Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

St Francis, shack fires and the professionally offended

It sucks being an over-educated Joburg northern suburbs white liberal of a certain age. It really does. You haven’t given over to the cynicism of your parents’ generation, so you’re perpetually in knots over the twin anxieties of your whiteness and your privilege. You spent years at university studying critical discourse analysis, so you never get to enjoy the gloriously unreflective anger of the Steve Hofmeyr or the Julius crowd. Conservatives and leftists appal you in equal measure, not so much by their opinions, but in their bewildering conviction of their own rightness.

(What does it feel like? To be utterly convinced you are right, no matter what, all the time?)

You’re always in the middle, so aware of everyone else’s competing views that it’s impossible to have one of your own. Even as you’re incubating an opinion, you’re developing an analysis of it, so you end up so aware of why you feel the way you do, and how compromised you are by your own history and upbringing, that it’s pointless saying it in the first place. It’s a sort of ideological autism, where nothing can be filtered. So you’re perpetually on the brink of an existential meltdown, painfully aware as you are of your own irrelevance.

When you tweet about how much it sucks to be a northern suburbs white liberal, you get accused of being a racist by the very people who hate your type so much they include it in their Twitter bios:

Here’s how I ended up being called a “stupid biaatch”. It was late on Sunday night. I was scrolling through Twitter, reflecting on the magnitude of the St Francis fire. A heated argument was developing on Twitter between those who were horrified by the sight of all those homes going up in flames, and those who compared the response to this disaster with the response to shack fires.

I started tweeting a response to express solidarity with the property owners of St Francis and then I stopped myself. This is how my thought process then evolved, roughly speaking (I’ve had three hours’ sleep; if I’m less than lucid, that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).

Thought 1: I can’t tweet about St Francis. Too glib, too pointless (my tweet won’t help put out the fires).

Thought 2: By tweeting about St Francis, I’m just underlining the point being made by others, that people in my position care a whole lot more about people like me than they do about people who happen to be poor and, for the most part, black.

Thought 3: Maybe I should tweet about shack fires. No, wait, that would make me a hypocrite because I’d be doing it for show.

Thought 4: Actually, why the hell shouldn’t I tweet about St Francis? I’d be distraught if one of those houses belonged to my family (we once had a holiday home burn down, so we know what it’s like). Why does caring about anything in South Africa always have to be rendered politically correct by including a disclaimer acknowledging the poor?

Thought 5: But it’s true. Disasters featuring rich people and nice things attract far more attention than disasters that affect the poor. (This is true of news across the world.)

Thought 6: But

Thought 7: And on the other hand

Thought 8: Oh bugger it.

Thought 9: Let me tweet about my screwed up, guilt-ridden and excessively self-aware thought process in 140 characters.

So I tweeted, eliminating the personal pronoun and overt references to myself as I normally do to save on characters:

(On second viewing, I can understand why that might get misinterpreted — my fault for forgetting that not everyone on Twitter has comprehension skills. To the charming people who let me know exactly what they thought of me, let me be absolutely clear: I was actually referring to myself.)

Oh, the joy of pissing off the Woolworths boycott crowd. Ironic self-reflection on one’s own compromised and conflicted worldview is evidently verboten; self-awareness and ambiguity don’t sit well with the news24 comment crowd, who now play the race card with as much alacrity as the politicians they love to hate. Clearly, self-criticism is now officially deemed unacceptable by the professionally offended, who spend their lives looking for reasons to feel aggrieved regardless of the actual content of a piece of communication, whether it’s an ad, a tweet or the wording in a recruitment policy.

What do you do? Sigh? Shrug? In my case, you write, knowing that none of this will change opinions that were set in stone in the Triassic — but you do it anyway. And yes, next time I’ll make it absolutely clear when I’m tweeting about myself.

Tags: , , , ,

  • Why does celebrity online behaviour affect ordinary people?
  • The cyber-war(s) being fought right under our noses
  • Perhaps we all just need to log off and have a good nap
  • Anger, ‘outrage’ and the internet
    • Dave Harris

      If you thought email was bad with “lost in translation”, Twitter is infinitely worse!

      Anyway, just watch the professionally offended blame the government for the slow response, the wind etc etc. These professional whingers are nowhere to be seen or heard when shack fires break out – that becomes just another day in SA. Also notice how they keep silent on the slow pace of our urgent issue of land reform and keep pointing to the government when the issue comes up,

    • Marianne de Leuca

      …”(What does it feel like? To be utterly convinced you are right, no matter what, all the time?)”…

      I don’t know. Ask Tofolux.

