I came to learn a long time ago, in my early days as a reporter and photojournalist, not to get angry, or choose sides. But, I chose sides, hell yeah; the 1980s taught me the difference between pretences of objectivity, and intellectual honesty. It was okay for some press photographers to be friendly with the SADF, but it was in my township that they were beating, detaining and killing people. As it goes, the more I learnt, the better I felt about taking a side. Today, I can say, without fear or any sense of dishonesty, that I will not give a holocaust denier, an apartheid denier, or a defender of slavery, a homophobe or misogynist “the same” airtime as anyone else. I don’t believe it has done any harm to my credibility as a columnist, and an essayist – the craft(s) I am working on these days. I can write something critical about the ANC, EFF, DA, McKinsey or Andile Lungisa, without being offensive, I mean really offensive, and getting my arguments or comments right for the most part.
Anger, I was taught (more seriously when I took a break from journalism in 1995 or so) in academia, was not a reliable basis for argument. It was not “rigorous”; it was not “rational”, and it was “too emotional”…. The most obnoxious types would insist that anger could not be quantified or modelled, and it was, therefore, not reliable. (Expletive withheld.)
This week, I am expressing rage and anger, never mind the “rigours” and “rationality” that are required, and the expectation that you “distance yourself” from your subject. The cause of this anger is the Democratic Alliance’s reported suggestion for the “urgent lifting of Alert Level 1 lockdown regulations that make it close to impossible for property owners to obtain eviction orders”. That is just offensive, insensitive, cruel and indignifying – and, yes, I am angry.
There is a place for anger
We are at the start of what may be one of the worst winters in decades. There is a deadly virus sweeping across the country, there is every possibility that we’re in for a bitter winter – especially in the Western Cape – and there is a critical shortage of housing, and a swelling of homelessness in the country. Under these threatening conditions, the DA wants to make it possible for people – most of whom have been affected by the almost complete stall of economic activity, and soaring unemployment – to be evicted. That’s just bang out of order. It ignores the very basis of the provision of public goods that includes the restoration, and respect for human dignity. Sure, it’s difficult to measure dignity, but take a drive past a family that has just been evicted from their home, standing by the side of the road with all their worldly possessions and nowhere to go (it happened to so many of us during the previous order) and you will understanding what it is like to be stripped of dignity. Never mind that it cannot be quantified or modelled, evictions are acts of violence that produce emotional responses like shame and anger, and are about things that have real impact on human flourishing and social suffering. These are emotions that are shaped and distorted by historical patterns of power and powerlessness in class, gender or ethnicity. If you’re not angered by this, you’re either dead inside, or you’re a liberal economist who can think only in terms of cost and benefit. There, I said it. I said it because I am angry.
Anger has a place in moral life; who has not been angered by corruption, violence, abuse, lapses in ethics and maladministration? Let me bore you a little further, dear reader, and emphasise, again, that anger cannot be quantified or modelled, but complex and invisible to the senses as it may be, it can, and quite often does lead to social (personal and public) disruptions. In other words anger is felt, and then acted out….
There is a place for empathy
A couple of years ago, someone told me that I had a tendency to “overempathise”. There may be some truth in that, but I refuse to be deterred. The DA’s position may make some sense in a liberal capitalist world in which everyone has equal access to justice and a range of tangible and intangible resources. It may make sense in a liberal capitalist utopia based on free markets (I dare anyone to provide me long-run evidence where there actually have been markets that have been completely free of any government intervention – Somalia in the early 1990s does not count). We don’t live in these utopias. We live in a society that is fundamentally iniquitous – this refers to equality, equity, trauma, and structural violence, all of which are intergenerational. We live in a society, forgetting even for a moment the deadly virus, that cries out for efforts to shore up and secure common resources, and for national public efforts towards the common good. Now is not the time to reproduce the intergenerational iniquities.
If Karl Marx got anything right it would be that we look at the structural relations (in this case) between landlord and tenant. The agreement document between landlord and tenant is presented as a dehumanised, legal contract, and we know that legal contracts are binding. But we are living in unusual times. Tenants, landlords, bondholders and banks may want to consider entering into an agreement to defer rental or bond payments for, say, six months – as a public good, or contribution to the common good – until we get through the pandemic.
Here’s a question for the DA – since they don’t see race. Would they insist that even white tenants have to be evicted, if they are unable to pay their bond or rent? The DA will have to answer that question. What is clear, is that the DA lacks any sense of the common good, of the long view – a view that ought to shape policies made today, that will affect communities and society in the future – and a basic empathy.
The DA has never shared or signed up to the core values that are required for an open society: freedom, equality and justice, solidarity, contending perspectives, and core values in practice.
There is a place for humanising of human society
I want to turn to one of my favourite politicians of the 20th century, Willy Brandt, who said, in 1955, “Our place is and remains clearly on the side of freedom and social progress, of the struggle for social security and the humanising of human society.”
The thing that stands out about the DA, having looked at them in some detail over the past decade, would have to be that they have remained tied to liberal capitalist orthodoxy – that set of beliefs that have been shown, for the best part of the past four decades, to be increasingly unable to provide answers for the most pressing questions in society. If the last global crisis (that started as a housing crisis in the US, then swept the world), has not brought that message home to the DA, then there really is no depth and intellectual courage in the party. They’re like those Marxists who imagine that we continue, in the early 21st century, to be trapped in northern England, amid William Blake’s Satanic Mills….
The DA has to come to terms with the fact that the only true and sustainable prosperity is shared prosperity, and as one of my former bosses, Joseph Stiglitz, has said, politicians must fight for that by assuring citizens that public support programmes will continue as long as needed. I make the claim that people who rent homes, or who have bonds to pay, need public support as long as needed.
Expecting people to be thrown out of their homes at the start of winter during a deadly pandemic shows a lack of humanity, decency and empathy. If you’re not angered by that, I don’t know what will anger you. DM