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Weep for an unequal society

Jun 05 2017 05:00
Mandi Smallhorne*

It doesn’t matter now 
It’s over anyhow 
He tells the world that it’s sleeping 
But as the night came round 
I heard its lonely sound 
It wasn’t roaring, it was weeping…

REMEMBER? Dan Heymann wrote this incredible song for Bright Blue back in the 1980s. The man in the song is PW Botha, and the demon he could not face was the aspirations of the oppressed majority, Heymann says. http://www.weeping.info/Weeping-lyrics.html

I’m feeling incredibly déjà vu at the moment. I grew up in a country of vast inequality, where the bulk of the people were treated as nobodies and worse. All through my youth I cried over songs like this and yearned for a free country, a real democracy.

And now I purportedly have it. We live in a democracy – if by that you mean a country where every adult citizen has the right to vote. We live in a free country – if by that you mean a country where books and songs like Weeping aren’t banned and anyone can live in any suburb they choose and make love to the person they love, no matter their skin colour or sexual orientation.

And yet… it is still not roaring, but weeping, that huge mass of people. They are still being treated as nobodies, by those with wealth and those with power. The exact composition of the elite has changed a bit; the composition of the nobodies has stayed the same. And the gulf, the separation, the inequality is still there, splitting the nation like a bleeding wound.

And right at the top of the heap – a Shelob-like predator and his family, surrounded by a fawning court, who play games with lives in their straightforward drive for self-enrichment.

They and their courtiers seem to be unaware, uncaring, blind and insensitive to the depth of the suffering among the vast mass of Have-nots, like the 11 million South Africans who live below the food poverty line – that means they cannot afford to buy enough kilojoules simply to meet their energy needs – and the millions without jobs or hope.

Is it possible, I hear my peers, people who emerged from the cauldron of fear and oppression that was apartheid, for an ex-activist, an ex-strugglista to forget what it was like, for them to be so smothered by the suffocating lap of power and luxury that they are utterly lost to shame and mercy?

Yes it is. The evidence is there, right in front of us. It seems that little works as well to stunt compassion and respect for other humans, to paralyse memory, as the experience of being a big-shot and a Have. Suddenly your own interests trump everything else, you see the world entirely through lenses distorted by those interests, and shame is lost.

In a brilliant May 30 article, The Loneliness of Donald Trump, Rebecca Solnit wrote: “Inequality creates liars and delusion. The powerless need to dissemble - that’s how slaves, servants, and women got the reputation of being liars - and the powerful grow stupid on the lies they require from their subordinates and on the lack of need to know about others who are nobody, who don’t count, who’ve been silenced or trained to please.

"This is why I always pair privilege with obliviousness; obliviousness is privilege’s form of deprivation. When you don’t hear others, you don’t imagine them, they become unreal, and you are left in the wasteland of a world with only yourself in it, and that surely makes you starving, though you know not for what, if you have ceased to imagine others exist in any true deep way that matters.”

Inequality makes it possible for the privileged to see themselves as somehow special, more important, entitled, cut out from the common herd – oh, and as though the rules, the laws, the constraints of a community do not apply to us.

A little bit of unethical business, a swathe of the environment destroyed, a bribe or two… why not? We can buy our way out of any trouble we might land in. We are safe in this little bubble of privilege and wealth that we have created.

It’s a sterile bubble. The secret of Homo sapiens sapiens’ tremendous success as a species has really, from the very beginning, been collaboration and cooperation, not competition. Groups of people working together are able to create magic – see some of the collaborative work happening online for an example. Lock yourself behind a high security wall to protect your privilege and you are also cutting yourself off from the mass of talent and possibility, and the sheer visceral pleasure of pulling together in mutually respectful teamwork.

And it’s a fragile bubble. No matter how many armed guards you employ, no matter how many Big Brother seeing eyes watch over your bubble, no matter if you’re a president and his children moving with blue light brigades, when the day comes that the nobodies who don’t count decide that they must ensure that they do count, the bubble will burst.

And there will be blood.

We don’t need that kind of future. And we can do better than this kind of present. We need to get rid of the canker that’s eating our democracy and freedom alive. We need, for the sake of … well, for want of a better word, our souls… to find a way to create a kinder, more egalitarian, collaborative and just society.

Surely among us we have enough intelligence and talent and fresh ideas to figure out how?


mandi smallhorne  |  inequality  |  opinion
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