Saturday, 24 May 2008

Perspective and bitterness

Note: The past few weeks have been intense and worrying and interesting. I have some friends who have responded, determined to DO something to fix it (see this post for example). Others have taken an activist stance and gotten heavily involved in protest action. I've made my perspective clear in the post below and here - I'd like to see peacekeepers go in, not with guns and tanks, but with food and blankets, not only for the persecuted immigrants, but for the people who are doing the burning and persecuting, because I think that, although it's linked to xenophobia, the immediate cause is the fact that the people don't have food and far more importantly, don't have food security. All this I've said and, at present, I have little to add. So this won't be a serious, analytical post about the xenophobia and the attacks in South Africa. It is triggered by that, but this is a post about me, an introspective exploration of my own reaction.

South Africans have turned on foreigners and wreaking havoc and perpetrating terrible violence, are killing and burning and scaring them away. I am sad. I feel very unhappy for those who have suffered. But I am not shocked. I am not horrified. In fact, I feel that this is fairly inevitable and, from a purely personal perspective, it makes me a little sad and bitter.

I have always had anarchist tendencies. The simple fact that I responded like a sunflower turning towards the sun when my History 102 lecturer started talking about societal controls and the humanitarian disaster that is neoliberal neo-colonialism was a fairly clear sign. My history department was a wonderful nursery for anarchist tendencies (of the positive kind). The analysis was clear and simple and open to debate. The creation and exploration of unusual and controversial ideas was encouraged. Popular wisdom wasn't. The reasoning wasn't as rigorous as it was in the philosophy department, but it was more human, warmer and more in touch with reality (ie less abstract, more real world). It was sometimes close to macro-economics - except that it questioned the assumptions of capitalism far more strongly, as all good historical materialism would.

On the plane home on Friday, I was rereading Malcolm Gladwell's
The Tipping Point (If you haven't read it, I'm no longer sure that my writing will make sense to you. Please go and find a copy) when I came across this passage:
"...To appreciate the power of [social] epidemics, we have to abandon this expectation about proportionality. We need to prepare ourselves for the possibility that sometimes big changes follow from small events, and that sometimes these changes can happen very quickly"
The concept of the tipping point seemed like someone explaining something so obvious and so familiar when I first read it. Then I spent several years intimately involved with epidemiology and social change. I forget, and I'm not even sure I really ever grasped, that the idea of tipping points seems illogical to many people. It seems strange to them that a change in the situation can have a opposite reaction which is anything but equal.

Did you ever learn in history class that the first world war started because Ferdinand was assassinated? Did that seem strange to you? It doesn't seem logical for the whole world to go to war because a single individual was assassinated. Indeed, history has produced extensive analyses of how the structure of European society at the time and myriad other factors contributed. But the world went to war because Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Our linear sense of time demands a more 'logical' explanation, a cause more proportional to the effect, or at least a longer period of gradual change leading to war. But wars aren't like that. Society isn't like that. A tipping point analysis of world war one would look at a small group of people interacting in a particular way for whom this analysis took the situation over the edge, it was the match to the powder-keg, even if it wasn't particularly significant in and of itself.

When the most unstable (in terms of high migrant populations - both local and foreign - and very little stable community), underserviced, hard to manage, high-levels-of-poverty,-HIV,-unemployment-and-violence, townships exploded, I wasn't surprised. Before you think that is arrogant and that I somehow think I know more than others, let me explain that it wasn't just that I wasn't surprised, it's that I was quite shocked that everyone else was surprised.

I find myself doing this a lot lately. Zimbabwe has a sudden spate of violence when the dictatorial government is challenged in an election and everyone reacts with shock. I am the silly person in the corner going "but...but... we knew that! Why is this a surprise?! How come we're all reacting with shock?! I thought that was the accepted reality?!" I'm honestly blown away by the number of people who, despite the obvious, though that Zimbabwe could be fixed by democracy. I liken it to 1980s South Africa. The similarities are obvious. And the only place for that to go is civil war or negotiated settlement. The situation in Zimbabwe doesn't perplex me. It's very sad and my heart breaks for the people of the country, just as it does for those facing genocide in Darfur and the mothers of the umpteenth generation of child soldiers in the DRC. But it doesn't perplex me. It doesn't seem strange or foreign. I'm often a little taken a-back that others don't necessarily agree with me.

