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.

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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


South Africa has been junked

Treasury says the credit ratings downgrade “could not have come at a worse time”, as country enters a 21-day Covid-19 lockdown with little money saved up

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders

Dimension Data launches Saturday School in PE

The Gauteng Saturday School has produced a number of success stories