected. If we succeed in positioning ourselves as a people, above this kind of cruelty, we deny it equality of status. We can then deal with it as one among many other problems in our society that needs our attention.”
Thus understood, the sanctity of the black body cannot be elevated by reducing that of the white body. It cannot be. Humanity requires us to affirm all bodies as equal in their being human. We should have compassion for all people. We should have compassion for Oscar as we would for Jub Jub. We should be outraged for Reeva as we would for Francis Rasuge.
The importance of the task of elevating the social and human status of the black body cannot be exaggerated. It relates directly to the task of creating a humane society, which necessarily dictates that we are all human. Because we are all human, the path to the elevation of the black body does not come into conflict with the current status of the white body. But it does start, perhaps, with the question: what will it take to see all victims of violent crime as we see Reeva? To humanise them, to bring out our best china as we have for Reeva? DM
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
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