    • Mr. Direct


      Not sure what you wanted to say in this article:

      Ooops – typo – my bad!
      Look at those silly people with their pathetic tweeter info.
      Wow – over the top responses to a small error!
      I am a northern suburbs whitey (whatever that means to you, positive or negative).
      hahaha – I have irritated people I do not agree with

      One way or another, seems you are not trying to win a popularity contest, and if you were, not sure I’d vote for you.

      I get the feeling that you messed up (self confessed I may add), but instead of shrugging it off, you seem to have gone all self righteous….

    • Skerrminkel

      See it this way: At, say, R3 million per house lost, that is more than R300 million of value lost to our country. The loss is carried by
      1. Home owners, who have lost assets
      2. Insurance companies, who have to pay for re-building, or at least part of it
      3. Banks, who still own a large chunk of many of the houses in the form of loans
      4. Local government, in the absence of rate payers
      5. Local labour, who maintain, service and protect the houses
      6. Local business who lose clients
      7. etc. (I am no economist)

      All in all it is a dead loss to our economy, without even considering the emotional impact. There is therefore nothing wrong to lament the damage from the fire.

      Maybe it will also alert us to the plight of the poor during the next township fire as well.

      (Maybe even to the extent that Dave Harris will donate his house and computer to a poor person and show the rest of us how it is done)

    • Max

      “Conservatives and leftists appal you in equal measure, not so much by their opinions, but in their bewildering conviction of their own rightness.”

      Precisely how one feels about Dave Harris.

    • Grant

      You should examine your “need” to tweet. (Hint: Don’t)

    • Jerome

      You could’ve saved 3 characters by using “my” instead of “these”, and 2 characters by using a “:” instead of “ -“. Maybe the intent would also have been a lot clearer?

    • Grant Walliser

      It is time to stand up and have your opinion. We are not shackled to our parents and their decisions and it is now clear that those who wish to bind us in this way do it for their own gain. I will not be judged by my colour or my wealth or my abilities or my privilege. These are random assignments of fate to me in my life, some of which I inherited, some which I made happen by my own sweat in a hard and unfair world. You can judge me on what I do with them and how I treat people around me but don’t anyone dare judge me on the history of others over which I had no control. I am not them. They are not me. I am an educated free thinker and I will not agonise over what you think of me. My education was started by my parents, added to at my school but really accelarated when I got a hunger to learn and to know more; that is an option open to every living human being. I will not be judged because I have that hunger and use it. I will love you until you show me otherwise. I will judge you as I believe I should be judged. We may not always agree and we may never agree and we may go to war and we may find peace, that is the way of things, but you will not judge me on that over which I have and had no control for this is to condemn me. I will not be condemned by you in this way. My view is my view and it counts as much as your view. You may debate my view as is your right but if you curse my view with hatred you reveal the vast fear residing inside you. That is worthless to me.

    • On Loss

      Anyone whose property has burned down in a fire, and who has lost it all, deserves simple humane sympathy. Like losing a child, there are few shades of suffering – the loss is similarly keen and experienced as such by the parent irrespective of their social standing. We tend to lose sight of that in our grossly disparate society.

    • Reducto

      Having had the misfortune of coming across that Eric West character’s Twitter account, I can only conclude he wakes up every morning with the sole intention of spending his day being an unpleasant racist on Twitter. I really can’t imagine him doing anything productive in between that.

    • GC

      {“ideological autism” “existential meltdown” “own irrelevance”}
      I think I know where you are heading – so do you – you probably won’t agree but I would be disappointed if you did.
      Explore the one dialectic that you seem to ignore.
      Until then I predict that you will regress, lose readership hits and then come back and become a national opinion maker.

    • Chrips

      Who’d bear the scorns and flattery of the world,
      Scorned by the right rich, the rich cursed of the poor?
      The widow being oppressed, the orphan wronged,
      The taste of hunger, or a tyrant’s reign,
      And thousand more calamities besides,
      To grunt and sweat under this weary life,
      When that he may his full Quietus make,
      With a bare bodkin, who would this endure,
      But for a hope of something after death?
      Which puzzles the brain, and doth confound the sense,
      Which makes us rather bear those evils we have,
      Than fly to others that we know not of.
      Aye that, O this conscience makes cowards of us all,
      Lady in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered.[3]

    • Librarian

      Have we equal sympathy for those poor people who spent their savings on pieces of land and substantial houses in Lenasia only to find they have been scammed, possibly by currupt civil servants and have had to see their homes bulldozed by municpality. Force of greed, not force of nature.

