Privilege in a time of civil unrest

I sit here writing this from my house in Muizenberg, Cape Town. The heater is on, I am wrapped up in warm clothes and I am watching videos of the ongoing violence in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng, shaking my head. 

This is one of the highest levels of privilege. 

Sure, I belong to a historically disadvantaged group and on the hierarchy of marginalisation I rank pretty high up. I am a brown womxn in a country that has suppressed and oppressed black and brown womxn for centuries.

In this pivotal moment in South Africa’s history, however, I am part of the privileged. The people who are far enough, in terms of geography and in lived experience, to have the advantage of shaking our heads.

Perhaps more than just a shaking of the head it is a distress, a sense of fear and impending loss, watching a country I love dearly spiral. The thing is, if the most I have to complain about is a sleepless night, that says a lot about how I am positioned and the advantages I am afforded. 

Uncomfortable

This level of privilege is uncomfortable for me. I don’t like seeing myself on the opposite side of the fence as much of my identity is wrapped up in being “other”. I like thinking of myself as an activist, as “one of the people”. I come from a struggle family, both parents having risked their lives in the fight against apartheid. Growing up in a household where discussing the rights of the downtrodden and the hegemony of the bourgeoisie was part of dinner conversation had an impact on my consciousness and the way I’d like to position myself in this world. 

The reality is that I am not one of the downtrodden, and haven’t been for a long time. The disparity between my class consciousness and how I am treated by the world in relation to others is stark. This leaves me uneasy.

If history has taught us anything, though, it’s that those with privilege should feel uncomfortable and uneasy. To sit in one’s privilege and not think about it critically is an affront to marginalised people the world over. Not to use one’s position of power in aid of the right thing is to show no concern for one’s fellow humans. 

My conundrum is that I’m not sure what is right in this moment. Or rather, who. 

Yes, I condemn violence, I condemn looting and I condemn taking the law into one’s own hands. But it’s easy for me to say that with a full belly, a roof over my head and a full-time job. It’s easy for me to say that when I don’t fully understand what it’s like to be on the ground, fighting for basic human rights. 

In my limited understanding of these complex and complicated events, what’s happening in South Africa is about so much more than an isolated incident. It is indicative of systemic socioeconomic and political inequalities that persist and affect the lives of millions. 

Promises left unfulfilled

South Africans were made promises. Many, many promises that have been disregarded and long forgotten. The disappointment and the distrust of a system once purported to be working in our interest is palpable. The air is thick with anger and we have reached a breaking point.  

Knowing this doesn’t mean I have answers and I am under no illusion that I am a mouthpiece of any sort. I suppose this is an acknowledgment that I am not the main character in this story. I will never truly understand the experience of those at the forefront of this battle. Thus foregrounding my distress would be irresponsible, short-sighted and opportunist. 

What I can do now is listen. Listen with the intent of being an ally (in whatever shape or form that may take). Part of that is taking the cotton wool out of my ears and putting it in my mouth. 

I sit here, writing this, from my house in Muizenberg, Cape Town. The heater is on, I am wrapped up in warm clothes and I’m thinking about how I can do better. I am thinking about how those who are more marginalised, more misrepresented and more underrepresented than I am fight daily to be seen and heard. 

And I feel sad; a privilege in itself. 

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