In DepthColumnsRight-less in the land of the rainbow nation


Posted on Wednesday, 20 March 2013 17:57

Right-less in the land of the rainbow nation

Sarah Bracking

In South Africa you can get TomTom navigation gadgets which give you directions in the voice of your favourite celebrity. Nice twist for the very rich. But of course only a few people in South Africa, the most unequal country in the world, can afford such whimsical luxuries.


For those of you who like numbers, the Gini coefficient here has been over 60 since 2009, and is rising, although the poverty headcount ratio at the national poverty line has dropped from 38 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2006 (World Bank, 2013).

as a visitor there is a brief window where one sees more clearly, before normalisation occurs, and we stop seeing

There has been very gradual improvement for some, but deep structural poverty and inequality remain.

What is interesting beyond the numbers is the way poverty is organised in its everyday sense, and to a foreigner this can look decidedly odd for a while.

How do very rich and very poor people live in proximity with each other in a way that avoids guilt by the former and shame on the part of the latter, which is not to say that either is a productive response.

I think the answer is that they don't, or if they do in a strictly geographical sense, they pretend not to, or don't in a cultural and social sense.

For example, I moved to Durban from Manchester UK in January, and initial observations included: why are people doing such dangerous things as walking along motorway lanes, or helping each other jump down the sides of bridges, or why are they stuffed into the back of jeeps/'bakkies' like baked beans doing 140km (with no seatbelts), or eating food from rubbish bins, or sorting through the household rubbish before the council trucks come, or sliding down mud banks from shacks.

Now please forgive the voice of European privilege for a moment: I am just trying to show that one person's normality is another's abnormal, and as a visitor there is a brief window where one sees more clearly, before normalisation occurs, and we stop seeing.

An offensive advert

And this applies to economic injustice as much as anything else.

In South Africa, poverty is filtered through a whole set of 'firewalls', as my colleague Jim Igoe would conceptualise, in order to obscure the difference between what we are told is a good society, and the everyday observations that we see around us.

To explain the clash between what we comfortably want to believe, and what our critical intelligence tells us to [not] be the case.

You're having some visitors over from the United States and they arrive and want to go straight to see the lions

For example, the TomTom company also runs an apparently innocuous, but actually quite offensive advert on the radio which shows how over time the poverty of black people was corralled into tight domestic spacial incarcerations, called 'townships' or 'bantustans' in which many people remain to this day, out of sight and out of mind, in relation to the privileged.

Since 1994, although some things have improved, they mostly remain without potable water, electricity or tar roads. But without even a sense of shame about this critical underinvestment and abjection, the message is, 'go around them', avoid them, and pretend they are not there.

I heard the advert on 5FM on 20th February, and the narrative goes something like "You're having some visitors over from the United States and they arrive and want to go straight to see the lions.

"You give them directions but they still get lost and end up in a township [backdrop noise of shock and horror] which has no street lights or anything. Shocking.

"Don't let this happen to you or your friends! Get a TomTom navigation system".

The people without cars are of course those who walk to work along motorways, since safe footpaths from their homes to work have never even been in planning documents; motorways for people with cars are of course always there.

And this is how poverty is spacially organised: shrinking poor people into as little space as possible and then pretending that they want to be there.

South Africa is a middle income country of 50 million people and a GDP of $408.2 billion (World Bank, 2013).

It can afford stadiums, airports, motorways, conservation parks, diving with sharks, safaris and the luxurious sports of the great outdoor lifestyle of braais and game lodges, and yet, it still has informal settlements without sewerage or clean water. That is really shocking.

But how does the value of a person's life or quality of life drop so low to those apparently proximate to them? I think this is the key to the not so post, post-apartheid society.

Some people are allowed to remain chronically poor because some other people deny to themselves that this exists, and/or that this is a problem.

They may actively forget, or find ways of persuading themselves that this is what 'these people' deserve, or 'all they are capable of'.

Inferences to lifestyle are common here: like 'don't pay him more money, he will only buy Johny Walker blue'. Or 'don't pay her more money, they don't need it you know, the way they live'.

Society is sliced into different existences, into different spaces, and different 'lifestyles', and in this way the proximate becomes another country, they do things differently there...

Thus Cato Manor is in another world to Glenwood, KwaMashu to Ballito, the shopping mall to the tuckshop.

A home owning Madam will use the recycling services of the 'maid' to dispose of old fridges, not even knowing that the cleaner has no electricity so will use it only as a rather ugly cupboard; or will 'give' old vhs videos to the gardener, not knowing that he will not have a video player (or indeed the electricity to run it).

