The New Bourgeois World

18 November 1999
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Two incidents have happened recently that I cannot put out of my mind. They concern violence, that indicator which
undercuts the values and the comforts that come with being middle class in countries where respect for human life is
negligible, often nonexistent. Of these two incidents, one is recreated after the fact, the other witnessed. What troubles me
are not only the residual images, but how I reacted at the time. I sense a loss of power, an admittance of social impotence,
and with it a diminishing of the compassion I have always believed it important to have for those up against the blunt
edge of life. Ironically, this loss is probably what makes it possible for the middle class – of whatever colour – to live in
Africa. Although they are infrequently the targets of terror, it is the context to their lives, and as they witness the daily
failure of their social codes, they become less tolerant. I am unsure what this hardening of attitudes means either for the
middle class or for society as a whole, now let alone in the future. Although, paradoxically, I suspect it may be eventually
to everyone’s advantage.
To tell of the first incident it is necessary to describe the scene for the weather was perfect: a warm day in early autumn
with a huge blue sky and the mountains in sharp definition. I went to a place called Kommetjie on the Cape peninsula – a
small sheltered bay where some lobster boats are moored and children paddle around in canoes – simply to sit on a bench
that overlooks this tranquillity. Before me the sea slid among the rocks giving off the pungent smell of seaweed that is so
typical of South Africa’s west coast. On a kelp bed sacred ibis stalked after lice and small crabs, cormorants hung out
their wings in the sun, and gulls and terns wheeled overhead. I spent an hour there absorbed in the warmth and the beauty
and the peacefulness.
Among the rocks and dried seaweed next to the bench lay an empty screw-top wine bottle and another one that had been
smashed. Beside these was a jersey damp from the night’s dew. Next to this a pale brown skirt darkly stained with blood.
Not much imagination is needed to reconstruct a version of whatever had happened here: a man (or men) and a woman,
drink and violence. Before I sat down I stood staring at the garments wondering if this horror had occurred the previous
night, or earlier in the week and what had happened to the woman. Was she assaulted? Was she raped? Had she been able
to flee? The clothing could have belonged to a shop assistant, a bank clerk, a student. Then I sighed, except for these
brief moments of conjecture (which is as close as I could get to an expression of compassion) there seemed so little I
could do about this. And what, ultimately, was the point of trying to envisage the circumstances? I sat down and turned
my attention to the birds and the beauty of the day. Yet the presence of the skirt was always at the corner of my eye.
Of course, had this been Europe I would have reported the bloodied clothes to the police. I suspect a docket would have
been opened and some sort of investigation undertaken. But in a city like Cape Town with 10 murders a day and a rape
every 22 seconds and an understaffed police force what would they do about a damp pile of clothes on the sand, albeit
stained with blood? Nothing. And what could I do about their shrug of helplessness? Again, nothing. Suddenly the poet
John Donne’s wonderful sentiment that our humanity connects us to ‘any man’s death’ was rendered meaningless. There
were too many deaths, too many tragedies happening minute by minute to even begin thinking of how much we had been
‘diminished’ – to use Donne’s word.
Although this is what has happened: our ability to be compassionate has been eroded by our loss of power. In a way we
have been exiled to small enclaves of privilege where we look out with pity and some horror on the conditions around us.
I was made aware of this again a few months later at five o’clock on a dark winter morning. Woken by a keening that
went on and on until I realized the sad lament had been infiltrating my sleep for some time, I went outside to find a
crowd had gathered three houses down, at the end of the street. They were lit by the red pulsing of a fire-engine light,
and blue flashes from a police van. A policeman with a weak torch beamed it up at a young man crouched on the roof of
a double-storey boardinghouse. The man rocked there, sounding over and over again his mantra of despair. Someone
brought out a double mattress and laid it on the ground and the crowd whooped with laughter. Perhaps they were enticing
him to jump. In the boardinghouse and the houses opposite it live refugees from Africa’s troublespots, young men from
Congo, Angola, Ruanda. They live in overcrowded conditions at the mercy of slum landlords who extract high rentals
and are unconcerned about the rapidly deteriorating state of the buildings. Clearly the man on the roof was from their
I watched as he perched there against the parapet, his arms round his knees, his strange endless complaint drifting over
