Does the black middle class care about the poor?

2010-09-28 00:00

EVEN though I am a compulsive reader, I don’t always get moved by people’s writings, whether they are novels, biographies or even short stories. This is because when I do read it’s only for information and I avoid being immersed in writings other than my own. The idea of being moved by a newspaper column would never have crossed my mind until I read a short piece by Milisuthando Bongela in one of the weekly newspapers. Bongela’s article filled me with intense emotions of guilt as a black middle-class person living in South Africa.

His article zooms in on class dynamics in post-apartheid South Africa. It talks about how middle-class black people are detached from the plight of poor black people in the country. He asserts, “I can’t condone the gross injustice of South Africa’s past, but I can finally relate to how and why the majority of white people carried on with their lives during apartheid — quite simply, they were not affected.”

It is not difficult to understand why the unaffected carry on with their lives surrounded by enormous suffering. What is difficult to comprehend though, is how the affected carry on with their lives without doing anything about their suffering. I am saying this because much as we decry the indifference of white people towards the suffering of blacks during apartheid, not all black people were active in the struggle for their own emancipation. There are many reasons for this; perhaps some didn’t believe that the struggle against oppression was going to bear any desired fruit — so they decided to accept their “fate” and carry on with their abnormal lives.

Bongela’s article forced me to reflect on my own role and attitude towards the plight of the destitute and indigent among us. Do we as the black middle class really care about the poor among us? If not, then we have no business blaming the majority of whites in apartheid times and even now for being numb and indifferent to the suffering of black people. The majority of white people only read about the suffering of black people in the newspapers, so why should they be bothered if we, the children of the proletariat, descendants of mine workers and offspring of domestic servants, are guilty of the same indifference?

Before you drink that ridiculously expensive whisky think about a teenager in Tamboville informal settlement for whom drinking tea with milk is a far-fetched and unimaginable luxury. Yes, there are many such people, who give you a cynical chuckle if you ask them when last they had milk in their tea.

Before you sleep in that expensive penthouse, spare a thought for that child who has never felt the comfort of sleeping on a bed. While driving to your lofty office in your latest SUV, dressed in your pinstriped designer suit, think about a pupil who has to travel 10 kilometres barefoot to school. Before enjoying fancy cuisine at your favourite hideaway, think about that seven- year-old whose only hope for a decent meal is a feeding scheme at his primary school.

There are many such people in our country, we just don’t notice them and we simply carry on with life. If we do notice, we use poor people as projects for our own selfish ambitions.

Perhaps as black people we have become so familiar with suffering that we are not easily moved.

As some people have suggested, we did not struggle so that we can become poor and there is nothing wrong with being rich, but there is something morally questionable in being rich and behaving as if poverty doesn’t exist. As black middle- class people we have a historic obligation to be sensitive and do something about the plight of the poor among us. History will not be kind to us if we fail to perform this necessary task and we need to be constantly reminded that when the poor rise, they rise against us all.

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