Privilege flares in Notre Dame fire

When the main spire of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris crumbled, consumed by fire, the world lost one of its most iconic buildings: a towering monument to human endeavour and ingenuity, to our singular ability as a species to transform wood and bricks and glass into an edifice of timeless beauty, loaded with cultural, religious, architectural, artistic and historical significance.

Its loss provoked an outpouring of grief, sympathy and support. World leaders rushed to express their condolences; newspapers on every continent ran with the story on their front page; and donations poured in to a restoration fund, to the tune of €650-million in just a few hours on Tuesday.

It was an extraordinary, unprecedented expression of solidarity to a disaster in which no one died and no one was injured. But as the anguished response to the disaster got louder, and as the restoration fund kept on growing, so too did a sense of unease.

The scale of the response to Notre Dame dwarfed the global response to other tragedies, implying, somehow, that there is something more intrinsically valuable about this French church than, say, the even older temples destroyed by the earthquake in Kathmandu or the millennia of irreplaceable of history contained within the walls of Brazil’s National Museum, which last year was itself the victim of a fire. So far, the museum’s restoration fund has been able to attract only €15-million.

It is also true that the funds raised in response to this cultural disaster dwarf those available to respond to human disasters. Cyclone Idai tore through Southern Africa last month, killing more than 1 000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Mozambique was hit especially hard. But so far, only 23% of Mozambique’s $337-million humanitarian response plan has been funded.

Some might argue that Mozambique, Brazil and Nepal are far away, they are not France’s problem. And the money raised for Notre Dame’s reconstruction came from private citizens. These are both valid points, but mask the structural inequalities of a global financial system tilted in favour of the West, the colonial legacy on which the wealth of modern France is built, and a cultural hegemony that places Western values, culture and institutions on a pedestal.

This means that France and its citizens can afford to bounce back from catastrophe and that the rest of the world will experience a French tragedy as its own. This is white privilege at work, on an international scale.

Not that this should change how any of us respond to the fire at the Notre Dame. But it should change how we respond to the next fire at the next museum in a place that is not as wealthy or as glamorous as Paris. It should change how we respond to the natural disasters, which are likely to increase in frequency and intensity as climate change worsens — with the developing world likely to be hardest hit. It should change how we respond right now to the cyclone in Southern Africa, the drought in East Africa and the floods in South Asia. This would be an achievement grand enough to make up for the cathedral’s spire that was lost to the flames.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.


ConCourt settles the law on the public protector and interim...

The Constitutional Court said it welcomed robust debate but criticised the populist rhetoric in the battle between Busisiwe Mkhwebane and Minister Pravin Gordhan

Small towns not ready for level 3

Officials in Beaufort West, which is on a route that links the Cape with the rest of the country, are worried relaxed lockdown regulations mean residents are now at risk of contracting Covid-19

Press Releases

Covid-19 and Back to School Webinar

If our educators can take care of themselves, they can take care of the children they teach

5G technology is the future

Besides a healthcare problem Covid-19 is also a data issue and 5G technology, with its lightning speed, can help to curb its spread

JTI off to court for tobacco ban: Government not listening to industry or consumers

The tobacco ban places 109 000 jobs and 179 000 wholesalers and retailers at risk — including the livelihood of emerging farmers

Holistic Financial Planning for Professionals Webinar

Our lives are constantly in flux, so it makes sense that your financial planning must be reviewed frequently — preferably on an annual basis

Undeterred by Covid-19 pandemic, China and Africa hold hands, building a community of a shared future for mankind

It is clear that building a community with a shared future for all mankind has become a more pressing task than ever before

Wills, Estate Administration and Succession Planning Webinar

Capital Legacy has had no slowdown in lockdown regarding turnaround with clients, in storing or retrieving wills and in answering their questions

Call for Expression of Interest: Training supply and needs assessment to support the energy transition in South Africa

GIZ invites eligible and professional companies with local presence in South Africa to participate in this tender to support the energy transition

Obituary: Mohammed Tikly

His legacy will live on in the vision he shared for a brighter more socially just future, in which racism and discrimination are things of the past

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday