The most thought-provoking words spoken at the Boksburg Inequality Conference that we and our partners hosted in Gauteng last month were uttered right at the end, almost as an aside, by the conference’s closing speaker, Neva Makgetla. Reminiscing about her days studying philosophy in East Germany (as it then was), she said that what had struck her was that that the original motivation of those who had tried to create a socialist society – the promise that they had struggled to fulfil – was that socialism would enable a change in the quality of human relationships. But in practice, trying to make a society work, they decided to focus on material things. Money, social services, schools. Perhaps here in South Africa, she said, something similar had happened. The struggle against Apartheid was linked to a dream of what could be possible in the new society, the possibility of something qualitatively different from the fear-filled disconnections constituted by Apartheid. But a country had to be run, programmes designed. And this is what we’re left with, she implied: BEE and social grants.
It was a sobering comment, for it made me think that perhaps we, the organizers of the conference, had somewhat lost sight of our topic. The conference had been organized in order to try to put the issue of inequality more squarely on the South African policy agenda. All too often, discussions about social issues in South Africa proceed as if poverty is a residual matter, the result of some people somehow being left out of economic growth: as if all that is required is to provide them with the assistance and opportunities that are needed to raise their incomes (the current reach-for-my-revolver term is to ‘graduate’ them) above some (usually unspecified) poverty line.
We wanted to challenge those assumptions. We wanted to argue that the central and most urgent issue facing South Africa is not poverty but inequality; and that in South Africa, poverty and inequality were structural. That our economy, while generating wealth for a few, is also a poverty machine, perpetuating and exacerbating steep and deeply rooted inequalities that threaten the basis of social stability and growth. We wanted to use the conference to cast a spotlight on this trend: to ask what kind of society was emerging, and to invite participants to explore what alternatives were possible. Could we imagine a different society, with different values? What would such a society look like?
I was reminded of that aim on the first morning of the conference, when the organizing committee met in the Birchwood’s faux-Italian coffee shop to discuss the start of the proceedings. The conference would be opened by Deputy President Kgalema Mothlante (on DVD, the man himself being required at the ANC NGC in Durban) – after which there would be a recital by performance poet Flo. Flo was there, a shy, burly man with a ready smile. We chatted with him about his plans for his performance, and asked him what he thought he would recite. What would his poems be about? He thought for a moment and said, oh, social issues. And love. There was a moment’s embarrassed silence. Love? Well, I thought, perhaps that was precisely what we were here to talk about. All my relations, and the world they exist in.
In the event, Flo’s poems were moving, thought provoking and disarming, and did their part to break the ice and get things moving. But pretty soon his words were forgotten, and the participants went ahead, doing what people do at poverty and inequality conferences: considering Lorentz curves, analysing political systems, discussing job creation and rural development. And at that level the conference was, as conferences go, successful. Makgetla’s presentation showed clearly how considering poverty on its own, in isolation, leads to narrow policies focussing merely on particular marginalized groups, while a focus on inequality leads to much more searching questions on the need for social transformation. Other presentations illuminated various aspects of the structural roots of inequality – the legacy of Apartheid, the failure to embark on an employment-intensive growth path, the continued dominance of capital- and energy intensive sectors, and the enormous levels of concentration and centralized corporate power in the formal economy. And there were searching discussions about particular policies and instruments – social protection, small farmer development, community work programmes – that could address these problems.
But in the end, listening to Makgetla’s closing words, I realized that we too, by concentrating mostly on the material, monetary aspects of inequality and poverty, had missed the opportunity to think about the nature and quality of social relations. Sure, there were some good analyses on gender and power relations in labour markets, and on the politics of pro-poor development. But most of our discussions had focussed on material resources, on institutions, on money and social goods. Granted, this was not a poetry conference. We were social scientists, government policymakers, development practitioners, community organizers; not philosophers or novelists. We talked about the things we knew. But what about the more elusive issues? What about thinking about the kind of society that was emerging at more moral, existential or ethical level? What about the obligations and bonds between citizens? What about identity? What about the cordoned heart? What about the structures of feeling, non-feeling and disconnection created by how power, money and fear move in this harsh land? In my own presentation at the conference, I had closed by asking what the scope was for a different project – not technical poverty management, or adversarial populist struggle, but on civic solidarity. Stirring words. But how does one even start thinking about how such a politics might look? Somehow, it is hard to thinking about this issue without getting lost in clichés and in potted thinking.
