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Selective responses to disaster by the middle classes

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By Imraan Buccus

The fires in Knysna and elsewhere in the Eastern Cape are a terrible disaster. People have lost their homes and all their worldly goods and been traumatised. The outpouring of support and concern for the victims of this disaster is a very positive development that should be welcomed by all.

But devastating fires are not a unique development. In fact they are an everyday feature of life in South Africa. In fact just a few days ago, 7 children under the age of 7 died in shack fires in Wyebank, Durban.

Shack settlements are at constant risk of fire and, like everyone else, shack dwellers face losing their homes, their property, and the trauma that comes with a devastating fire. Shack dwellers do not have insurance and a fire can leave people destitute.

It is very noticeable that, as a society, there is seldom much of an outpouring of support when the poor lose everything in a terrible inferno. In fact what usually happens is that officials blame the poor – rather than their living conditions – for the fire. Organised shack dwellers have been trying to politicise shack fires for many years now – to show that they are a result of political realities rather than being natural disasters. But elites in South Africa, across, race, have been mostly unmoved.

We need to ask why it is that, with important exceptions, most of the middle classes and the rich, as well as the corporates, just don’t care about the poor. It is true that this is not unique to South Africa. The situation is much the same in India or Brazil. Mainstream America actively supports mass incarceration. But we, as a society, were supposed to be different. The anti-apartheid struggle, and then our new Constitution, were supposed to commit us to a very different kind of society. We were supposed to be a society in which everyone’s rights were respected.

These rights exist in paper and in the increasingly hollow rhetoric of a fundamentally corrupt and rapacious political class. But they do not exist in practice. Certainly politicians should shoulder much of the blame for this. Many of our politicians are little more than despicable opportunists of the worst sort, enriching themselves at the direct expense of the poor.

But the all of the blame for the fact that so many of us care about fires in Kynsna but not in shack settlements cannot be laid at the door of our increasingly venal political class. The Italian communist Antonio Gramsci stressed that it is the ‘common sense’ of a society, more than the ruling class, that sets its norms and values.

It is this ‘common sense’, he argued, that must be contested by the left. Progressive values need to be become ‘common sense’. If rights are written into the Constitution but they do not become part of the ‘common sense’ of a society they will not be enforced.

Our predatory political class is not helpful. There is no doubt about that. But that is not our only task. It is also vital that we contest the ‘common sense’ of our society. This is work that needs to happen in the media, in universities, in the sphere of cultural production, in religious contexts and in all other spaces where meaning is made. No law can create a society where a fire in a shack settlement in Gugulethu gets the same attention and concern as a fire in Kynsna. Achieving this is ultimately intellectual and cultural work.

This is a moral question but is not just a question of basic decency, or morality. It is also a political question. If we are not able to build a society in which all people are respected, in practice as well as on paper, we will never be able to build a stable democracy and a workable economy. It is in our collective interest to move away from the colonial logic in which some people are disposable.

There is no room for pessimism. The extraordinary performance of Jeremy Corbyn in the recent British election shows that the tide can be turned against the rise of the right. We need to take heart from this event and build a political force that replace the corrupt elite currently in office. But at the same time we need to do the intellectual and cultural work of building a very different kind of ‘common sense’, a ‘common sense’ in which every fire gets the same attention and support as the terrible fires in Kynsna.

This means that we have to think about politics in a much broader and more sophisticated way. We have to understand that ideas and values are really important and that while state power is vitally important politics is a much, much broader field of contestation.

The dehumanised need to be rehumanised in our universities, our media, and our cultural production. This is an urgent task if we are going to have any chance of building a viable and sustainable democracy. We cannot afford to continue with the colonial logic in which some of us are considered to be disposable. If the young people driving the ‘decolonial’ project in the universities want to show their critics that they are driving an emancipatory project and not just a narrow class project they could offer their youthful energies and creativity to this work

Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, Research Fellow in the School of Sciences at UKZNand the academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation.

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