Sibusiso Tshabalala
Sibusiso Tshabalala

Survivor Mamelodi and the limits of empathy

Ena and Julian Hewitt were both 15 years old in 1994. Ninety-four, that sluggishly revered year which we consider to be our glorious break from the horrors of the past. I imagine that they were brought up well. The comforts of a suburban white, middle-class life in check: a good education and great future prospects.

Nineteen years later, their lives bear witness to their great privilege. Ena, a qualified actuary now works in real estate. Julian has worked in multi-disciplinarian backgrounds and has a strong entrepreneurial drive. All this is not unheard of in South Africa, well for some.

What is unheard of is a white, middle-class family abandoning the comforts of middle-class life to live in a shack, 10km from their gated home. Ena and Julian have decided to live in Mamelodi for the month of August with their two daughters. Through this experience, they hope to explore the importance of empathy. To make this experience “the real thing”, they will be living off R100 a day for 30 days.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the debate around white privilege often lacks imagination. Every so often, it gets hijacked by navel-gazing folks who can look no further than their guilt-ridden selves. Privilege is acknowledged, phony solidarities are built and then what? It can also get quite entertaining.

Like a solar eclipse, apartheid to some was like the passing of the moon between the sun and the earth. Just a dark spot that blinded us for a while. As a result, privilege goes unchecked. “It happened then and it has no bearing on the present” they say.

The Hewitts add an interesting flavour to this on-going debate. Empathy they call it.

Empathy, the empty trade-off for justice

For some, there seems to be nothing wrong with what Ena and Julian are doing. It is not surprising. South Africans are no strangers to empathy. The half-phony Damascus moment in 1994 was partly built on the tenets of empty empathy. The 1996 Truth and Reconciliation Commission supposedly gave many South Africans a chance to confront the violent horrors of the past and forgive each other, unconditionally without recourse.

The nature of it all compelled most South Africans to show a bit of empathy, in various ways.

Empathy for the mother who lost her son to the torture and veiled killings by the apartheid police. Empathy for the white family who lost their father in a civilian bomb attack. The uneven wounds of the past were ideal threads that wove the new South Africa as we now know it. It was all a performative exercise really. The emotional scars of many were used to advance the half-baked project of the rainbow nation. The rainbow, as we now know, couldn’t hold for long. The pieces now lie shattered in front of us.

The myth that often accompanies the principle of empathy is that — in this new South Africa — victim and perpetrator ceased to exist. But we know too well that this is a tall tale. This is why Ena and Julian are spending a month in Mamelodi. They want to affirm that distant cries of the marginalised continue to exist.

There is nothing wrong with empathy. It is certainly one of the best traits that one can cultivate. There is however a limit to what empathy can achieve, and this has deceived us for the past 19 years. You see, empathy has a moral appeal. The empathiser (the person in a considerably better position) puts himself or herself in place of the sufferer. As the tale goes, it is at this moment that both the empathiser and sufferer occupy one space. An even-ish place where the suffering is shared. A half-TRC of sorts, if you like.

Ena and Julian believe that there’s value in living Mamelodi for a month. For them, this is an exercise in placing themselves in the predicament of the sufferers — the millions of economically marginalised South Africans. There are many unsettling things about Ena and Julian’s experiment. Ena and Julian want to experience the grinds of poverty for month, noble ain’t it?

The problem with this desire — no matter how sincere it seems — is that their enactment of relative poverty for a month is actually a trade-off for real justice.

It is way easier to imagine ourselves to be poor when we actually don’t have to confront this reality daily.

A step further, it is way easier to imagine ourselves to be poor when we’re not compelled to do anything real about it. Like give up our ill-gotten privileges.

But hey, if we can do it for 30 days then at least we’ll know how it feels. This is only part of the limits of empathy. No matter how much we empathise with others, we cannot replicate their experiences.

Their lives tell the truth about inequality and exclusion, not ours.

So, the moral appeal of empathy blinds us. And this appeal represents itself in ways more than one. Charity and giving are cool middle-class hobbies. “We give because we want to help out, shame.” Truth is, each time we employ empty empathy, we run away from the imperative of justice. Because justice is a much more difficult thing to pursue, it is entangled deeply in the comforts of our lives.

Justice is that single word that encapsulates the difficult things we’re scared of talking about. Like giving back land that does not belong to us or re-thinking black economic empowerment because it only benefits a politically connected elite.

Ena and Julian are not alone in this. Four years ago, Tokyo Sexwale, multimillionaire and recently axed minister of human settlements, spent a night in a Diepsloot shack. His hymn? To acquaint himself with the hardships facing many ordinary South Africans. A mind-boggling feat considering that Tokyo was brought up in Orlando West, a mere half an hour away from Diepsloot. Even he had to be re-acquainted with the struggles of the people. Beside the great photo-op, this was meant to help Tokyo come up with viable solutions for his task as minister of human settlements.

We can’t really ask Tokyo about the success of his own experiment, since he has been axed and South Africa’s housing impasse remains unsolved.

Maybe he too took the easy way out — empathy. As a powerful and wealthy citizen, his act of nobility was meant to demonstrate some humaneness. A good thing. But perhaps he could have pursued the raw ends of justice, in turn questioning the bases of his own wealth and success.

Ena and Julian’s experiment represents the South African dilemma. Our occasional goodness (whatever that means) and empathy safely nestles our own comfort and privilege. Well-intentioned but self-seeking to the core. Good intentioned but not good enough to boldly pursue the demands of justice.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

  • South Africans should stop thinking in terms of race
  • Being Cuban and black in post-apartheid South Africa
  • The Place of Sara Baartman at UCT
  • Aesthetics of power and questioning what a ‘good’ university is