Gillian Schutte
Gillian Schutte

Middle-class narratives and the disconnect with the poor

In January this year, numerous protestors were killed by the police in service-delivery protests, four of them simply for rising up to demand a most basic right — water. This is a contravention of human rights on many levels and while it sent shock waves through poor black working-class and marginalised communities, the broader middle class did not react at all.

In fact, the silence from South Africa’s middle class was resounding and mystifying. Instead of outrage they have chosen to ignore a gross violation of human rights and even blame the poor for these deaths. Many wrote as much in the comments beneath more progressive articles on the matter and expressed their disdain and contempt for marginalised people in commentary dripping in derision.

Comments, such as this one found beneath an article I wrote in The Star newspaper asking why the middle class lacks empathy for the poor, exemplify the everyday disapproving attitudes that the middle class generally feel for the disenfranchised masses.

One “Law_of_the_jungle Ash” had the following to say:

Rubbish!!! People are poor because they aren’t smart about their life. They have children when they can’t afford children, they riot instead of going to school and they look for excuses like apartheid and structures for the reason instead of looking at themselves. There are many black lawyers and doctors etc. that got these degrees in South Africa during apartheid — how do you think they did that? They worked hard and made sacrifices just like anybody else. The opportunities were there for anybody who could be bothered to take advantage of them. They are not victims, they just have a victim mentality and until they lose that, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it, they will remain victims forever and live off hand-outs.

This is a common response to issues pertaining to the poor. It reveals a total disconnect between the middle class and the economically marginalised — but more tellingly, between history, contemporary politics and poverty. It is as if poverty happens in a vacuum and is indeed an extension of an amoral, over-sexualised breeding mass of half-humans who are lazy, take no responsibility for themselves and still have the temerity to blame a system of colonialism and apartheid for their poverty.

Middle-class narratives on the poor are highly problematic in a society like South Africa where huge class cleavages exist between the rich and the poor. While this is certainly not true of everyone in this class, for the most part, middle-class people buy into the same metanarrative about the poor.

This metanarrative is a storyline that creates a definite “us-and-them” scenario, which is based on keeping middle-class comfort zones definitively separate to the economic hell-holes that marginalised communities are forced to endure. The core belief is that “they” are “lazy” and their poverty is caused by their laziness just as wealth is caused by hard work.

Around this core belief many other secondary storylines are developed and these are steeped in common-sense dogmas that sound like truth and are often rendered in reasonable and earnest terms. Yet when unpacked, these common-sense beliefs are anything but benign. Instead, they are based on explicit unconstructive racialised and classist stereotypes that contain multiple judgments and untruths.

It would seem that the non-politicised majority in the middle class avoids critical engagement on the structural issues that create inequality and show little interest in understanding the intersections between racism, privilege and poverty.

This is “depoliticised liberalism”. It exists in an increasingly capitalised system that claims to embrace multiculturalism, diversity and equality. But this “equality” is clearly not an everyday reality, as racist and classist incidents that oppress the poor continue to manifest on our social landscape. Such inequality is evidenced in the police killings of protestors in service-delivery protests. Here we witness structural racism and the abuse of classist power at its zenith when protestors who mobilise for basic services and the right to claim their dignity, in a system that promises this dignity to all, get killed by the police for doing so.

The larger middle class, seemingly, do not perceive this as a human-rights transgression. There is no empathy and outrage for the deaths of people at the hands of the state. Instead there is a “culture of consent” in which the middle class will generally agree that the state acted within its constitutional mandate and for the good of the security of the country and their individual safety.

You can be sure though that if the people shot were not poor and black, the response would have been one of outrage and identification, instead of disdain and open contempt.

The middle-class discourse is one that utterly believes that the poor need to be policed at every level of their lives, including their reproductive lives. They should not engage in sexual and reproductive activities. They should not want or need children because they cannot feed them. They should really, it would seem, become extinct so that they are no longer a problem to the hardworking, decent and moral middle class.

In this scenario, colonisers and the history of appropriation of land and resources via apartheid are blameless. Foreign investors are also let off the hook for their exploitation and abuse of cheap labour. And though government plays into the hands of business, favouring the corporate sector over the poor, they alone, are blamed for bad governance. The only time government will be praised by this class is when they have adequately policed and brutalised the poor.

At the same time, the capitalist anti-poor metanarrative overarches the equality narrative and becomes a new and biased form of human rights. In this framework, individual bourgeois rights take precedence over the rights of so-called marauding and dangerous poor people. This is the basis for middle-class hegemony, which remains completely separate and insular to poor people’s rights.

And contained within this hegemony is a discourse verging on fascism — one that could be said to comprise the makings of a genocidal construct. It is a dehumanising and dangerous discourse that strips the poor of their dignity and humanity. It objectifies the poor into empty soulless beings that probably do not have the same wants, needs, desires, dreams and aspirations as any other human being. It is a dangerous discourse based on hate and yet it permeates so-called liberal public spaces, disguised in reasonable and honest terms.

This master narrative is nothing less than a full-frontal discursive war against the poor of our land.

