Social justice is not about personalities

2011-11-19 12:14

I have been cracking my skull trying to figure out what people mean when they ask: “What has Julius Malema done for the youth?”

I don’t know what Malema has done. He may be a vociferous leader, but he is not the first person to highlight the plight of the youth.

Then again, I don’t know anyone who, using the “what has he done for the youth” criteria, would qualify to say that the youth of South Africa are not getting their freedom dividend.

By that argument, very few people would qualify to say anything about any of our social ills.

For example, do journalists who are paid to write their opinions in national newspapers qualify to write scathingly about how the state has forsaken the poor? If they are male, should they be taken seriously when they speak out about the abuse of women or, if they are white, are they qualified to speak out when they encounter racism against blacks?

There is obvious irony, even hypocrisy, when a Sandton-living Julius Malema condemns Zimbabwe’s MDC political party and benefits from a company that has in effect privatised state duties while he shouts for greater state involvement in the economy.

He may therefore not be the best advocate for the cause he professes to champion. But who is?

I do not accept the subliminal text that suggests that our political and social consciousness is necessarily determined by where we live, the salaries we earn or the cars we drive.

There is no doubt that the pain is always felt more by those who live with oppression than those who have intellectually converted to the cause of the oppressed.

This cannot be the final story. History is littered with examples of people whose contribution belied the fact that they themselves were not victims of the marginalisation they fought. Communist hero Friedrich Engels, who was raised in the most opulent of bourgeoisie homes, is one example.

Who would dare say that the “chiefs and gentlemen” who started the ANC in 1912 could not claim to be the true representatives of the people because, unlike most of their constituency, they had an education and remained part of an aristocracy?

The idea that only the wretched of the earth should speak about the hardships of life is as misguided as the view by some political types that journalists, especially black ones, cannot be trusted to think their own thoughts because they work for “white capitalist” media.

If this were true, then it would have to be true that mineworkers don’t have thoughts of their own simply because they work for the same “white capitalist” class that journalists work for.

Consciousness cannot be assumed by virtue of one’s home address or size of office. It cannot come automatically because you have the right skin colour either. It is a deliberate effort by those who become conscious.

For example, mere blackness did not stop the oppressed from collaborating with the likes of Jimmy Cliff and the O’Jays when they broke the cultural boycott by coming to perform here at the height of apartheid rule.

Making one’s address or wage packet a barometer of commitment to social justice is too inadequate a measuring tool. “What’s he done for the youth” is not any better either.

We should be able to separate the issues without being fixated on the personalities behind the issues. Where crimes have been committed, the criminals must go to jail regardless of the slogans they shout.

We must be careful though not to play into the hands of those whose default position is that black people can only be wealthy because of political patronage or criminal endeavours; or that if they are middle class or better, they can’t still be committed to social justice.

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