the roofs bringing out more and more people. Commuters heading for the station pushed through the crowd and paused to
look up at the man on the roof, and then hurried on, shaking their heads or flapping their arms in imitation of birds. They
laughed and joked as they came past me.
By now firemen were raising a ladder. They got it half-way up the wall. The doleful threnody continued. Someone
started speaking through a loud-hailer in a powerful voice that boomed around the streets. He seemed to call the man
Jo-Jo. The firemen raised the ladder further. The crowd went quiet. The ladder wavered then banged with a metallic
clunk against the roof parapet. The man stood up and jumped. He fell feet first, the length of him going down the side of
the building. Then came the noise an egg makes when it rolls off a counter and smashes on the floor. And as if
choreographed, as if acting out some strange ballet, the crowd sighed and swayed back and turned again to where the man
must surely lie crumpled.
I saw the man falling, I heard the liquid smack of his impact. I can still see the image and hear the sound. At the moment
of its happening I covered my face with my hands and for an instant closed my eyes in horror. Five minutes later the
ambulance had taken the body away and I went back to bed. More significantly I went to sleep. I was troubled by what
I’d seen yet I had the capacity quickly to drift into sleep.
Days later I found out from the refugees that the man was an Angolan. I was offered this information as if it explained
his behaviour. He had no friends here, I was told. Maybe he had no family. Maybe it was the war in his country. Maybe
it was his head, and the men advancing these curt explanations tapped their temples. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. No one
knew for sure. No one knew how he’d got onto the roof or why he’d jumped or what his dirge had been about. No one
knew where he’d been buried, or even who to tell that he’d died. As I talked to the group of men warming themselves in
the winter sun it seemed there was no residue of sadness, merely an acceptance. They stood around discussing soccer and
women or tinkered with their cars and the fact that recently someone had jumped to his death from the roof behind us
seemed of little consequence. Maybe considering where they come from, and considering the tragic stories that so often
make up their lives, one more death was simply one more death.
Here, I suppose, is the point where the values of being middle class – values which admittedly stretch across the political
spectrum, but which, for the most part, are built on the middle ground where a tolerance of others and a respect for
human life are essential if society is to function – come up against the reality of a Hobbesian world where life is often
poor, nasty, brutish and short. Just how nasty and how brutish I was made to realize once again while researching a series
of articles on health issues in Cape Town. Suddenly what I saw, what I was told, revealed the precariousness of the
middle class position. And how divorced and isolated the middle class were from very persuasive social issues. But I also
understood that to continue living here and contributing to society, the middle class had to harden their hearts. The
alternatives were paranoia or flight. How often haven’t I heard Europeans tell me: “I couldn’t live here, the reality’s too
It is. For example, out of 95 Interpol member countries South Africa takes the first three positions for murder, rape and
violent theft. Homicide is the third most prevalent cause of death in Cape Town. Tables compiled by the local police
showed incidents of rape, indecent assault and abuse of children were higher per 100.000 of the population than anywhere
else in the country. According to autopsy reports on those who died of non-natural causes, alcohol abuse lay behind the
cause of death almost 90% of the time. As a profile of the mental health of a segment of society these kinds of statistics
are alarming.
But it was the words of a highway patrol policeman, Sergeant Ncamile Mase, which made more of an impact on me.
While talking about the extraordinary levels of violence he encounters in his day to day routine he told this anecdote:
‘One time on night shift we saw a big truck standing in the bushes. There was a man on top of the truck and another
standing next to it. We drove up and spoke to them and they said, no problem they were just having some beers and
enjoying themselves. The next thing I hear the one on the truck say in Xhosa to the other one that he must get us to go.
So I jump out and pull my gun and when I look in the back of the truck there’s another man raping a girl. This girl was
raped by all three of them. The way she tells me her story she was walking home in Guguletu township when they
stopped next to her and asked her if there was a place they could buy beers. She said she could show them a place nearby.
Then she gets in the truck and they go straight to the bush and rape her. This girl is stupid. You mustn’t go with people at
night. You mustn’t go with people at any time.

Let me tell you another thing, if you get some guys who go to a shebeen and they sit there drinking and then one
asks another for a cigarette and this man says no, then it is possible he may get killed for saying no. For such a small
thing. Even if a man knocks his drink against his friend’s knee he can be killed for such a small thing. It’s terrible. And
these guys are all friends. I would say it is because of drink, or a grudge, or maybe a girl that men murder. There’s no
respect anymore. No respect. I’m 18 years in the [police] force but these things that are happening now, these murders
and rapes, there are so many. They used to happen before but much less, the big difference now is that there are so many.
It’s everywhere. I would say there is a devil going through the people. We in the police are fighting a big war

Criminologists and psychologists are hardly needed to interpret the statistics let alone Sergeant Mase’s accounts of the
casual violence he has to deal with daily: clearly these are indications of a society in trauma. Trauma that is rooted in a
malaise, a listlessness, a depression that has as much to do with the country’s colonial history as with global market forces
that can impact savagely on small economies. Nowhere is this more evident than in a ghetto of tenement blocks like
Manenberg. Established when people classed as coloured where forcibly removed from housing near Cape Town’s city
centre, Manenberg today is a war zone – a territory constantly disputed by rival gangs. To me it is an intimation of the
apocalypse, an outtake from the movie Blade Runner. At nine o’clock in the morning there are groups of men
everywhere: lounging outside back yard gates, standing on the corners, leaning against posts. The streets are active, noisy
with running children and dogs, and women their hair in curlers beneath scarves watching and smoking. Yet this scene
also looks like the aftermath of a riot: the streets are littered with stones and half-bricks and smashed bottles and
oddments of clothing. On this morning I’m being taken round by Mariette Williams, a social worker who specializes in
TB care. (At 560 patients per 100.000 Cape Town has the highest incidence of the disease in the world.) We start at the
clinic which is surrounded by a high fence of concrete poles and an automatic gate. The fencing and gate were erected to
stop gangsters using the clinic as part of the battleground during their wars. (The money that went into this security could
more usefully have been spent on medicine. However.)

The fence is a great pity,’ shrugs Mariette, ‘but that’s the reality of life here. Of course it’s also to stop people
breaking in to steal, and there’s a security guard now because we can’t afford to have the clinic vandalized. We’ve got to
keep it open.

We drive through the streets past a row of burnt out shops where the owners refused to pay protection money to a
ganglord and were closed down and then looted. We pass huge graffiti that is dark and evil and one features the gangster
icon, Tupac Shakur. We pass a dog in a gutter that she says has been lying there for two days. It is still twitching. “There
is a malaise here”, says Mariette. “As if this whole community is suffering from depression.” She pauses. “I’m not a
fearful person but about a year ago while I was sitting in the clinic I heard shooting. These were serious guns and that
was the first time I felt scared. Nowadays if I’ve heard there’s trouble I phone ahead to find out what’s happening here.
And when I’m here, I’m careful. I watch what’s going on in the street, I drive with the windows up, I keep the car doors
locked, that sort of thing. When it’s quiet or there are flashy cars driving around you know there’s going to be trouble.
The only thing that sometimes concerns me is that if I get shot there has to be some contingency plan to continue my
work. And I don’t mean get shot in that I’m being targeted, but that I get caught in the crossfire.” She says this as if she’s
said nothing particularly out of the ordinary. And yet, I wonder, how many people have that consideration at the back of
their minds as they go about their daily jobs.
Mariette Williams is middle class. She is young, attractive, humorous. She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town.
In racial terms she is coloured; I am white. We were brought up on different sides of the tracks – let alone apartheid – and
yet we understand one another perfectly. We have the same values, we live by the same codes, we share similar ideas
about the present and the future. We are acutely aware of the unease that laps – sometimes physically, always emotionally
– against the middle class.
Some years ago I heard the writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger speak about the spread of civil wars around the world. At
that stage he identified some 30 civil wars and referred to the phenomenon as “molecular civil war” – wars fought for no
political purpose by people, mostly men, who’d been forced into dystopias where warlords and drug barons held the
power. Wars that could erupt – because of the drift of refugees over the last 50 years – as easily in far flung places as in
the place of origin. This sort of description would fit Manenberg and the gang violence that breeds there but also
manifests in robberies in the suburbs where rape and murder often form part of the pillaging – and I use a word more
usually associated with war deliberately. Enzensberger went further and pointed out that these types of civil war were not
necessarily fought against a state. Rather it was a violence that aimed to destroy the structure and fabric of society and
was not complete until this destruction had been achieved. It was fought by people consumed by ‘blind violence’, who
fought for the sake of fighting. Even when a country’s intention was to build and progress, these pockets of civil war
could reverberate throughout the whole society. But, he ventured, because ‘not everyone was running amok,’ because “not
everyone wants everyone else killed”, then “maybe the majority will be able to defend the basis of social interaction.”
And no doubt they will. However, like Enzensberger, the majority feels that throughout the world “the safe areas are
dwindling”. A sentiment perhaps no more keenly felt than by the middle class in South Africa, and probably elsewhere
on the continent.
So in an analysis of black attitudes towards the outlaw as hero, the writer Zakes Mda – who long ago became a denizen of
the suburbs – articulates middle class thinking on crime when he writes: ‘I believe that we have avoided examining the
real sources of crime because they impact on our values as black people in the urban areas. Instead we have blamed
poverty. It did not occur to us to ask the question: if poverty is the cause of crime why does the poorest province in South
Africa (Northern Province) have the least crime, and the richest (Gauteng) the most?

