The ‘othering’ that takes place in our society seems to have taken root without much notice. One only has to walk down the streets of Cape Town, inner city Johannesburg, Maboneng, Johannesburg or Morningside in Durban to see it, and yet it passes unnoticed.
Gentrification is the wet dream of developers and investors but it is the scourge that has taken root across South Africa. The ‘othering’ that has taken place has made those who are poor, dejected and vulnerable, less – they are made to feel that they are unwanted and not cared for. This is not the society that we should be proud of, this is not the society that so many of us are fighting for.
The ‘othering’ presupposes that the problem is not that we have obscene levels of inequality but rather the issue is the sight, or aesthetics, or even worse, the optics of poverty and reality.
Poverty in itself is not the problem that bothers many people in our society; rather it is the fact that the poverty is visible to them that is the problem. This is a despicable act that is being meted out across this country and it is being done in our name.
The world we are fashioning is deeply troubled, it is devoid of reality (because that clearly is too much truth), it is unequal but will unashamedly boast about being organic, natural, green-friendly, trendy, and cutting-edge. This is the world we are fashioning and we must pull back from the brink of this icy abyss because we are better than this.
These past few weeks I have spent some time in Johannesburg and walked around the Maboneng precinct, with much protest, and the more industrial 1Fox during ‘load shedding’ periods courtesy of Eskom, who always know just how to set the mood.
My experience of walking around constructed spaces like the Old Biscuit Mill or Maboneng is that the underlying problem is in who is not there. I am sure that the desire to build these ‘clinical’ spaces for the consumer is enticing and profitable, but in the process entire communities are either removed or made to feel less.
The rise of the market seems to be so single-minded that it is able to displace communities yet it does so without any interest of being fair, equitable, inclusive or even real. These spaces are profitable, so there is no harm in relocating families and communities and that is the logic playing out in places such as inner-city Johannesburg, Zonnebloem, Woodstock, Walmer Estate.
The market has become king and in the process we have made reality and poverty a seemingly offensive issue that must be policed. There are those who wish to deny that the other side of the coin of reality is the wealth and excess.
The levers of power are used to silence our brothers and sisters that have less – we use bylaws, metro police, the police, rules, and our cruelty to shun them. We use these levers to pretend that they do not exist and, even worse, we use that system to shunt them into the outskirts of not only our cities and communities but also of our society.
We can create spaces that are inclusive; we can create places that are dynamic, vibrant and diverse. We do not need to adopt the clichéd version of markets, gentrified and cleaned streets, artwork, the eviction of local residents, the erection of fencing and signs that boldly read “right of admission reserved”.
We can only do so if we are willing to acknowledge our own flaws and imperfections and realise that being poor is not a crime. Having less than the market-frequenting consumer is not an affront to our society but rather our actions of trying to hide them, shunt them away or even worse remove them from sight is the affront not only against them but our own humanity.
This should never be a question of “us” and “them” – this should be about how do we begin to deal with the ‘othering’ that we have allowed to take place.
We only need to look at places like the Maboneng precinct or the Old Biscuit Mill/ Woodstock precinct to see the eviction, by private landowners, of people, who are now made to feel unwelcomed or less.
This is happening in order to provide us with organic markets where those who wish can buy fresh produce, sip on craft beer or champagne, gentrified clean streets all lined with street art and coffee shops. Surely we are better than this? We have accepted this lifestyle at the cost of making poverty and reality an eyesore; we have in part made suffering a crime.
We cannot continue to push those who struggle to the outskirts of society. Our act, and desire to have gentrified and ‘dynamic’ spaces, of pushing our brothers and sisters away, creates a system where they are removed from opportunity, amenities, services and the chance to have a different life.
We cannot afford to not rescue them from the abyss which we have built and fashioned with the single-minded effort of ‘developing’. We cannot and should not wish them away. We must remind ourselves about our shared humanity and dignity and stop the mistake of “othering” that is taking place in our society.
We must honour our brothers and sisters by truly living the values enshrined in our Constitution instead of buying into the idea that everything that is modern, gentrified, green and organic must be gold. It is possible for us to care once again. Their story matters and it cannot simply be wished or policed away. DM