Monday, December 10, 2007

Rich Man, Poor Man and Innocence Lost

The gruesome bridge connecting the poor to the rich in South Africa

Like many South Africans living in suburbia, I was horrified to read about a recent brutal attack on a family in Johannesburg, in a suburb much like the one I live in. A 7% rise in house attacks in South Africa may sound like an empty statistic, until one examines what a house attack actually involves. The amount of violence particularly against women, in the 330 daily robberies, is horrifying.

Read: 'I saw the worst of humanity'
‘There is a culture of violence in the country’
Crime in SA: Some recent key statistics

In the case of the Paterson’s* is not atypical in this sense. 5 African youths (with one waiting outside) attacked at around 10:30pm in the wealthy suburb of Sandown. After tying up the family, four men focused on abusing Bronwyn (shouting 'f***ing white bitch’, breaking her ribs, and stabbing her repeatedly with a scissors into the back of her neck), whilst a fifth – who said he had AIDS, raped the mother’s 17 year old daughter in a bathroom. Alan Paterson afterwards echoed the sentiments of many South Africans, saying: “I don’t have faith in our leaders…I want my family in a safe environment.”

The article then goes on to list many more horrifying attacks, including where an old woman’s fingers were snipped off with pruning scissors, a toddler murdered by a gang of four for crying, a woman burnt with scalding hot water who died weeks later and so on.

With 120 000 house robberies a year in South Africa, 9 500 murders, just under 23 000 reported rapes and almost 97 000 aggravated assaults, South Africa does indeed sound like a war zone. Around 3 times more South Africans have died in their homes each year than Americans die doing war duty in Iraq.

The attackers of the Paterson’s were primarily motivated by money. They fled with their two vehicles, jewellery, cameras, TVs, DVD player etc. Yet it is interesting that whilst perpetrating one crime (robbery) they, true to the South African trademark of violent crime, took time out to traumatize the white women. This cruel and unnecessarily spiteful behavior provides, I believe, a vital clue towards understanding the madness being perpetrated. Antony Altbeker says that violence is a momentary method ‘for criminals to show control and get their way’ during lifetimes dominated by violence, force and the meaninglessness of desperate circumstances.

Wealthy white people living in South Africa may feel disconnected and irrelevant to the plight of the poor surviving on the outskirts and slums of the suburbs. They may not see them during daily trips to work, the gymnasium or gardening. They may be faintly aware of the suffering every time Nelson Mandela makes a speech, or on a TV news bulletin. But the same message has been broadcast over and over again, and understandably to an extent, South Africans aren’t sure where to begin when it comes to tackling the problems a substantial fraction of each people face.

What’s more, the same proportion that is poor is also the hardest hit by the twin plagues of crime and AIDS. Being unemployed, dying, poor and wretched – the recipe stews, an outlet is sought for massive social neglect. Why do we suffer, while others, with so much, continue to live in selfish self absorbed luxury?

Whilst the victims of crime in suburbia may hurt and howl about the egregious harm been done against them, the bulk of these crimes are perpetrated in the slums, in the kettle dark shacks, the poor attacking their defenseless peers. Many of these crimes go unheard, unreported and naturally, unpunished.

Are the wealthy suburbanites, white and black, truly disconnected to the poor? The schism is tremendous. The wealthy are incredibly wealthy by African standards and even world standards. Many suburbanites in South Africa conventionally have domestic workers who clean their homes, wash and iron their clothes and look after their children. Gardeners are also commonly employed at low wages to trim lawns and water flower beds. Not a few houses have swimming pools. In the United Kingdom, only the elite can afford all these home comforts.

But in South Africa’s these comforts lower a curtain against the plight of groaning masses. And occasionally this curtain is sliced through by a band of thugs. It is in this way that the poor and the rich are connected. Whilst the rich attempt to ignore the poor, and poor cannot but obsess, hate and envy the wealthy. A glimpse, a taste of this other life, is what satiates their starved appetites, albeit a temporary satisfaction.

Meanwhile, those South Africans in suburbia – who through luck or security have managed to avoid becoming victims – watch television; children play computer games, mothers and daughters dress provocatively for a select audience. Violence for these South Africans belongs in films, where heroes like Schwarzenegger
kill in one moment, and hug little children the next. In computer games like Soldier of Fortune, teenagers can shoot victims and watch their faces spatter with blood. Money is spent on satellite television, the internet, cell phones, clothes and movies.

Meanwhile the poor sit around the flames of a roadside fire. They see families in the glassy bubbles of vehicles that pass by. They see the glow of the car radio, filling the inside of the bubble with soothing music. No one in those vehicles look at them. When they go inside their houses, they sit around the bright colors of the television. No one looks outside. The poor are forever outside, looking in, or finding a way to break in.

No, the poor in South Africa are not disconnected from the wealthy. They just wish they were, and this is part of the problem.

*From ‘I saw the worst of humanity’, Sunday Times, P13, by Henriette Geldenhuys.

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