Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Apartheid is not over; it simply has a new face

Economic inequality is the new form of apartheid.
 by Grant Andrews

Nothing is more uncomfortable for me than going into certain spaces in Cape Town. Spaces where I am made to feel that I am not welcome. I remember one time going with a group of friends to a particular restaurant in Stellenbosch, and the host walking right past us as we stood at the entrance. When one of my friends called her over, she said, without looking our way, that she would be with us shortly, but after ten minutes of waiting we knew that she was not coming back. We left dejected, but none of us needed to say anything. We knew what had just happened: we had been economically profiled. She had decided that we were not worth her business, and thus not worth her time. This is only one of the ways that we are shown which spaces we are allowed entry to in South Africa today.

I’ve been to restaurants where people glanced at my table in obvious ways, trying to send me a message that I don’t belong. I’ve been to certain shops where people asked me for assistance as though I were an employee, when there were no signs to indicate that other than the colour of my skin or that I was perhaps wearing different clothing than they were. I’ve silenced rooms at certain bars just by walking through the door, and not in a good way. I often have the ability to tune this type of behaviour out, and simply see it as isolated cases of idiots acting idiotically. It’s true: not all people who are part of these “exclusive” spaces feel that way, and even fewer people will make it obvious, but somehow everyone seems to know the rules because we seemingly unconsciously know where we belong. I would like to believe, sometimes, that I am really free to go anywhere I want to go in the new South Africa, but my illusions are shattered time and again. We very rarely step into each other’s spaces, and when we do, the transgression is obvious and uncomfortable for everyone involved.

This is not only a reaction of the rich towards the poor, but also works the other way around. My partner felt very uncomfortable even walking around in the majority poor “black” area we used to live, because people made it obvious that he was an outsider because he is white and also, because of South Africa’s past, assumed to be wealthier. The comments, the puzzled looks and the tangible racism/ classism were always present. So every segment of our population has been taught where their space is, and when people move outside of their designated spaces, we are all there to police it. This might have been the work of apartheid, but the way I see it, nobody is doing very much to change it, and indeed, it is in the interest of some people to keep it that way.

While in a city like Cape Town the exclusive rich spaces still often correspond to race, and are almost exclusively frequented by so-called white clientele, it is a lot less obvious than it was twenty years ago. Even though race is an obvious factor, it has a lot more to do with money than with race, and I have experienced and witnessed people of all races trying to maintain the boundaries of their spaces, often based on perceived economic standing. I tend to think that the same thing was true during old-apartheid as we know it – those who had money and resources wanted to carve out a space for themselves where the rest of us were not welcome, unless we were serving them in some way. Race was the excuse, and racism was the impetus, but really it was an economic system more than anything else. Today, a few of us in this country, namely the ruling class and their politician friends, are trying to hold on to power in any way possible, and they are purposely engineering society to make sure that they can keep the rest of us unsavoury people at bay while they enjoy the manufactured spaces of comfort which money affords them.

Why do you think that South Africa has just been named as the country with the worst Math and Science education levels in the world, despite the fact that we spend more on education than many other countries? If you argue that it is the legacy of apartheid that is still enduring, then why have we actually moved down in the rankings in recent years? Why do you think that the majority of our population would support leaders who are frequently implicated in corruption, or why we suffer through years of ineffective, short-sighted systems which claim to want to eradicate the inequalities and injustices of the past? Why do you think we have been unable to offer meaningful employment, promote and support entrepreneurship or see the same type of growth and social change that other developing countries in Asia and South America are seeing? And again, why do you think, despite all this, that we are still celebrating lavishly at every anniversary of our “freedom”, and hosting international sporting events and conferences which seem to cost us more than they actually benefit the impoverished? The links are clear: by keeping the population uneducated, poor and distracted, it is easier to manipulate them. By creating social chaos (and who can argue that the current reality in South Africa is anything other than social chaos?), it is easier to create desperate people who will claw over each other in the vain hope of being allowed into the exclusive club of the elite. We all want access to those ideal, rich spaces, and we are being told that only by working like animals to make the rich richer, and competing with others who are as poor as we are, will we ever get ahead. It should be obvious that this will lead to resentment, division, dehumanisation, crime, intolerance, etc.

Note: this is exactly the situation we had in the country for the past many decades during apartheid, it has simply taken on a new face. There was no real freedom to be had in 1994, because our minds are now still being enslaved. We are still a divided nation, and the division is now much more clearly between the haves and the have-nots. The parallels with apartheid are numerous and should be repulsive to anyone who is paying attention: tribalism, spatial group division, unequal land distribution, propaganda, exploitation, substandard education, government-owned media ignoring the disenfranchised, a rising number of protests linked to social inequality, police brutality at these protests, crime, growing squatter camps, silencing of opposition parties, etc. Is this not almost exactly the description of South Africa during apartheid? Unfortunately, our great heroes in the struggle who eventually became our politicians, and who had great ideals of fighting for our freedom, became part of the group of haves. The vast majority of them now only seek to maintain the status quo and are not fighting for our real freedom anymore. When they tell you how successful this country is because our economy has grown by this or that amount, it means nothing to the millions of poor and uneducated in this country who will no doubt die poor and uneducated, and very likely their children will meet the same fate. There is no hope for change in a country that is divided and suffering under a delusion of equality and freedom, when not all of our people are truly free.

We can only hope that people challenge this new system of apartheid in the country. We can only hope that eventually we receive a leadership that truly wants to serve the poorest of people, and not merely serve themselves or their corporate partners. We can only hope that we eventually reach a state where the gap between the haves and have-nots begins to shrink, because truly it affects all of us negatively. Until then we will just be standing at the shop window, being told that we are not allowed in.