The giver expects the receiver to show gratitude, the tight smile and blank eyes hiding a soul in despair at the ignorance of the rich.

But beyond anger, as the soul of the poor is mostly (and remarkably) forgiving there is a critical lack of connection here, that belies physical proximity.

For example, consider the firewall around inequalities in consumption – 'We just live different lives'.

But the lack of connectivity around economic inequality becomes toxic in regard to political and civil rights, even if the (mostly) extreme tolerance of the poor takes the bite out of economic injustice.

This is because the rights of poor people to safety, dignity and a life free of violence are everywhere degraded and devalued because of their low economic wealth.

Martians attack

So it is Human Rights Day and we are all told to remember our 'natural' or intrinsic' rights, and many think the act of reminding will encourage people to 'fight' for them, or demand them, as if a legal aspiration or statement can become something liveable in the absence of money. I really wish it could.

But the level of extra-legal violence of uniformed personnel in South Africa, in the prison and police services in particular, seems to indicate that they have socialised the view that poor, disadvantaged or discriminated against people have no value, and have little right to safety or dignity.

Mine workers claim that police used live ammunition, shooting at striking mine workers and injuring dozens

Or miners, who currently seem to be attracting a widespread exceptionality that allows their deaths to become the footnote of news broadcasts, so every day, as to fail to attract even narrative.

For example, there will be the news running from sporting triumphs of the nation, what the cricket, rugby, surfing teams are up to, celebrity gossip, the weather in the major cities, maybe the President's engagements or some news of a bill in parliament, traffic news, and then, '"and x miners died in y place'.

Yesterday it was seven miners in critical condition in Mpumalanga.

The news is not even reported in the active tense, accurately as 'police shot 7 miners who were striking'.

As SABC News reports: "Seven people are fighting for their lives in hospital following a shooting at a Graspan Coal Mine at Middelburg in Mpumalanga".

They can't quite write, 'police shot miners', only 'following a shooting', by whom? Martians? Then, "Mine workers claim that police used live ammunition, shooting at striking mine workers and injuring dozens" (SABC, 2013).

Implied is the idea that the ammunition wasn't 'live', (and that the miners are lying) and that this, and the fact that they were 'striking', makes the incident somehow less bad.

Thus reporting on the mines is mostly in the passive tense and coyly referred to as 'seven (or however many) miners died in a shooting incident' as if unknown spirits came and then went, an accident of the underworld.

Or '10 miners died on the Rand this morning' sometimes without even the passive reference to 'the shooting incident'.

As a foreigner, and unused to the way these deaths have been systematically excused away, not least because industrial militancy is represented as some sort of crime, rather than a civil right in itself, one could be left with the impression that a strange alien force keeps visiting mining areas, and just lifting unsuspecting miners away in whirling UFOs or Wizard of Oz style twisters.

But of course all these deaths really do have real context and real excuses.

Take for example the Marikana Massacre in August 2012 where 34 miners with no firearms were shot and killed by police, as they sat on a kopje or ran away.

This would be a good example of a police force out of control, conscience free and brutalised into accepting torture and violent force as standard operating procedure.

Police killings

But Police Commissioner Riah Phiyega, instead of resigning, says to police at the Lonmin operations centre the day after: "What you did represents the best of responsible policing. You were making sure that you continue to live your oath, that South Africans are safe" (Mail and Guardian, 2013).

What you did represents the best of responsible policing

Or take another exceptionalised group, whose low worth due to xenophobia is paralleled by their loss of political and civil rights: Mozambicans (and Zimbabweans and other foreigners...but mostly black foreigners.).

On March Emidio Macia, a Mozambican taxi driver was murdered by police, caused by first dragging him behind their vehicle then battering him in a cell.

The post-mortem "attributed Macia's death to hypoxia, caused by depleted levels of oxygen in the brain and body" , causing slow and painful death. Prosecutor December Mthimunye "There were no organs that were not damaged, [not] his heart, lungs or spleen.

Everywhere you look, severe bruising to his arms shows he was desperately trying to fight for his life, his testes were severely swollen, showing huge trauma, a clear sign of [a] 'torture' beating..

When he arrived at the station his pants were missing, he was crying, begging for help.

They took him to the cell. Blood splatters on the walls and floor attest to the ferociousness" (Mail and Guardian, 2013).

In cases the world over, police authorities try and blame 'bad apples' when things go wrong.

The odd officer gone bad, the rogue local unit, the 'Man' having a bad day (or on sports enhancement drugs..).

Yet the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, after Macia's death, reported that there are now "500 criminal cases against police members implicated in murder, serious murder, serious assault and rape before the courts".

