The grotesque power of privilege

Weighed down: The men that cornered a suspected cellphone thief in Melville seemed defined by physicality. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

Weighed down: The men that cornered a suspected cellphone thief in Melville seemed defined by physicality. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

The hunt was on. Well-fed and strong, the hunters chased after the hunted – thin, weak and vulnerable. Zigzagging and twisting, he tried to get away. One of the pack closed in and tossed him to the ground. He staggered up, confused, and ran again.  

Scenting the hunt, others gathered, some to watch, some leaving their cars to join the chase. The thick-necked tribe had arrived.

His eyes wide and face strained with fear, the man ran but was again thrown down, this time into the road.

Wheels squealed. One thick-neck dragged him to the sidewalk and tossed him down. Biceps straining against his tight short sleeves, he pinned the homeless man by his arms to the ground.

“Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt him! Let him go!” I was ignored.

Gaunt and Christ-like, he lay there protesting that he hadn’t stolen anything. Another man knelt next to him, his plumber’s crack easing out of his tight jeans, to search for a “stolen” cellphone. He pushed up the man’s T-shirt, exposing sharp hip-bones and pubic hairs.  

“He’s so thin, you’ll break him! Let him go!”  

A man in a T-shirt designed to show off his six-pack turned on me, finger pointing: “You! Stay out of it!”

A bystander with a non-South African accent said someone should call the police. It was a sensible suggestion for his country. I feared what the police would do to the man as much as I did street “justice”. He stood up, his face as grey and as worn as his clothes, and tried to run.

“Mama – help me!”  

They snatched him back. “Search his bag,” commanded bulging biceps. The man shrugged off the torn backpack and fled towards the bushes. The bag lay there, empty. The hunters and watchers slunk away silently, back to their cars and comfortable homes, or to beers and fine food in the restaurants of middleclass Melville in Johannesburg.

I drove home. My car has more than the homeless man has – a roof, insurance and an identity number. I lay awake trying to make sense of the ugly little incident. My mind trawled isms: Was it racism? Perhaps. The thick-necks were European, Asian and coloured. The homeless man was a black South African.

Was it sexism? Oh yes. Ageism? Certainly. “Stay out of this”, I was told. I was the only woman there among about 10 muscled men plus the homeless man.

“Don’t you tell me what to do,” I told the twerp who was about the same age as my nephew. Am I ageist?

The women stayed in their cars. Perhaps they saw their men as heroes, saving them from the Other – the poor black man. Perhaps they believe they shouldn’t challenge their men, they may get angry, retaliate. Stay in your place, woman.

“What happened?” asked the non-South African. His woman said: “Too much testosterone.”

But what does that mean? It felt as if I’d interfered in men’s busi- ness. This is what real men do. A ste- reotype? Yet, not all men behave like this. But perhaps too many boy children absorb what their fathers and uncles and grandfathers teach them. Be brave, my son, defend your family, don’t ask questions, just act like a man. Thump your chest, my son.

What is the threat? Some would say it’s about class. The thick-necks probably have green lawns in this time of drought. What do they strive for – the values and aspirations reflected in Top Billing and The Man Cave? Six-packs, bulging biceps, celebrities, sportspeople, the latest fashion, glamorous women, showtime weddings, and huge houses that don’t look lived in.

What is it about men – not all, but too many of them? I’ve read research about the poor – those living in townships, rural areas and prisons. It’s revealing, but what does it say about those comfortably off?

Perhaps it’s about how they define themselves. Masculine, fearless, protectors and owners of women and things. Prowess.

I saw the exertion of the powerful and privileged against the powerless, a pack against someone seen to be weaker than them.

Who am I? If it was a police, work, home affairs or census report, they’d ask me to tick boxes: race, age, gender, disabilities. But this is not an official document. It seems we are defined by our “otherness” – gay, black, old(er), fat, women, foreigners, the poor. And I succumbed to this too – I call them thick-necks.

Why did I intrude? Inaction and silence is to be complicit. I have to live with me.

What values were ascribed to the “stolen” cellphone?

Still I ask: What happened? There was no insight, no self-reflection, no understanding, no recognition. No compassion. The homeless man wasn’t a person. No one saw him.

See him.



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