Hence this essay. My concern today is utopia; or rather, how to find a space for utopian thinking that can have grip or traction in this world. This blog is in the first place concerned with the myths we live by: the lenses through which we look; the resources at our disposal when we try to see what is found there, to imagine what it means, and to dream what’s possible. And in the case of thinking about ‘equality,’ about social relations, it’s hard to find a way of speaking that does not cause us immediately to get lost in prefabricated stories. Analyses of monetary inequality are all very well, but they are mistaken when they confuse the smooth curves that map the distribution of resources in society for social inequality which, as Charles Tilly has pointed out, is a thing of sharp distinctions, pregnant hierarchies, small differences with huge consequences: the difference between black and white, between master and slave, boss and employee. (Or to cite an example close to home for me, permanent university staff and talented researchers still on short-time contracts after 10 years of hard work.) The economists’ conception of perfect equality (everyone has the same income) is useful as a mathematical hypothesis, but it kind of misses the point. Utopian dreams of brother / sisterhood and inequality are deeply compelling (I still get choked up by that Lennon song…) but they’re closed, dislocated fantasies, shaped more by infantile longings for things not to be real than by a gritty assessment of what’s possible. And don’t talk to me about the South African variant: the way talk about racial relations shades so soon into sentimental fantasies about reconciliation, colour-blindness, impossible projects of reparation or essentialist lamentations about how terrible it is to be white. It can be fun for those who do it, but it does not offer much help for those who have to learn to get along, accomplish tasks, feed kids and run businesses in a world in which difference and antagonism are irreducible, real, and maybe even valuable.
So what can we imagine? What can and should we want? I don’t think I have answers. What I have is some disconnected dots; and my guess is that thinking about them may not give me a route, but at least it may help us get a sense of how the map looks, and the lie of the land.
So bear with my meandering argument here. A good place is to start with where we are. Specifically, the Rosmead shopping centre, in Rosmead Road, Kenilworth, where academic Gubela Mji, head of the Centre for Rehabilitation Studies in the Faculty of Health at the University of Stellenbosch Health, was brutally assaulted in September of this year. No-one knows what happened: Ms Mji was stabbed and had received blows to her head severe enough to leave her concussed, disoriented, and without a memory of the incident. A security guard had found her: he thought at first she was a homeless woman, barefoot and bloody, vomiting blood and asking for an ambulance. He sought help from what the newspaper article coyly calls ‘a national private health care chain’ with offices nearby. But in the eyes of staff there, Ms Mji, barefoot, dishevelled, incoherent and black, did not look like someone who could pay. They assumed she was a vagrant, and vagrants don’t get care. Only because the security guard who had found her persisted in his efforts did an ambulance service finally respond. The news story itself soon faded from view, with no follow-up after the first indignant headlines.
Consider what is at play here — both in the incident itself, and what makes it newsworthy. Firstly, the story shows how stark the divide is between the existence of those of us who belong within the institutional grid of power and wealth at the centre of our economy, and those of us who don’t; and how harsh the consequences are. It highlights the fragility even of privilege, and how easy it is to end up on the outside. Critically, it illustrates with depressing force the continued reality of race in this country (had Ms Mji been white, would she have been so easily consigned to the streets, with only a security guard to fend for her?). But the most shameful and perverse reality is this: the fact that this story is told at all only because Ms Mji is one of ‘us’, a member of the middle class; that we can identify with her and feel the fearful thrill of thinking, that could have been me. That’s why it’s a story. Homeless people are assaulted every day, and denied care. Everyday normality does not make the news.
