Jason Hickel
Jason Hickel

Rich, white and crazy

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 them, 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.

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    • GarethV

      You ran past several large houses, with absolutely no knowledge of the people who live inside of these homes, but just based your assumptions on one ‘bush-trimmer’? Oh and the tried to back up your generalizations with a few rather random graphs?
      You are everything wrong with this country…We are so quick to judge, to generalize and condemn.
      What are you doing to change this fractured country other than make sweeping generalizations?

    • Jobe

      Thank you Jason.What a great piece.The reality of the matter is that a majority of white people in South Africa are still living off the fat of the land.Those who deny this fact are nothing but despicable fibbers.These white thieves who benefited from years of oppression aren’t even ashamed to acknowledge this reality.

    • chantelle

      Jobe, please read Jason Hickel’s Sweatshop Sugar, and realise it’s not the majority of whites living off the fat of the land, but a minority of the whites controlling 99% of the country’s riches, just like in the old day.

    • Tumi

      Dearest Jason.

      you are very brave to write such a piece, often South African’s do not like the hard truth, but we do need to engage woth honnesty and frank talk.

      I agree that it is the once again the minority that is living it large at the expence of the poor majority that is largely black. But there are always two sides to the issue, its all good and well to blame the rich whites and to demonize them as we often do. We never actually talk about the responsibility that the poor blacks have to take for themselvs. In order for exploitation to persist, there must be some sort of consent wether tacid or pronounced. Black people allow themselvs to be exploited. they will happily bounce those white babies on their backs and yet have no time for their own children after five. those lawn trimmers do an emmaulate job for the white rich and yet happily retreat to squalor.

      What makes matters worse is that black people will almost offer substandard services to other blacks e.g. the KFC in a suburb is not the same as the one in the township,

      I’m not advocating white exploitation, but I’m really just fed up with the mental inferiority and complacency that my people so much settle for.
      R70 per day will never get the man you spoke to out of poverty, but guess what, every day he will continue to go and is willing to stay dirt poor!

    • Peter

      You are very correct in most of what you say. Those who deny it are living in denial because of their comfort zone. Unfortunately this has been the way humans have acted for thousands of years and unless our mindset changes at the mainly at the top it will remain so. Human’s greed and envy is its worst enemy.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      I think Jason has identified what is wrong with South Africa:

      Everything is always someone else’s fault.

    • Dumi

      Jason, very interesting piece indeed. You may have spoken to one bush-trimmer and maybe inferred from your own observations to arrive at your conclusions… anyone who needs a scientifically verifiable study to see whats in front of them is sick and needs help. You are spot-on, and no, you are not part of whats wrong with this country, but what is great. You are laying the foundations for the conversations we need to be having among each other, straight-up, across races, across classes, and across ethnic groupings, and other constructed diffreences, all of which mean absolutely nothing in the end.

      One of the reasons why Zimbabwe went the way it did in terms of race and economic relations is precisely because of the emphais on differences and not on the common humanity. Just look at the languages we all speak, and how we relate to each other… and the perceptions and stereotypes we carry about each other. We hang on too tightly to our own or inherited impressions and perceoptions of the other. We need to step out of our laagers, black and white alike, and reach out. Otherwise we will continue to generate more work for the already over-worked therapists and psychiatrists.
      So, Jason, when is your next instalment?

    • Refilwe Tlhabanyane

      Very fair observation; insightful and balanced.
      Change truly begins with consciousness and I believe your observations emulate a conscious white South African male. I think the point that readers of your blog should take out of this, is that as a people we need to stop treated the symptoms of an ailing society. Let us challenge our self to go back to the original plan as captured in the Freedom Charter. When we lost sight of our humanity, we lost sight of true freedom.

      South Africa, it’s not yet UHURU!

    • http://www.carpaltunneltreatment.com Asante

      It then thus follows that, that which has been heralded as a civilisation, the west, turns out to be the greateast uncivilisation known to man. It has in deed, put human development many millenia behind where it could have been. Now, it stands bare in front of all to see, the illusion. The great West Decivilisation, the dehumanisation of man and the Intelligence. Such shall it read for the more realistic future generations, the enlightened ones, who shall take their rightful places and show the way.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      What if we don’t agree with the freedom charter?

      The wealth gap is not really a noteworthy issue. What’s more important: vertical social mobility (which would close the wealth gap), entrepreneurship (the engine of economic growth and key to moving up in social strata) and guarding against an invasive, bloated, blundering state bureaucracy.

      The recent financial crises in America and Europe are not failures of capitalism as many claim, but state failure.

    • Bongani

      @HD, yes I admit freely they have a serious terrorist problem but social trust is something you will get to see in a fashion I have never seen in any other country I have visited. Shop owners will allow you to walk freely in their shops with bags and suitcases in your hand, internet cafés will tell you not to worry, you can pay tomorrow if you spend a tad over the amount you have in your pocket, intercity buses will let you on the bus if you forget your ticket at home and have nothing to prove you paid other than your word, electric fences are a rare sight compared to South Africa. All the above has happened to me more than once during my stay in Algeria. I wrote a rather condensed article for M&G describing the feeling.

      @Jason, glad to see your article has garnered such interest, if the number of comments are anything to go by.

    • boelie niemand

      Here we go again – ignoring the herd of elephants in the corner of the room: the gardener, who gets R100 a day, has FIVE CHILDREN. People continue breed themselves into poverty and then blame those who do not.

    • babaBrad

      Just found out my boss who is much richer pays her helper much less than I do. This is quite true for many rich people and is a shame

    • Angenita

      Jason, goodness! so SA is the only country with rich people? and people living in poverty?

      Jason, next time ask the gardner if he is proud of his work!!! it’s people like YOU who always make it about the money!! infact if I were him I would feel insulted that you could jog past my garden, ask my salary and not even say- wow!! your garden’s looking great!!
      Just imagine if I popped my head into your office and said, hi Jason, what do you earn a month?! Did you see the chief editor of Mail and Guardian sitting in that huge office????! such inequality isn’t it?? and then I’d run on…..

    • http://hardtalk/ Siphiwo Siphiwo

      You’re very lucky not to be labelled an ‘aspiring Marxist’ by people of your pigmentation.

      Bravo for the braveness & honesty.

    • Pondok

      Wow, this article is spot in, it shows the core of the challenges and problems our South Africa faces. The comments here also speaks for itself. The rich in this country must start getting a moral and social conscience and responsibility towards creating a change for us all in this South Africa.

    • Una


      You have written a very good piece. What makes me wonder is how can our compatriots not see that there will come a time when the good men will be overwhelmed by anger of the masses resulting in an opportunistic politician taking advantage of that. The ramifications thereof will be too ghastly to contemplate.

      The problem is that a sizable number of our white compatriots do not want to listen to reason. There is always this knee jerk reaction whenever matters of justice and fairness are raised. A sad state of affairs.

    • HD


      Fair enough. But you have to admit the heavy presence of police, religion and cultural context also plays a role. But, agree different to South Africa in the sense you describe although you might still find pockets of that in SA.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      The problem is that a sizeable portion of your white compatriots are the tax paying, law abiding folk of this country. They’re not sizeable enough, and the rest of the country is not playing catch-up quickly enough to replace them.

      So by all means, let the ignorant masses use violence to pillage what they cannot create and earn themselves. Then you’ll finally know the meaning of real poverty.

    • http://www.dintshang.co.za dintshang thabo

      Interesting piece. I agree with Tumi’s sentiments on the matter. Though the cream of the crop live in lavish, those in the lower sects are still tolerant to their dirt. A few Rands per day satisfies a need of an individual who battles with poverty daily, indifferent to chants by labour unions. On the flip side it is encouraging to know that such a controversial status quo is a fertile ground for business. One would be inclined to bring more activities for them to keep them busy and extramuraly active.

    • Una

      Garg Unzola

      I pay tax too and so are a feww million Africans that are able to do so in accordance with government stipulations. Issues of justice and fairness are a vexed phenomenon internationally. Other nations are doing something about closing the gap. In South Africa it is seen as a race issue, maybe it is a result of our sordid history

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      Yes, some nations are closing the gap. But the reason why I say that an income gap is a meaningless number is that the gap by itself does not give any indication of the level of development or economic outlook of a given country.

      For example, the United States, Jamaica, Peru and Uganda all have an income inequality level of around 45 (see list of countries by income inequality).

      I think you’d agree that the economic outlook of Ugandans and Americans is greatly different, and their situations are in no way similar with regards to level of education, employment, economic freedom, political freedom and so on. Yet their income gap is the same. That’s peculiar at best.

    • Una

      Garg Unzola

      The disparities in income levels in SA are alarmingly high and there is a very good reason for not only government to intervene – The citizens of the country need to assist as well, particularly those who benefitted from apartheid. It is no use building mini cities with apartheid money when faced with the reality of stark poverty. To me it does not make sense. Even those who have made it within the African community must play a role. The reality we cannot run away from is that the economic strata of our country have evolved from a sordid race based model which never catered for needs of the majoirty – that is a fact

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      Yes, we agree something must be done. I disagree that government needs to address imbalances of the past directly. The purpose of government is to maintain law and order. In other words, to protect individual rights and to resolve conflicts through the legal system, not to ensure everyone is keeping up with the Jones’s.

      The same things that were wrong with the apartheid government are still wrong in the current regime. This amounts to the fallacy of central planning. Thankfully we’ve stopped with the pass laws and zoning controls, now we need to take the next step and do away with race-based employment policies.

      We cannot simply pass laws and expect everyone to have their needs catered for, and this is a fact too. The laws for equality have already been passed, but they are ineffective. We spend proportionally the same as the Scandinavian countries on public sectors. We have to ask ourselves why does it fail here and work there?

      In the long term, equal opportunities mean everyone starts at the same starting line, not that everyone ends up on the same podium position. This is not reflected in income disparities.

      Giving everyone access to the same starting line will be beneficial to everyone and will reduce inequalities, for good. Levelling the podium with racist employment policies and the redistribution of wealth is a short-term solution that doesn’t fix the underlying problems, and that is creating worse long term problems.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      More on income disparities: South Africa, Paraguay and Equatorial New Guinea all have a Gini coefficient of around 65.

      Note how each country has incredibly different economic situations, demographics, histories and so on, yet all are on the same level of income disparity.

      It is thus not meaningful to compare income disparity, or to focus on such a number when it doesn’t show us the movement between groups (social mobility), who earned what, and how they earned it.

      Whenever something like income disparity or wealth distribution is mentioned, the red lights must go on. Beware! This is more about a political ideal than an economic reality.

    • Una

      Garg Unzola
      The gini coefficient analysis needs to take into consideration the historical perspective. Can you imagine where indigenous Africans in our country would be if they were allowed to participate in farming in the half programme, that is, sharing agricultural land with the settlers 50/50 in the 1920s. When they participated a black middle class quickly grew and that did not go well with colonialists. Even this was unceremoniously brought to an end resulting in Africans swelling the ranks of Industrial Commercial Wokers Union (ICU). I am just pointing out one segment of the exploitative regime of the settler-colonial government.

      The issues you have glossed over are important to look at. Admittedly South Africa cannot rely on race based policy initiatives for ever. The trick is when will government draw the line? When will it be humanly justifiable to wind up such policies.Can you imagine where the British would be if the Romans had done the following: 1. Attacked and destroyed their Kingdoms, 2. Committed genocide on some clans and promoted the Kingdoms of others with the hope that they may be a buffer in future against other British citizens. 3. Told the British that they are cave men and not civilised enough to participate in the main stream economy and discouraged them from partcipating in it for more than three centuries.
      4. Constantly reminding the British that if it was not for them they would still be in the caves for all those centuries.

    • Andani

      Amazing observations…your work is real. Keep it up. So many people get caught up in an intellectual frenzie trying to seem clever, it is about time we speak from the heart.

    • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

      That’s precisely my point. An income gap by itself is not a good indicator of anything. In fact, a rising income gap might indicate that a country is developing. As you say, an income gap needs to be contextualised and countries with the same income gap may have greatly different socio-economic situations and vastly different histories.

      By the way, that’s more or less what the Romans did to the British. Later than that, the Normans did that to the British too. In turn, the English did that to most of the world – including South Africa.

      It’s time to stop this madness and deal with our differences in a reasonable, mutually beneficial way. It’s possible and nobody needs to be second class citizens any longer.

    • http://www.mobisytes.com Charles

      I’ve now read all your blogs @ Jason Hickel…and I hereby bow in your general direction. Your writing is science-fictional in its futuristic vision but so very factual, sincere, clear and meaningful. This is some serious consciousness-raising stuff and I sincerely hope you continue to write more pieces like this. Respect!

    • Perry

      The blog reads well enough to stimulate debate but lacks complexity to many other nuances of living in South Africa. Doing faced-paced jog enthnography may fair for some but I wonder if your gardener owns a homestead in the rural area, has cattle, or has investments elsewhere? Pretoria as a location too seems to speak to a certain type of affluence-does the suburb characterize all whites? East London has had an explosion of poor whites, retrenched factory workers who struggle for work along side their black counterparts now as painters, brick layers, panel beaters, etc…no question inequity permeates the South African scene and is a reflection of a racist past, but a more complex story is emerging in SA that speaks to almost two decades of transformation, albeit slow and perhaps not as one would have imagined, conditions of poverty have changed for many families…it seems a more detailed exploration of the dynamics in the country should take your analysis beyond Pretoria as the centre of a broader analysis one could make on South Africa as a whole. I understand the need to expose entrenched inequities but find such prose written with too much politically loaded nonsense to really get anywhere-such comments are not new and despite what other commentators have to say your point has been said before -no question South Africa remains divided but even as some of your other blogs suggest, this has more to do with structural inequity within the world- lets not deny local agency

    • http://com.plusonefoundry.qirina.com/ Plusone foundry

      I really like it when folks come together and share opinions.
      Great site, keep it up!

    • http://goitsywithay.wordpress.com/ MAlaika

      Thank you Jason, I just stumbled on this while doing research for my own piece. It is about time we as South Africans start to see things for what they really are. We have missed the point of a democracy by a few million miles. As a human being it disgusts me that such still happens but what disgusts me even more is people who exploit such people. If u know evil is being done and u excuse it with an us and them mentality you are just as bad as the exploiter….