It's not often that the halls of the Cape Town Waterfront offer up experiences of profound reflection that make you reconsider the citizenship.
It’s not often that the ersatz, glittering halls of the Cape Town Waterfront offer up experiences of profound reflection that make you reconsider the nature of your citizenship and the way in which you live your life.
But sometimes you get your money’s worth when you fork out R25 for parking. I had barely entered the hallowed halls of Dubai-owned wealth when I felt someone at my elbow. A vagrant, begging, at the Waterfront? I had never seen this before. I mumbled an apology and she drifted off listlessly into the crowd.
I went into the bookshop and was browsing at the stand near the entrance when I noticed this same woman being frog-marched towards the exit by two large security guards, one of whom was shouting at her. The shoppers all looked up briefly, disconcerted by this invasion from the real Cape Town.
Moments later, we were again disturbed by the sound of running and shouting. This time the two guards were attempting to remove a male vagrant. But he was not going quietly. His screaming and flailing brought the mall to a standstill and a small crowd gathered around as the two security guards laid into him, subduing him with punches.
A well-heeled shop owner started to scream at the vagrant—I don’t know why. Perhaps he had threatened her. But when the security guards dragged him behind the conveniently nearby fire escape doors, and continued beating him just on the other side, she spun on her heel to face the crowd and leaned against these doors, as if to lay claim to the sounds of brutal blows and diminishing screams on the other side.
Some of the people in the crowd were laughing. “These people are thieves,” the woman said. “I will hit them myself.” She had been eating a tub of ice cream when the ruckus broke out, and she returned to it now, spooning in mouthfulsof it between telling us about “the thieves”.
From behind the door came the sound of the man being half-dragged down one of those naked concrete corridors. I asked her then what the man had done. She turned on me and looked at me as if I was insane. “They are thieves!”
“Did he actually steal anything?” I asked. This line of questioning was apparently too much for her. “You ... you ... politician! You don’t know what you are talking about! I hope they steal from you! I hope they stab you!”
She was spitting with fury already, but my next question tipped her over the edge: “Who is ‘they’?” She did not answer. She walked away from me with a dismissive angry gesture. The crowd looked away.
And what did I do? Did I pull open one of the doors and see where the man had gone? No. I went to the counter and paid for my books. Then I went to Woolworths and picked up some groceries. I was shaking as I did this. I looked hard at everyone I saw—at the soapie star I saw browsing the sales racks, at the woman behind the till, complaining to her co-worker that the cleaners were all lazy.
My question was echoing in my head. And already I knew the answer. Already I knew that there is a line drawn in South Africa. And no matter what I think, or how I act, I am on the same side of the line as that woman and as the people who laughed at this man’s beating. To that man, and his friends, I will always be part of “them”, just as he and all his friends will always be part of a terrifying “them” to the ice-cream-eating woman who wished mortal injury on me.
And as long as this is possible, as long as both sides have no clear answer to the question: “Who is ‘them’?” we should all continue to live in fear for our lives. Because it was not the vagrant or the thief in our midst that we should have been afraid of. The truly terrifying threat to our social fabric was not embodied by that one man.
It was all around him in that crowd. It was the ability to laugh at another human being’s suffering. It was the part of me that didn’t think to actually intervene, to actually make them stop. It was the part of the woman that allowed her to say to me: “I hope they stab you.”
All of these things were made possible by a prior step, a step we make but do not know we make, a step in our understanding of otherness that somehow has brought us to the point where we no longer see each other as human.
This is the true toxic inheritance of apartheid, the final trick played on us. Yes, we dismantled an elaborate legal apparatus of segregation and repression. Yes, we made the transition from repressive police state to democracy without civil war. Yes, we conducted a mass ritual to deal with decades of state-sponsored violence. Yes. We did all that.
But we did not expunge from ourselves the terrible talent of seeing members of our own community as radically other, signified by some arbitrary feature. It used to be race. Now black people, too, can stand by and laugh when someone is beaten. That’s democracy.
These days the more dangerous signifier is class. To be poor is to be inhuman. To be poor is to be a different kind of citizen. And, of course, race is never far from class in this country. A white kid caught shoplifting would have been given a cool drink in the control room while his parents were called. A poor, drunk white kid might not have got the cool drink. But we all know he would not have got a public beating either.
As long as 30 South Africans can watch a man get beaten for stealing, and some of them laugh, some of them turn away, others simply continue shopping, as long as we can do this, then we are just as brutalised and frightening as the people we fear when we double-lock our doors and set our alarms at night.
Kelly Rosenthal is a doctoral student at Oxford University