This is the society we are creating, post-Apartheid. Not only are we one of the most income-unequal societies on the planet. Not only is this inequality increasing. Not only have we created a society bisected by deeply unequal relations of power and privilege, in which the marginalized have, in truth, no rights at all. Worst of all, we live here heedlessly, comfortably. Our hearts and imaginations have been numbed.
And you can see how this kind of setup perpetuates itself, how it feeds the desire to build the walls higher, and how it drives the hungry ghosts of self-enrichment and pointless, conspicuous consumption.
So much for the obvious aspects of the story. Gubela Mji’s assault is in this respect like any story of shocking crime, a event which can function as an example to illustrate some troubling aspects of our society. But there is more to say.
For Ms Mji is not merely the subject of a story, a mute exemplar. She has a voice of her own. And by an irony rich and strange it turns out that in the past she has spoken eloquently and powerfully about these very issues. In a recent book about disability and social change, she is the author of a powerful and personal account on the exclusion and marginalization of the homeless disabled. Entitled with eerie precision ‘Disability and homelessness: a personal journey from the margins to the centre and back’ she recounts a journey of self-discovery that began when, as part of an investigation into the conditions of disabled homeless people, she lived for a week in a homeless people’s shelter. Here she had to confront her own feelings of discomfort at being in the presence of people who she had been accustomed to experience as ‘rude violent and drunk.’ Her subsequent reflections go right to the centre of the issue:
“…when I listened to someone’s life story, their problems, fantasies and struggles, something began to change. I was faced with the dilemma of wanting to hold on to something to distinguish ‘this kind of person’ from the kind of person I am. At the same time I found myself recognizing myself in their problems, fantasies and struggles…. I felt a deep concern at how far I had travelled from my rural childhood into the abstract violence of Cape Town’s urbanity, a social violence underpinning and underpinned by the abstract violence of my professional training and its attendant medical-scientific categorizations, codifications and pathologies. I was discovering in conversations with others a capacity that had been slowly eroded by the rationality and instrumentalism of my medical training and the bureaucracy and alienation of urban living”
This is the centre from which I think we can approach our question. For the power of Mji’s story is not only that by an awful irony she eventually experienced the enactment on her own body, on her own person, of the abstract institutional violence of an unequal society. It is also the precision with which she fingers her own personal complicity in that institutional violence. Wanting something to distinguish ‘this kind of person’ from the kind of person I am: Write that in letters of fire on the Union Building. Write that on every coin and Rand note in the country. This is how the divisions of an unequal society are mirrored and perpetuated in the very capacity to relate, to engage with others. And at the same time, Mji insists that there is something that can be undone; something that can be reversed. We can recover our ability to identify.
I find these reflections helpful when I consider the debates and dilemmas that shaped the conference. In my experience, I was particularly struck by what seemed to be a polarization or a disconnect between two very different ways of thinking about inequality and what could be done about it. Superficially, this disjuncture seemed to revolve around the hoary old sociological distinction between structure and agency. On the one hand, there were the researchers and analysts who emphasised the structural nature of inequality: the ways in which the domination of the economy by a highly concentrated, capital intensive corporate core undermined the basis for economic agency on the part of the poor. On the other hand there were the voluntarist accounts of community response and self-help: presentations that seemed to suggest that all that was required to resolve the problem was optimism and self-belief on the part of the poor, with a little bit of help from the State. Obviously both views had value, and spoke to part of the truth. But they seemed to exist in parallel universes, dead to the truth of each other’s arguments, and unable to see their own blind spots
Seeraj Mohammed’s presentation of labour market trends in South Africa was a very good example of the former. Mohammed’s account of the distorted development of the South African core economy, the continued domination by the minerals and energy complex, the failure of the middle class to invest in productive capacity, the centrality of credit fuelled spending and the disastrous impact of these trends on employment intensity was lucid and compelling. At the same time, what struck me most of all was the dispirited tone, and the disabling import, of this analysis. South African corporates and capitalists, Mohammed seemed to suggest, had acted selfishly to enrich themselves. Would one expect anything different? Apparently not. This was simply the way things worked in late modern capitalism. As an analysis oriented at action, it did not seem particularly helpful.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was a presentation by Lebo Ramafoko about Kwanda, a project initiated by Soul City, South Africa’s public interest messaging television programme. Charismatic and magnetic, exuding enthusiasm and confidence, Ms Ramafoko comes on like a South African version of Oprah, an impression strengthened by Soul City and Kwanda’s underlying message of emancipation through self belief and media attention. Poor local communities accessing funds for community works programmes are selected to participate in a national competition. Kwanda makes short documentaries about each community, showing their problems, highlighting the heroic efforts of local residents to address these issues; visits six months later, assessing the extent of progress made – and then invites viewers to share their advice and opinions, and to vote for their favourite projects.
