/ 10 September 2010

Goodbye racism, hello class schism

I celebrated the first Saturday of September sitting under the stars of a crisp Jo’burg night, watching a classic Audrey Hepburn film and sipping wine at a cultural exchange event hosted by the Alliance Française.

There was a cool mix of artists, musicians, fashion designers, writers and intellectuals of all races, with their children.

I ­- and a few others — was enjoying the benefits that come with being a black diamond.

In our company were white liberals in the middle, or rather, at the top of South Africa’s Gini coefficient index.

I’m pretty sure these displays of the “ideal South Africa” were going on all over the country while news headlines continued to tell stories of dying babies, unattended patients, frightened, non-striking nurses and doctors and empty schools as a result of the drawn-out public service strike.

We, the privileged class, have a lot to say about our dodgy government, the impudent strikers, the inflexible unions and the countless victims of this instability, but, at the end of the day, our daily lives are not seriously affected by this modern struggle for equality.

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 unaffected.

As one of the few South Africans who are educated, employed and privileged, my life hasn’t been affected by the strike.

And because of where I hang out, I see the strike and its effects only on TV or on the internet.

What I do experience almost every day as one of South Africa’s diamond class is a silent hostility that, occasionally, shows itself as direct contempt from the underclass.

I see it in the faces of supermarket cashiers and shop assistants who don’t greet me when I get to the till or sneer at me because I don’t speak Sesotho (I am Xhosa), or who insist that I pack my own groceries.

It seems they think: “You may be in a better financial position, you little bitch, but you’re still black like me.” In essence, the result of the race war we didn’t have in South Africa is a terrifying class schism.

Is there anything we can do to change this?

I’m sure there is, but as long as our art exhibitions, movie screenings and private political tête-à-têtes are not touched by this precarious zeitgeist, it doesn’t seem like we care enough to be directly involved in the manifold problems of our poorer classes.

Is that wrong?

I don’t think so. It’s the nature of the system we all signed up for in 1994 when we chose democracy, not that (communism, socialism and so on) were viable options at the time.

Will this helpless apathy catch up with us? I believe it will.

I believe the dirty looks that blacks like me get from those less fortunate than us are indicative of where this classism will lead to in coming years — and, yes, it won’t matter whether you’re black or white.