    • johnbpatson

      Ah, but as each year goes past it becomes more and more evident to the radicals of the 1980s, that, actually, the liberals were, and are, right.
      Peace, Love, Freedom, Happiness……

    • david j smith

      Sarah, I think you fail when you start with the words that it sucks to be rich and over-educated.

      To many people that wouldn’t suck. And saying it sucks can sound smug.

      You also fail when you reduce a human tragedy to an intellectual exercise, or a moment for some ironic hand-wringing.

      To many people that is a bit cold.

      I know these things because as a fellow writer/hand-wringer/pseudo-intellectual I fall into these traps too.

      I guess sometimes we need to respond or think with our guts, and our hearts. Occasionally we need to punch things, scream at things, be completely irrational and genuinely sincere. We need to tap into that raw primate inside us.

      Anyways, you know all this shitz. laters. fist pumps, power house kicks and all that.

    • Hugh Robinson

      I find it sad that @harris forgets that those he degrades are the same that are the first to donate blankets food and other help. Sickening that people like harris are so hate filled that cannot see the wood for the trees.

    • The Creator

      Actually, the St Francis fire was an immense boost for the national economy. All the insurance payouts kick up the GDP. And they’re going to rebuild all their houses, which will employ some people. Admittedly, the contents of the houses were doubtless mostly imported from China, but at least that means we are doing our bit for the global economy.

      Sensible people everywhere should set light to rich people’s unoccupied holiday-homes. Nothing of any actual value is destroyed, and every cent the rich people spend on rebuilding their vanity residences is money that isn’t part of the capital flight.

    • Chrips

      @ The Creator – Not cool man, not cool at all.

    • The Critical Cynic

      Still waiting to see the professionally offended blame the government for the slow response, the wind etc…. Let’s rather just blame them for their ineptitude when it’s due.

    • ian

      jeez… creator – why unoccupied, i mean, lets burn the rich when they’re in their homes eh. no-one needs hard workers. screw em, they worked hard and earned some money, lets label them rich and hate them for it.

    • GarethV

      I think Mr. Direct # nailed it first time round. That is all.

    • Jack Sparrow

      Ah Sarah, I would have thought that by now in SA the generalised race card has pretty much been exposed as a cheap shot used to deflect attention from criticism of corruption and incompetence, most prominently by people like Thabo Mbeki and Jimmy Manyi. Welcome to this club.

    • Blak NaZion

      Sarah Britten and the commentors

      You exposed a raw nerve that many in this country dare not touch… Our society is sick and the disease thats affecting all of us is the failure to see beyond our noses, broad or ridgy, we are all guilty of being self righteous in our matchbox four rooms or our thirteen roomed mansions that we forget that there are people who suffer on a daily basis not because they are poor or rich, not because they have degrees or never touched the step into a classroom, but they suffer because we dare not raise our hands, or open our hearts, and even sometimes gace their way

      We are all suffering because of the anglo guy who came up with this word – racism and all its other connotations.

      You speak right (which I think you did), you are racists
      You speak wrong, you still racist

      Everything is racist in this country, even the brown coakroaches in our kitchens (my four roomed thatched matchbox government in katlehong on the east rand overlooking the splendidly polluted Natalspruit river has many) refuse to share the scrap food with the white ones… Racism has reached alarming proportions

    • PM

      Well, that is life.

      One of the things about Twitter is the democratization of opinions–not only does everyone have one, they all get to express those opinions–cheaply. And you get what you pay for (and you are paying nothing….except for your time)

      Really, the hard thing about this is deciding what to pay attention to. See, your time is your most valuable asset, and clearly a lot of it is being wasted–yet those responses ARE information, and you can learn from them–if only to see what the opinions of others are, and how not to behave yourself.

      Bottom line: pay attention to it (to the extent you can learn and better yourself), but don’t take it too seriously. After all, does their opinion really matter?

    • PM

      BTW, Sarah, if this is causing you (additional) insomnia, here is something that you might not have tried:

    • ELP

      Oh Sarah, we do love you. Your brutal self honesty is an inspiration. Keep doing what you do!!!