The same is true of the violence in the townships. It's horrible and sad and deplorable, but to some extent I see it as inevitable. Which makes me start to wonder about myself. So many around me are shocked and horrified and, most of all, surprised. It seems, listening to them, that they believed that all South Africans had bought into the idea of the rainbow nation, except perhaps a few disgruntled white right-wingers. These are not stupid people. Nor do I think that perspective makes them stupid. I start to wonder if the problem is with me.

Part of the difference, I think, is that an anarchist can never truely trust a system. And more and more, no matter what other face I might present for the purposes of general life, I realise I am an anarchist. Not in the destructive sense, but in the sense of Le Guin's
The Dispossessed. And Sen's Development as Freedom - which is also a kind of anarchy, just from the other side. So I expect a level of incompetence and corruption and inability to fix everything. In a way, my generally optimistic take on life is probably partly built on expecting the system not to work. So, I'm less disappointed when it doesn't.

I'm also a student of history. And history clearly shows that the 'American Dream' is an illusion. There is no uniform identity. Not within a country and not internationally. Class is the norm and the reality, everywhere and in everything (yes, historical materialism). And within every peaceful, rich and generally happy society, there are enclaves of exclusion. This is normal. It's also normal for them to flair up the minute there is stress on the society - with food security being a key factor. They're like canaries in mines, except that they don't die, they bite whatever seems to be the easiest target. The unstable, particularly poor townships are our canaries. Food shortages (and perhaps also oil price hikes) are our poison-gas.

So I wasn't surprised and shocked. I also wasn't horrified. There is societal pressure to be horrified. I live in a human-rights culture. I'm supposed to be upset by the senseless killing of innocent people. I have a problem with this statement:
1. All killing is senseless. Women, children, fathers, mothers, grandparents are murdered every day in South Africa. Many of them in these townships. Whether it is war, genocide or 'ordinary' crime, it's all senseless. This killing isn't any more senseless than all the rest. And to suggest that it is means taking sides and making one life worth more than another - a reaction that can only make this situation worse.
2. 'Innocent' people. This phrase is so dangerous in South Africa. I bet those perpetrating the attacks would argue that the people stealing the jobs they were promised or the people raising the food prices (keep in mind that many immigrants are shop keepers) or the people living in RDP houses when they starve are not innocent. Innocent is a word thrown into this debate for no purpose other than to create an emotive response. It is unnecessary and inflammatory.

I am not horrified that people who live in a country where violence is part of everyday life, and has a long social and cultural history - sometimes associated with the attainment of freedom and good, where the trademark song of the leader of the popular party is 'bring me my machine-gun', where the deputy minister of safety and security asks police to shoot-to-kill, that these people should resort to violence. I think the context means that the 'canaries' of our society are more likely to resort to violence that those of many other societies - because of our history and our extreme inequality. I also think this is exactly the kind of flair-up we've also seen in Haiti and Egypt. We are not unique. The violence is not unique. I stopped being horrified by violence. It is not new.

I'm also not horrified that the violence is against foreigners. This seems to be what has excited the greatest reaction from many people. I don't understand why. The Apartheid government systematically demonised everything African and particularly every country to the North of South Africa for a good 30-40 years. This effect is not going to disappear with the introduction of democracy. They were bastards but they were quite good at what they were trying to do. At the same, time, the recent efforts of various groups in the country have seen the creation of a fairly strong South African identity. In times of societal stress, these two factors are quite likely to result in the in-group (South Africans) venting their frustration on the out-group (foreigners). I don't understand why this is new and surprising.