Now, as a non-national, I am not sure what the difference is between murder and serious murder, but the IPID would probably be able to denominate this in costs: "During 2011-12, 5090 civil claims were instituted against the force, compared with 3007 the previous year.

The amounts paid to the state attorney have also risen sharply, from R84.7 million in 2009-2010 to R131.3 million in 2011-2012" (Mail and Guardian, 2013).

I haven't seen a breakdown of these figures, but would like to gamble that the deaths of poor people's relatives will not have lead to so many cases against the police as those of families who can afford lawyers.

And I have a hunch that this type of brutality left unchecked grows rapidly, as Lloyd Sachikonye's book on Zimbabwean political torture When a State turns Against Its Citizens attests to well.

So either the rich here will need to grow further myopic spaces in their brains, or react, as the realities of loss of rights affects them more and more.

It may indeed be the time when the rich in South Africa, and to the extent that this remains racialised, the whites, need to take off the blinkers that have historically stopped them seeing what life has been like for the Other, or at stop excusing it to the degree that inertia on their own part was possible.

And here comes the firewall, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa, to the family and community in Daveyton "I want to emphasize from the side of the police that we will never condone police being brutal against people, against unarmed civilians".

Duh, what? Are they not on bail now? Mthethwa: "I will tell you without hesitation that no police official would claim to succeed in the fight against crime without the involvement of the members of the public" (Mail and Guardian, 2013).

And MEC Faith Mazibuko, from the same platform, "urged the local taxi association not to employ "cheap" foreign drivers". Now forgive the cynicism, but this amounts to 'trust us' we are in authority, plus an aside that just plants the seeds of new xenophobia, which casts the seeds of doubt that incidents like this are not (completely, totally) wrong.

Emidio Macia had lived in the community from childhood. His life and labour were neither 'new' nor 'cheap', and nor does his, or anyone else's life deserve to be framed in these terms.

The point about inalienable rights, is just that, that they are inalienable, unconditional, and definitely, not, ever, supposed to be linked to ones race or place, or income.

But in a narrative of racial excuse, only a hint of doubt will do – 'maybe there is more to this than meets the eye', 'no smoke without fire', 'there must be more to it', 'maybe he deserved it', 'maybe those police are basically good guys but he wound them up' and so forth. NO!

Maybe Human Rights Day needs to involve reflections on the excuses we use to undervalue other people's lives, and rights, starting with how poverty leads to the types of spacial and cultural exclusion that make it alright to ignore the more critical rights against violence and torture.

As my 5 year old son said the other day in a mall, after witnessing a women take out her shopping frustrations on a rights-bearing small person, by thumping her child.

(Interestingly, in this case, the child was doing absolutely nothing 'wrong', but even if she had been, I think all hitting children is wrong: it only encourages the intergenerational transfer of violence).

My own son was mortified by the injustice of treatment for someone his size and loudly said (I was so proud) "Look Mummy, look at that lady. She has lost it. Do you think the heat is getting to her? But someone should take her to the police station. Ring the police mummy".

Now I didn't have time to explain to him why that might not be such a good idea, her violence notwithstanding.

I was too busy ignoring the women, who was now glaring at me in a very aggressive fashion, and in any case I was now too busy 'giving' worthless coinage to someone who had packed my bag for me.

Return to Poverty

Remember, that the 'gift' of a half eaten hot dog at the robot is not something anybody should have to be grateful for (although they probably will be, such is the plight of some of our neighbours): there is a 'right to food' legislated for in the UN Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Convention, of which the South African government is a signatory.

Moreover, the 'donation' of some small change to a 'car guard', worth more smelted down into base metal, is not going to change South Africa's (un)sporting first as the most unequal country in the world.

Poverty remains, acutely, and is an abrogation of its sufferer's human rights.

It also leads to a devaluation of their civil and political rights, as the excuse of 'worthlessness' that others apply in order to feel less guilty has a wholesale effect on how society treats poor people.

So, back to the beginning, the 5FM station running the TomTom advert that tells you not to worry, you need never go and see poverty again – inadvertently of course, if you get lost on the way to the Big Five?

Well, they seem to have a bit of a history of promoting sick jokes at peoples' expense: in 2009 they aired an advert by Virgin Money which told people that they needed car insurance if they were going to 'drive like an invalid' (sic), until complaints took it off air.

The point is, no one, not even children, should be devalued from their inalienable and equal worth as a human beings, no exceptions, for Mozambicans, children, gay people, people with disabilities, or black people. Happy Human Rights Day – for all!

Sarah Bracking

Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

Subscriptions Digital EditionSubscriptions PrintEdition










Music & Film



Keep up to date with the latest from our network :


Connect with us