The same question can be asked about countries like Zimbabwe whose cities are not only cleaner than South
Africa’s, but whose law enforcement agencies there command respect. Yet Zimbabwe is poorer than South Africa. Yes,
there is some crime in South Africa that is due to poverty and hunger. But the bulk of the crime is a result of our greed
and the race to accumulate material possessions. Cash heist gangsters and drug syndicate bosses are not hungry people.
They are multimillionaires. (Mda’s comments may be directed at blacks, but they are equally valid for the other racial
groups in South Africa.)

While the middle class cannot be seen as the shining pinnacle of social endeavour – in fact both the private and the public
sectors in most African countries are riddled with corruption to such an extent that the Black Management Forum in
South Africa has had to draw up a code of ethics for its members although the rot extends through all race groups – they,
the middle class, are one of the most visible and necessary components of a modern economy. They have the professional
occupations, the buying power, they have the education, they have the technology and know how to use it to get
information and attention that will benefit their life styles. They buy books and art; they go to movies, theatre, concerts;
they eat out. They run businesses, they establish businesses, they generate wealth not only for themselves but for their
employees. They also pay substantial taxes, make large contributions to medical aid schemes and pension funds. In many
ways they seek – in fact have – to make themselves independent of the state’s welfare programmes because increasingly
these have to be available for those with no or little income. It is quite simple: as a member of the middle class I cannot
expect a state pension when I retire, nor is the state going to come to my aid if I fall ill. The middle class have to make
themselves financially self-sufficient. In doing this they have to put themselves at the mercy of volatile stock exchanges
where money can be lost as easily as it can be made.
For the most part the middle class have little sense of what is happening elsewhere. They shuttle between the suburbs, the
shopping malls, and the city’s office blocks and could be in a North American, European or Australian city. They don’t
have to wait in the queues at day clinics. Their children attend schools that are well equipped. They don’t see the street
children. They don’t see the blood and guts. However, even in these highly cosseted sections the middle class are not
totally protected, and are becoming less so. They still receive messages of fear. Messages that come through the news
media and tell of, say, a well known newspaper photographer stabbed to death in his home by a 14-year-old intruder. Or
pamphlets such as the one I’ve just received from my short-term insurance company which advises: “Reduce the time
available to a burglar to commit a crime by installing adequate physical security systems. [We] may require an alarm
system and armed response [before we will insure your property]. Make it harder for the burglar by hardening the target
to such an extent that it takes serious effort to penetrate the home. All opening windows should be burglar barred with
substantial bars welded to the inside of frames or grouted into walls. Install either special locks on or equip sliding doors
with security gates. External doors must be of sturdy construction such as solid wood and hollow core doors should be
protected by metal cladding.” The language, to all intents and purposes, is a language of war.
These messages also come constantly and are embellished: they are retold at dinner parties, in offices, coffee shops, they
further reinforce the perception that the safe areas are dwindling. Your home is not safe, the streets are dangerous, even
your child’s school can be drawn into this molecular civil war. For instance I was recently told by a decent liberal middle
class mother that her four-year-old son had been sexually assaulted by his six-year-old playmate at a decent liberal middle
class school. The trauma was clouded by issues of race: the younger boy is white, the older boy black. When I hear
stories like this I see a deep faultline through society, one that reaches into the depths of our history. But essentially the
point here is that parents have to pay high fees to send their children to this school. Money is – or was – one of the most
