I am dreading Election Day.
It’s been two years since I first cast my vote as a bona fide citizen and the lustre has worn off. I am still in close touch with the crushing responsibility, but I am now also aware of the helplessness of making this single set of choices when there are few good choices. How can I not vote? I am black and I am a woman and I know what courage it took black women before me who fought for this right. It is my right, earned through blood and tears of others. I can’t spit on their graves and not show up for this sacred civic duty.
But once I have arrived at the booth, what do I do to ensure that I continue to respect their legacies? Seriously, I am asking, for me and several million friends.
Part of photographer Johnny Miller’s powerful visual essays on inequality in South Africa made the cover of Time magazine. It’s hardly news to anyone who has even passing knowledge of South Africa. We live in a deeply fractured, hideously unequal society and we all know it because we all live on each others’ doorsteps. You don’t have to travel too far away from any given part of the country to see the strange and ugly fruits of colonialism and apartheid. Even so, conversations on social media have betrayed a perplexing mix of denialism and old school eugenicist racism that are closely held by some of South Africa’s most privileged citizens.
I won’t post screenshots, but allow me to share a few choice reactions to the Time cover:
…I am amazed by how easily you are persuaded by this photograph and in so doing, lose sight of the actual facts and allowed the hideous bias of the past cloud your thinking. This is a complicated subject, it cannot be just brushed off in the way it has.
Without laboring the point, perhaps take a hard look at the City of Johannesburg’s policy of inclusionary housing, forcing urban settlement to become what you are preaching – and watch it fail, dismally, people are communities because they choose to live together, like with like, culture with culture … I concede that this too is simple and possibly too superficial, but it is a truer version of yours.
And it didn’t help that the hard fought (and died!) for ‘freedom’ only meant white fat cats became black fat cats.
You know what this picture means to me? Nothing. No emotion. No dialect required. A worldwide situation. You’re rich…you’re poor…it is what it is…
And so on, and so forth. There are also a smattering of comments disputing that our country is the most unequal. Sure, fine. I don’t think its sound macroeconomic analysis to declare a developing economy up to comparison with other economies around the world. But who cares about the macroeconomic validity of this statement? Who can look at this image and focus not on the simultaneous closeness and separateness of the lives South Africans lead but on the words?
The answer is lots of people. Most of them white. And they’re brimming with blame and righteous indignation to heap on the ANC, on overpopulation and on the integrity of the photographer.
Frankly, more than illustrating our relative inequality, this image, and the responses to it have brought to light our national unending capacity for casual cruelty. Because we live the way we do, many of us who live on the left of Johnny Miller’s photo live lives of comfort that are, in part, facilitated by the cheap labour provided by those on the right. So, many of us know someone who lives on the right. They are colleagues, they clean our homes, they look after our children, or our sick relatives. We see them everyday and ask them to work in our most intimate and private spaces, and to assist us with the daily maintenance of our lives. And yet we can still outright refuse to acknowledge their pain and their daily struggles. We obfuscate and hide behind vague and irresponsible and racist declarations about corruption and population control.
In his meditation on the pitfalls of saviourism in development, Ilan Kapoor writes about the importance of “unlearning privilege as loss”. It is not wise to disavow the trappings of privilege in an effort to be rid of it. That’s not really how privilege works. Privilege is at its most insidious in that it convinces us that all we have is because we are better, fitter and more worthy. It instills in us a sense of our worth relative to the lack of worth of the other. We have what we have because we deserve it, and they do not have because they do not. Witness this comment on the Time photo:
People have what they have because they do what they need to do. If you don’t do it you won’t get it. Law of nature
Or this one:
If people were more cautious with birth control, then it wouldn’t look like that AND there would be sufficient jobs for all. Period.
Or this one:
…[I]t boggles the mind that the folk on the right will keep voting for the devils who will keep them on the right. If you’re one of the folk who live on the left there is nothing you can say for or against this picture. YOU are simply the enemy as seen by some of the responses here.
The only way to break free of this is to acknowledge the humanity that one loses to privilege. It robs us of our basic empathy. In this case, we refuse to acknowledge suffering when faced with blatant evidence of it. We refuse to see it, even though we personally, intimately know people affected by it. Instead, we focus on the fact that our relative lack of suffering means we are somehow better, and more deserving of comfort and ease. What a devastating loss of one’s own capacity to care for their fellow human being. What a fucking tragedy. What a farce.
I have to vote. To (reluctantly) quote Aaron Sorkin, “Decisions are made by those who show up”. Those of us who can see Miller’s photo series for what it is – an indictment and an affront to our humanity – have got to show up.
If we don’t, we risk graduating from the world’s most unequal country to its cruelest.