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Time to take a stand against classism

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The African “friend” of the white woman was well dressed and of higher class than the cleaner

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TRUE knowledge comes from observation and not (only) from thinking. Once I had a curious experience at work. As I entered a lift, there was a cleaner of African origin and I greeted her cordially.

We stopped at another level and a white woman in her late fifties stepped in. She greeted me (of European descent) and ignored the cleaner. My first thought was that this was pure racism.

We reached the ground floor and got out. We had scarcely walked a few steps when another woman (from African descent) walked into the arms of the white woman. They greeted each other as if they were long lost sisters, but the difference was class.

The African “friend” of the white woman was well dressed and of higher class than the cleaner.

Like many South Africans – white or black – at first, I’d been so blindsided by racism that I missed another form of bias: class.

What I witnessed that day was clear-cut classism. It belittles and prejudices people to the same degree as racism and sexism.

I believe class is so insidious therefore; South African society never notices it and even less adequately addresses it.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines classism as: discrimination on grounds of social class.

The victims of classism are human beings with feelings. Classism is also a dignity matter and, every person, no matter his/her social status, is entitled to be treated with dignity – a right guaranteed by section 10 of our Constitution.

Coming from the Afrikaner community, I have personally witnessed classism among whites. Conservative and racist Afrikaners would have no qualms about entertaining African-Americans at their houses, but would never imagine friendships with fellow Afrikaners of a lower class.

But never think for a moment that classism is only a white phenomenon. Because you see it among black people too. I cringe when I observe how my black (middle class) colleagues and friends treat lower class black people! I would’ve thought that as people previously oppressed they’d be more alive to bias, but it seems being initiated into the middle class make people lose their moral sensibilities.

In addition, capitalism is notorious for dividing people into different classes, with the underclasses enduring the most of economic exploitation. Once you are part of the moneyed classes, you move up in the food chain. And, no small number of middle class people develop a mistaken superiority complex. Whether socialism or social democracy will cure this situation might be open for debate, but it is a non-negotiable that classism cannot form part of a humane society.

This begs the questions as to why classism is not combated with the same vigour as racism and sexism. I believe it’s because society has not been properly sensitised to it.

Nonetheless, until classism receives the necessary attention, you and I do not need to perpetrate it ourselves. As Gandhi said: “Be the change you would like to see in the world”. Always be vigilant that you are not classist, speak about it and encourage others to do the same.

MARTIN LABUSCHAGNE is employed at Unisa and is a member of the Unisa Progressive People’s Forum. He is writing in his personal capacity.