Dr Jason Hickel belongs to LSE’s Department of Anthropology. Following a visit to South Africa, Dr Hickel is struck by the vast inequality that remains in the country despite the end of apartheid 17 years ago. This post originally appeared in the Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader last month.
The suburban landscape of Pretoria East is dotted with a spattering of rugged, rocky hills that overlook the city bowl, rising up from a plain crisscrossed with strip malls and chain franchises.
During a recent trip to the area to visit some friends, I noticed that these little hills have become the sites of affluent residential neighbourhoods; as one ascends, the houses get progressively bigger and more expensive, and the demographic increasingly white and wealthy.
While jogging through one of these neighbourhoods one afternoon, I found myself amazed — or aghast, rather — at the opulence of the homes. Many of them were three stories high, piled with pillars and faux-Greek statues, draped with multiple balconies, and framed by pools, fountains, sculpted bushes and manicured lawns hewn to lines and angles of exacting mathematical precision.
But what struck me most was that the place was choc-a-bloc with therapy outlets. Psychotherapy, play therapy, thermotherapy, magnet therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture — you name it, it’s there.
The whole scene bore a striking resemblance to the dystopic suburbs portrayed in cinematic dramas like American Beauty and Desperate Housewives, where lonely madness vipers just beneath the surface of an otherwise all-too-placid domestic bliss.
The only difference is that in the South African version of this tale the houses are hedged about with electric fences, alarm beams, guard towers, and burglar bars instead of white picket fences — a residential geography designed for people strafed with anxious insecurities.
As far as I could tell, the only sign of black people in these neighbourhoods is the regular stream of construction workers, maids, and gardeners that march their way up the hillsides every morning, and pour back out to the townships at night.
During my jog I saw them renovating the facades of R5 million mansions, pruning bushes into perfect spheres, and bouncing white babies on their backs. One bush-trimmer I spoke to said he got paid R100 for every eight hours of work. Take out R15 each way for transport to his distant township — nearly a third of his income! — and he netted about R70 a day.
Even if this man — and the tens of thousands like him across the country — were to earn this wage for a full 40 hours of work a week until retirement, there’s no way he would be able to pull himself and his family out of poverty; to say nothing of paying the rent and electricity on a regular basis. It is truly a sick society in which a man or woman who devotes their life to diligent hard work can’t earn enough to make even the most basic ends meet.
No wonder the therapy industry is booming in wealthy South African neighbourhoods. Rich white people in places like Pretoria East have to bear the impossible burden of ignoring the searing contradictions of their existence, pretending that their wealth is somehow legitimate now that apartheid is over, reminding themselves that they pay “market” wages to the workers who labour for the betterment of their pampered lawns and babies.
This kind of cognitive dissonance is enough to drive anyone a little bit insane, and is probably the reason that many of the youth from these neighbourhoods appear to be so alienated — resorting to illegal drugs or forced to seek refuge in anti-depressants.
But not everyone gets their therapy from licensed practitioners. I recently had a long conversation with an ageing domestic worker who tends the homes of three wealthy white families in Durban.
She regaled me with intimate ethnographic anecdotes of the people whose lives she has come to know so well, telling of deeply troubled marriages, affairs, fighting, drugs, fragmented relationships — the works.
To cap it off, she told me that one of her employers had become so depressed and lonely that he had taken to confiding in her on a regular basis, sometimes crying on her shoulder, and often slipping her extra cash for the comfort that she gives him.
The madness that seems to plague so much of the country’s rich white population points to the fact that South Africa is still quite far from achieving meaningful liberation.
By this I’m not only referring to the fact that millions of South Africans remain dehumanised by conditions of desperate poverty. I’m referring to the less noted fact that rich white people also remain profoundly dehumanised, 17 years after the end of apartheid.
As Paulo Freire has put it, “Dehumanisation marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it.”
Addressing the issue of race relations in the US, James Baldwin asserted something very similar: “It is a terrible and inexorable law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.”
No person can claim to be truly human when their wealth — nay, their everyday existence — depends on gross inequality and systematic exploitation.
Friedrich Engels underlined this point in his critique of 19th century England: “I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie…for it nothing exists in this world, except for the sake of money, itself not excluded.”
But this critique comes not only from the pens of radicals. Adam Smith — heralded as the father of the free market — famously made the same point: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
In his last book before he died, Tony Judt illustrated this by showing that high social inequality is directly correlated with higher mortality, criminality, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, mental illness and anxiety. The following graph plots these latter indicators:
Of course, most South Africans will retort that anxiety among wealthy people is due in large part to the constant threat of crime. This is a very real problem. But crime does not emerge from a vacuum.
To quote Baldwin’s words once more: “If a society permits one portion of its citizenry to be menaced or destroyed, then, very soon, no one in that society is safe.” Crime is the consequence of a dehumanised society, and — it bears pointing out — is closely correlated with inequality:
Mental illness and violent crime are both symptoms of a society that suffers a severe deficit of social trust. And, not surprisingly, the degree of trust that we have in our fellow citizens corresponds negatively with differences in income, as the graph below illustrates.
According to the Human Sciences Research Council, South Africa has remarkably low levels of social trust — ranking just between Portugal and Greece.
It goes without saying that this does not apply only to rich white people. Rich black people have also dehumanised South African society, and in the process have dehumanised themselves.
Indeed, one might imagine that the latter would find it even more difficult to live with themselves, given that they have broken ranks with the very people — the workers and the peasants — who risked their lives in the struggle against apartheid.
But it seems that the black bourgeoisie assuage their consciences with the belief that they deserve their wealth, which they often refer to — in an absurd twist of irony — as “the fruits of liberation”.
We need to seriously rethink the meaning of liberation in South Africa. No society can claim to be truly liberated whose citizens are so shot through with anxieties and mistrust.
No society can claim to be truly liberated whose poor live in the most squalid conditions imaginable and whose wealthy avoid that fact by hiding behind high walls and thick bars.
No society can claim to be truly liberated that is so beleaguered by hate and fear that it must spend a whopping R40 billion a year on private security to sooth its nervous soul.
There is nothing liberating about the freedom to amass wealth if that wealth comes off the backs of the poor. True liberation consists, rather, in building a society in which all citizens benefit meaningfully from the nation’s riches — from the land and the forests and the mineral deposits that belong to every human being in common.
The drafters of the Freedom Charter knew this. They knew that liberty lay not only in human rights, universal franchise, and the abolition of minority rule, but in the creation of a just, humane and economically fair society. If this is the yardstick by which true freedom is measured, South Africa has a very long way to go.