It is, in other words, social development through reality television, and pretty well done television too. The clip shown at the conference portrayed, with the upbeat urgency and streetwise funky vibeyness that characterises youth television, the problems of a community called Peffertown, a peri-urban slum somewhere in the vicinity of Port Elizabeth. Dreadlocked bergies puffed at white piles, depressed community members recounted awful stories of random violence. The heroine of the story was a determined local girl called Denise, who worked to bring together community members to try to make things better. Stocky and uncompromising, with a handsome, clear-eyed gaze, she was a member of the local women’s rugby team, and she brought to her community engagement the same commitment and fierce passion she showed on the field. It was compelling viewing; a kind of strange hybrid of Andy Warhol and Che Guevara: everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes – but as a community activist.
But how realistic is all this? Lebo’s enthusiasm tempted one to believe that this is how inequality could be combated in South Africa – simply by using the connective capability of social media to create a virtual community founded on optimism and self-help. But virtual communities are evanescent, community works programmes are temporary measures that can only ameliorate the worst effects of neglect and under-investment. If the core economy fails to generate jobs, can Kwanda do more but create hype and excitement around what is, after all, band-aid?
Those are important questions. But at the same time, much would be lost if we simply dismissed Kwanda and the voices it gave space for. This is where Mji’s thoughts help us see something of value that we might miss. For Mji does not treat the loss of community feeling, the abstract violence of the withdrawal of social solidarity, as inevitable. She reminds us that capacity for it still exists. She links this capacity very much to her own cultural resources as an African woman from a rural area. But the capacity exists in us all. It is nothing more than psychological projection ; the ability and the willingness to recognise something of oneself in another.
Kwanda thus highlights two key points. Firstly, it gives an indication of how close to the surface our South African utopian imagination still lives; how real the underlying inclination of goodwill, fellow feeling and solidarity still is. And secondly, it has found a way of mobilizing this energy: it has used the power of television and media to allow parts of South Africa to have a kind of love affair with itself.
Love affairs are interesting things. The one we thought we saw is never there. Projection is, after all, illusory. But it’s a productive illusion. It can start a journey of fruitful disillusionment, a process of discovery and change. Much can be given and gained. For all its naivety and cheesy optimisim, in other words, Kwanda does something the leftist critique of structure often fails to do: it constructs a subject position from which action is still possible.
So despite its limits, Kwanda suggests the possibility of a different way of proceeding. In a way, it’s like the World Cup, where the dream of welcoming ‘the world’ allowed us to feel, for a few weeks, that the country where we would like to live really existed. Not Singapore, not Switzerland, not Sweden, but a warm hearted, vibey, ordinary country in the South. But the World Cup as an ideological project pivoted, really, on our deeply charged, troubled, relation with the North; our desire to be recognized and seen by something we call the World. It was, in other words narcissistic in the strict sense of the word; a desire to appear in a certain way in the eyes of an authoritative Other. The moment that Other disappeared, the moment we were no longer on the TV screens, the moment we could no longer see ourselves reflected in the distorting mirror of the World’s gaze, the warm glow disappearted.
My question is really about the space, in South Africa, for a discourse of civic solidarity. Can we define ourselves not in relation to the world’s gaze, not in relation to a feared interloper, but to each other? Can we find a way to meet ourselves, “at our own door, in our own mirror”? Can we act as if in some way — divided by antagonisms, to be sure, riven by hurts, burdened by memory — there is, in the end, an ‘us’? Can we imagine that?