Home Opinion & Features We are divided by class, not race

We are divided by class, not race

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Class has replaced race as the main determinant of privilege, says the writer

SOMETIMES a crisis, like the fight to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, can bring a country together.

Countries such as the US have almost perfected the art of using crises to unite their people.

But South Africa is different. The inequalities in our country are too huge for us to unite against most things, even something as serious as the coronavirus.

The more I think about it, the more I realise we are far from being a “rainbow nation”, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela almost willed us to be. 

Yes, I know we presented some sort of a united front when we hosted the Fifa World Cup in 2010 – 10 years ago next month. But, if you are completely honest, hosting and winning World Cups did not really bring about significant changes in the lives of most people in South Africa.

I have written columns for many publications over the course of almost 40 years in journalism, and I am never surprised by the response to some of my columns, especially when I write about entitlement and even more so when I associate entitlement with a particular race.

In recent years, I have realised more and more that entitlement is not necessarily based on race any more in South Africa, but that class has replaced race as the main determinant of privilege. Most of my columns are not meant to point fingers at anybody but are trying to help us understand our complex society better.

South Africa is a beautiful country (for some), and it has many opportunities (for some). What I have been arguing for most of my life is that we need to create a society where more people can appreciate the beauty and more people can have access to the opportunities.

The only way to do it is to take from those who have, to give to those who don’t.

This is normally the point when the vitriolic attacks come from people who feel their lifestyles and livelihoods are under attack by those who want to take from them.

South Africa is a hugely unequal society, and there are some privileged people who do not like us to blame apartheid for this. They are probably right: we should blame apartheid and colonialism. After all, we had about six times as many years of colonialism preparing the way for legalised apartheid to put the final nail in black people’s coffins.

While colonialism was almost “sophisticated”, apartheid was ruthless in the way it went about depriving rights – political, social and economic – in pursuit of protecting a small part of the population. We will still spend many years trying to undo the damage caused by apartheid and colonialism.

I thought about this as I listened to President Cyril Ramaphosa speaking to the nation on Wednesday night, and as I read the responses on social media afterwards. It was as if he spoke to two different audiences: one who felt that he said nothing, while the other appreciated his acknowledgement of mistakes and his commitment to do better in this uncertain situation.

I believe in giving our president the benefit of the doubt. I appreciate his dilemma: saving lives while preserving livelihoods. It is not an easy situation and, no matter what he does, he will not be able to please everybody all the time, especially in a nation as divided as South Africa.

I am as frustrated as the next person at having to live under a lockdown. But I am not an expert on what we are dealing with and will be guided by those, like the president, who have access to more expertise, even if it irritates and inconveniences me at times. We shall overcome. The virus. And inequality in South Africa.

* Fisher is an independent media professional. Follow him on Twitter @rylandfisher

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the DFA.