successful mechanisms the middle class used to protect their interests. They could buy into shared values. Perhaps that is
what the black boy’s parents thought they were doing. Perhaps the protection which money offered was always more
illusionary than real and perhaps incidents such as this playground assault have happened before and were isolated and
without racial overtones, but unfortunately now it is added to a quotient of fear. Now it is yet another of the wearying
assaults that slowly but remorselessly strips away individual resilience.
This fear of violent assault is today ever present. A doctor friend recently returned from a locum in England’s lake
district speaks of her three months away as a time without fear. ‘We just don’t realize how our days are filled with
caution,’ she says. ‘We’re always looking over our shoulders.’ Of course this is true. I know people who even at home
wear panic buttons wired to armed response units. But then there are police stations wired to private armed response
companies. These conditions are not unique to South Africa; they are common elsewhere in Africa; they occur elsewhere
in the world. But the nature of this anxiety is troubling. It represents the thin line dividing these fluctuating states of
dread from paranoia and neurosis. At the moment a handy way of disguising this fear is to talk about South Africa as a
transforming society, a dynamic society trying to re-establish itself. At least life’s not boring, people say. Look at Europe
and the United States, people say, they’ve reduced life to trivia and spectacle. We’re dealing with fundamental human
issues. The big themes. Undoubtedly we are, but even while we say this we know our power to make a difference has
lessened. I am not talking about power in a political sense, but the power of institutions and systems to function optimally
in societies where the disparities between the haves and the have-nots are significant, and widening. Take the justice
system. A small rural community recently paid the bail of a man arrested for murder. Once released he was subjected to a
kangaroo court and executed. The villagers were convinced of the man’s guilt and had no faith in the due process of law.
Nor is this an isolated incident. Increasingly throughout the country vigilante groups are resorting to street justice. Which
is easy to understand, but from a middle class perspective not easy to condone.
Of course our society has far from broken down: we have parliament, provincial government, municipalities; cities,
shopping malls, communications networks, international airports, a stock exchange; the health system still works; there
are schools and teachers, courts and police, roads are built and repaired; all the elements that comprise a modern economy
are available and operative. Or rather, they are more or less available and operative. It is in this matter of degree that the
unravelling of the social mechanisms can be seen and where the middle class find themselves frustrated. And alarmed.
When you need the police they may take longer to come, or may not come at all. Too many classrooms are overcrowded
because teachers have been fired because budgets have been cut. In these schools there are often no text books, no
exercise books, sometimes no pencils for the pupils. Doctors at state hospitals have to cope with 60 patients during the
daily five hours that the outpatients clinics are open. Often there are shortages of drugs, sometimes even headache tablets
have to be restricted to 10 per patient per month. This kind of litany is easy to compile. It could include the phenomenal
increase in the size of squatter camps not only outside the cities, but around rural towns and villages too. It could
eventually come down to a matter of simple arithmetic by pointing out that in a country like South Africa there are 40
million people, one million are employed and paying salary-based taxes, some 15 million are under 18 years old. It is
very difficult for so few people to contribute enough to a modern economy that must try and raise the living conditions
of so many. Nor have I factored into this the serious impact it is predicted that HIV/AIDS will have on the society and
economy over the next decade.

Published 18 November 1999

Original in English
First published in

Contributed by Wespennest
© Mike Nicol


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