My reaction is not one of horror, shock and surprise. On the one hand, I feel affronted that this situation, simply because it makes better front pages, because it has the world's attention, but the ordinary, everyday plight of the poor, the victimised, the women in abusive relationships, the orphans trying to survive on nothing, goes unnoticed. The marches to support the end to violence suggest that if it wasn't for this particular bit of overreaction by a few hot-heads, life in Du Noon would be just fine. They also seem to suggest that these are random, aberrant acts of violence in an otherwise peaceful place, including in otherwise peaceful residential areas where these attacks are taking place. This is a minor irritation, however. I know that it's useless to spend my time wishing that everyone would care about the unglamorous problems that are the norm in our society. History has also taught me that it just won't happen.

On the other hand, my immediate reaction is a desire to fix. The focus of fixing is two-fold. Firstly, immediate emergency relief - coordinating an effort like this requires a set of skills and experience that are not all that common. I long to throw in my assistance. Some of my friends are doing wonderful work helping out and donating. I want to go to the townships and coordinate the activities of various NGOs and government and business. I want to be part of the top-level team that makes the relief happen. I have great respect for the people who hand out the mugs of soup. I want to give them direction. Secondly, organise meetings with the 'hotheads'. There is no better time than in the heat of the moment to do a needs assessment. Of course, some of what you get will be couched in terms of xenophobia but people who are driven to violence will probably tell you things that the normal gatekeeper-function of civility and politeness and protocol would prevent. It's the perfect time to find out what is really going on. And then, build peace. Peace isn't found, or developed, it is built. And there is no better time to build it than when the fire is on the ground and everyone is vulnerable.

Watching the reports is the most frustrating, unhappy experience. It makes me bitter. Someone who is a journalist, watching from a distance, keeping track of the news reports and the media reaction and how this is playing internationally, but who can't be there and can't take an active role in reporting what is going on, must feel something of the same frustration. You need a particular kind of objectivity and perspective to be a journalist in this situation - to refuse to be sucked in by sympathy or general popular horror and to feel the keen urge to find out what is really going on, to find out what is behind the hype and the inevitable government denials and the international (and middle class) sensationalism of the situation. I think that kind of objectivity and perspective is why I was drawn to journalism when I first got to varsity. It took me a while to realise that the same kind of objectivity is needed in another role - with a very different outcome. I don't want to use my perspective to tell people about what is going on. I know enough very competent people who can do that and I'm not very good at doing it. I want to fix it.

You have to be hard to work in this kind of emergency situation. You have to be able to work with women who have lost their children, with children who have lost their parents and with people who have lost everything - their homes, their livelihoods and all their little family mementos and memories. You have to empathise. You have to feel where they are. And then you have to be strong enough to decide whether or not they will have a place to sleep that night. You have to be able to work within the confines that exist. I've never been very good at the idea of constructing a budget based on what things cost instead of based on what exists to be spent. This is why. The hard choices in my world are the choices of who gets the most chance to survive. This kind of work means you cannot get attached. You have to stay hard. But you also have to be more sensitive than anyone else could imagine possible. And emergency relief is not like police-work. There are similarities but there is not the satisfaction of solving a crime. Laying blame and seeking justice is counter-productive in emergency work. Your focus must always be on finding a solution to the immediate and the long-term problem, preferably solutions that will be complementary across both time-spans.

Academically, this situation has not shocked me, although it is terrible for those involved, but I feel that more people should read
The Tipping Point, study history (particularly from a materialist perspective), be anarchists and pay more attention to the social, political and economic trends in South Africa and globally, and that more people should have seen it coming and not been surprised.

Personally, this incident has brought to the fore all the urges and tendencies I've been trying to forget. And the bitterness. The skills I have, and the desire and willingness to do this kind of work and do it exceptionally well, are wasted because I can't find work in this field. The bitterness is because I know that I can help, I know that I should be helping and I know that something in the system has made it impossible for me to do so. In a role where I can help resolve this, the fact that I am jaded is irrelevant because I am not bitter at all. Out of the role, the bitterness leads me to understand why anarchy can become violent and why sometimes the disaffected are the first signs of sickness in society. I am jaded. I am hard. This is the only role in the world of development and one of the only roles anywhere where I could use that positively. I am bitter because I can't. I hate the fact that this situation has brought it all up again just as I was starting to come to terms with the fact that there is no place for me in South African development and I'll never, ever be able to do what I'm really, really good at.

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