Schutte is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer and social-justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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    • sandile memela

      Why am I getting the feeling that this is a politically correct piece where you unwittingly show that it is easy to charge you with racism in this country? There are a lot of things that have not been said straight as usual but are substituted with bland politically correct labels.
      I am afraid this is beginning of self-censorship or expecting people to read between the lines.
      Very good article, though. Still makes the point.

    • Momma Cyndi

      What was the comment that was deleted? The one between where Law_of_the_jungle said s/he had “done more than my fair share to help them” and the comment you cherry picked? You know, the one just above Suzi’s comment.

    • sireal

      You can also be sure though that if the people that were shot were shot by white policemen rather than black the reaction would have been one of outrage and identification, instead of disdain and open contempt. So, are we dealing with a middle class issue here or a racist one where it’s OK for black policemen to shoot other black people because the black police are held to a lower level of responsibility and black lives are held in lower value?

    • manquat

      There certainly isn’t a shared nationhood consciousness among the citizens of SA. Even though apartheid has disppeared in a legal sense. Racism is still alive in the hearts and minds of many South Africans.

      At the heart of the problem is the economy. And the pivotal question asked during the 1990s as South Africa was moving to become a democracy, the pivotal question was, “Who gets what?”

      The South African economy was designed to benefit the minority at the expense of the majority. There just isn’t enough to go around.
      The only solution to the problems we have economically is economic growth of about 10% a year.
      Is there a leader who can get South Africa to grow at that rate, and increase the economic pie?

    • zoo keeper

      The middle class don’t have the right to water, they have to pay for it.

      At what income level must you lose the right to water and start paying for it?

      If the poor are unhappy they should vote with their heads for some proper service delivery. If the ANC, which continues to fail to deliver, is returned to office with a huge majority once again by these very protestors, I for one will excuse the middle class – whose taxes pay for everything the poor get – if they want to be contemptuous of the poor.

      Nobody in the middle class approves of police brutality, witness the outcries over Tatane for example – you just made that up to support your argument.

    • Bob Andrew

      In my view, one must take the race issue and politics out of any debate on this sort of issue. It’s all to do about human rights. We all have human rights and it is the responsibility of the government and the people to ensure that these human rights are delivered to all people. The fact that those who can afford might be required to pay for some basic rights, like water and housing, does not mean that people who cannot pay are deprived of them. Freedom does not just mean the right to vote, but it also means adherence to the Constitution, which calls for everyone to have human rights, including the very basic ones.

    • Brent

      Gillian, you big ‘gripe’ a year ago was ‘white/middle ‘ classess taking over/ruling the SA political/social debate. Now it is the opposite ie not shouting enough.The sites I read were very very critical of Govt/etc on the situation of the poor and Govt reaction to the protests. However within most of those sites there was a minority response, presumed Black, who vigerously defended Govt and in general told us whities to get lost and stop being racist ie thinking/saying that Black cannot rule. So Gillian you cant have it both ways, are the chattering class whities too dominant in the social space or too uncaring? Brent

    • Yaj

      you are right about there being too much silence about Marikana, Tatane and general police brutality and thus implicit approval or deliberate indiffernce on the part of the more privileged middle classes. Alas , these middle class people align themselves with the interests of the top 1%, the bankers and the corporate sector against the poor and marginalised without realising that they are also being screwed by the system of debt finance, fractional reserve banking and compound interest. It is high time that these arrogant and ignorant well-heeled middle-classes realise that the future survival of their own children and grandchildren lies in supporting the struggles of the much despised poorer masses for a more egalitarian, caring and sharing system or we may not survive the ravages of peak oil, climate change and peak everything very well.

    • Middle class

      The term “middle class” is relative. In most country it is taken to be the professional and business classes including doctors, lawyers accountants etc. In South Africa it is often implied as anyone who lives in the suburbs – that is mainly whites, indians, coloureds and the so-called “coconuts” – and slated as if striving for the betterment of one’s self and family is somehow obscene. It is in fact every single individual’s responsibility and parental duty to be the best they can be. Of course there are circumstances where achieving that is well nigh impossible. There are class and wealth distinctions in every country and the haves, irrespective of their racial make-up, have been and will always be the targets of the disgruntled/ politicians/poor etc. Somehow the wealthy and super wealthy slip through the net of persecution when it is they, in fact, who own the bulk of wealth in most countries. It is not possible to just get a job, irrespective of one’s work ethic or desire, and so I do believe that the state has a responsibility to care for those who cannot take care of themselves. But equally, we have in this country a serious entitlement problem which has resulted in unrealistic expectations and a learned helplessness amongst many citizens, who expect to be taken care of. They see the president as their father and the government as their caregivers. We have to lose that mentality, which is deeply associated with patriarchal cultures. it is paralysing us.

    • Garg Unzola

      Which of course begs so many questions: What is the nature of human rights? Do we just get them because they are claimed on the marketing glossy? Who is to provide running water then? Is it really acceptable or even logical to riot in order to have your arse wiped for you just because you think it is within your rights?

      It just highlights more problems with the neat and plausible class warfare world view, which is simply too reductionist and too dated to apply to even our marginalised society. Surely only those in the ivory towers of academia can still find it fashionable to read Marx?

    • Johan Pretorius

      But Auntie Gillian

      Since Mbeki gave his “two nations” speech the ANC demonized the white middle class (I assume you are directing your diatribe to them in particular) and also introduced equity laws to marginalize them even further.

      As long the government isolate the white population through laws, whites will isolate themselves along the same lines socially.

    • Mike Jones

      I presume that “middle-class” is Gillian code for whites.

      You are a mass of contradictions. Last year you wrote that whites should butt out of local politics and stand in the corner as penance for apartheid.

      Now you accuse whites of siding with the government when you know full well that most whites support the opposition.

      Cant win can we?

    • Rory Short

      The roots of the kind of dehumanisation of the poor that you write about lie in an economic system the structure of which consigns people to perpetual poverty. Economic activity is nothing other than the voluntary exchange of goods and services. Once money was invented however it came to play a central role in such exchanges. This afforded a dis-proportionate degree of power to those who control the supply of money. So now you have to have money before you can be involved in exchanges and you can only get money by being employed by someone who already has money. It is a catch 22 situation for all those who are disconnected from the money system. There is no reason why new money should not be issued to those in need of it at the point of need. Obviously there would have to be a limit on the amount of unredeemed new money issued to any individual. Redeeming new money would occur when an individual received money for goods or services supplied to another individual. See ‘The Physics of Money’ in my blog

    • Brianb

      The fabric of South African society has become brutalized. I don’t believe its purely a racial or class phenomenon.

      Its a dearth of leadership.

      Lets focus on the solutions and not over analyse the problems. That will get us nowhere.

      Lets seek out our fellow citizens who are making a meaningful difference to peoples lives and follow their examples

      The media can do well to promote their efforts instead of being profits of doom.

      Good article Gillian. balanced view for a change even if Sandile thinks you are selling out !!

    • http://nil Gillian Katz van der Heijden

      Excuse me Gillian Schutte, who IS middle class in SOUTH AFRICA these days? The once upon a time so called Middle Class are either very Golden Girls with very white hair, waiting to hear from family driven thousands of miles away by Affrirmative Action and Industrial Equity Act, or the very last remnants of their once active spouses either on crutches or in wheel chairs before take-off to paradise. Take a look around at today’s ‘middle class’ and see who is driving the smartest cars as one struggles through peak hours!

      When you write “Middle Class” there is an instant inference that the term means ‘white South African, ‘ possibly ‘Indian South African,’ but today that translates to Majority elite South African,who comprise millions of citizens, between ages 38-25 of the young and bright, who over the past years have graduated brilliantly. An education paid for from every cent of taxation skrewed from the public at all class levels; impoverished to the last crust or not. So if one agrees that democracy is equal and correct then of course the ‘Middle-Class’ will not complain because they, and the poorest of the poor, voted in the countries most elite performers and are about to do so again in the sight of International Observers who will call the ‘Elections Free & Fair’. The losers will say, ‘Oh! Oh! Another step nearer a Zimbabwe landslide on the level of monetary values’ The question remains whose middle class?

    • Aragorn Eloff

      It’s interesting to see people so uncritically invoking constitutions, human rights and so forth when it seems pretty clear that to a large extent they actually form part of the very middle-class discourse (the liberal edge of this discourse) that simultaneously denies and perpetuates the material socio-economic realities of contemporary South Africa.

      I think these codified abstractions that are supposed to be regulated by benevolent legal and governmental hierarchies are precisely part of the problem. As Costas Douzinas says in his seven theses on human rights, the privileged space of rights discourse is also incredibly depoliticizing, as demonstrated by the utter vapidity of the comments by Bob Andrews and co:

    • bernpm

      Yet another long-winded article about the poor and their place in society as opposed to the “middle class” whatever that is…..and as usual not even a shade of a solution offered.

    • Walter

      I’m trying to wrap my head around your point. It may be clear to you Gillian, but not to us; other than white people=bad, all others=good.

      But to put the above into proper perspective it needs to be dissected. The fact of the matter is that poor black people (the poor, as Sandile has suggested you’ve avoided labeling), are victims of other black people: their government. White people (the middle class that you’re alluding to) are doing all they can to elevate them by employing them, contributing to their lot by taxes and charity.

      You are quick to look at the world through the eyes of the impoverished, but point blank refuse to see the New South Africa in all it’s glory through those who are powerlessly watching the train smash go through it’s slow motion African cycle which they all – consciously or subconsciously – see as nothing more than a repeat of the rest of African post-Uhuru calamities. The ‘middle-class’ are tired of being voiceless and politically impotent in the face of the ANC’s antics, cock-ups and abuse, but are yet lambasted by the likes of yourself for simply not having enough empathy. They do, believe it or not. Even the likes of those you quote are merely voicing their frustration, albeit misdirected. And you can’t blame them. They’ve had a gut-full of both being blamed for something they’re powerless to amend, and fearful of their future.

      Have some empathy for them, for a change. They’re doing all they can.