Middle Class Narratives and the Disconnect with the Poor

By Gillian Schutte · 25 Feb 2014

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Picture: So What Faith
Picture: So What Faith
In January this year, between 8-10 protestors were killed by the police in service delivery protests, four of them simply for rising up to demand a most basic right - water. This is a contravention of human rights on many levels and while it sent shock waves through poor black working class and marginalized communities, the broader middle class did not react at all.

In fact, the silence from South Africa’s middle class was resounding and mystifying. Instead of outrage they have chosen to ignore a gross violation of human rights and even blame the poor for these deaths. Many wrote as much in the comments beneath more progressive articles on the matter and expressed their disdain and contempt for marginalised people in commentary dripping in derision.

Comments, such as this one found beneath an article I wrote in The Star newspaper asking why the middle class lacks empathy for the poor, exemplify the everyday disapproving attitudes that the middle class generally feel for the disenfranchised masses.

One ‘Law_of_the_jungle Ash’ had the following to say:

Rubbish!!! People are poor because they aren't smart about their life. They have children when they can't afford children, they riot instead of going to school and they look for excuses like apartheid and structures for the reason instead of looking at themselves. There are many black lawyers and doctors etc. that got these degrees in South Africa during apartheid - how do you think they did that? They worked hard and made sacrifices just like anybody else. The opportunities were there for anybody who could be bothered to take advantage of them. They are not victims, they just have a victim mentality and until they lose that, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with it, they will remain victims forever and live off handouts.

This is a common response to issues pertaining to the poor. It reveals a total disconnect between the middle class and the economically marginalised - but more tellingly, between history, contemporary politics and poverty. It is as if poverty happens in a vacuum and is indeed an extension of an amoral, over sexualized breeding mass of half-humans who are lazy, take no responsibility for themselves and still have the temerity to blame a system of colonialism and apartheid for their poverty.

Middle class narratives on the poor are highly problematic in a society like South Africa where huge class cleavages exist between the rich and the poor. While this is certainly not true of everyone in this class, for the most part, middle class people buy into the same metanarrative about the poor.

This metanarrative is a storyline that creates a definite “us and them” scenario, which is based on keeping middle class comfort zones definitively separate to the economic hell-holes that marginalized communities are forced to endure. The core belief is that “they” are “lazy” and their poverty is caused by their laziness just as wealth is caused by hard work.

Around this core belief many other secondary storylines are developed and these are steeped in common sense dogmas that sound like truth and are often rendered in reasonable and earnest terms. Yet when unpacked, these common sense beliefs are anything but benign. Instead, they are based on explicit unconstructive racialised and classist stereotypes that contain multiple judgments and untruths.

It would seem that the non-politicised majority in the middle class avoids critical engagement on the structural issues that create inequality and show little interest in understanding the intersections between racism, privilege and poverty.

This is “depoliticized liberalism”. It exists in an increasingly capitalised system that claims to embrace multiculturalism, diversity and equality. But this “equality” is clearly not an everyday reality, as racist and classist incidents that oppress the poor continue to manifest on our social landscape. Such inequality is evidenced in the police killings of protestors in service delivery protests. Here we witness structural racism and the abuse of classist power at its zenith when protestors who mobilise for basic services and the right to claim their dignity, in a system that promises this dignity to all, get killed by the police for doing so. 

The larger middle class, seemingly, do not perceive this as a human rights transgression. There is no empathy and outrage for the deaths of people at the hands of the state. Instead there is a ‘culture of consent’ in which the middle class will generally agree that the state acted within its constitutional mandate and for the good of the security of the country and their individual safety.

You can be sure though that if the people shot were not poor and black, the response would have been one of outrage and identification, instead of disdain and open contempt.

The middle class discourse is one that utterly believes that the poor need to be policed at every level of their lives, including their reproductive lives. They should not engage in sexual and reproductive activities. They should not want or need children because they cannot feed them. They should really, it would seem, become extinct so that they are no longer a problem to the hardworking, decent and moral middle class. 

In this scenario, colonisers and the history of appropriation of land and resources via apartheid are blameless. Foreign investors are also let off the hook for their exploitation and abuse of cheap labour. And though government plays into the hands of business, favouring the corporate sector over the poor, they alone, are blamed for bad governance. The only time government will be praised by this class is when they have adequately policed and brutalised the poor.

At the same time, the capitalist anti-poor metanarrative overarches the equality narrative and becomes a new and biased form of human rights.  In this framework, individual bourgeois rights take precedence over the rights of so-called marauding and dangerous poor people. This is the basis for middle-class hegemony, which remains completely separate and insular to poor people’s rights.

And contained within this hegemony is a discourse verging on fascism – one that could be said to comprise the makings of a genocidal construct. It is a dehumanizing and dangerous discourse that strips the poor of their dignity and humanity. It objectifies the poor into empty soulless beings that probably do not have the same wants, needs, desires, dreams and aspirations as any other human being. It is a dangerous discourse based on hate and yet it permeates so-called liberal public spaces, disguised in reasonable and honest terms. 

This master narrative is nothing less than a full-frontal discursive war against the poor of our land.
Schutte is an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist. She is a founding member of Media for Justice and co-producer at Handheld Films.

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25 Feb


This is superb. Right on.

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Cedric de la Harpe
26 Feb

Middle Class Attitude

Hi Gillian,

The same middle class who define the black poverty as lazy, have too many children and the typical comment, are only using the description in order to be politically correct. Not so long ago we would have used the terms; 'uncivilised' and 'barbaric'. Even when making these comments we would identify the few who have achieved, and make the comparison of what they should be like.

Unfortunately, as the black's move into this middle-class environment, they are unable to correct these whites, or make public comment, for fear of separating them from this group.

The 1913 Land Act, converted a black community, who as a group were escaping slavery, back into 'third-class' citizens.

The mindset, and our system, still treats them as such.

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26 Feb


Cedric - yes this is true of the middle class discourse community and the fear of exclusion - though I do think that many black middle class people have class disparities in their own families and thus often have a different perspective - not always though.

26 Feb

Yes, Superb Piece on Middle Class Fascism

I usually find Schutte's pieces rather recklessly formulated and over the top. Not precise and careful enough for my tastes.

But this is very good.

This gets to the heart of the matter: "a full-frontal discursive war against the poor of our land".

The ANC is a key player in this war, so are the middle classes, white and black and so, of course, is capital.

Most of what passed for political debate in our country is a struggle for power and resources within the middle classes. When the poor try to assert themselves they get shot - and if they are not murdered physically they are destroyed symbolically.

Most of the left in this country also despise the poor and do not see poor people as fellow citizens. They see them as people to be led, by the left. NGOs are usually the same.

The EFF is the first and only political party to try and win the support of the poor. This has shaken our politics. But as we all know the EFF are trying to use the poor so that Malema et al can get back into some sort of power. It is nothing but a sick joke to see a corrupt figure like Malema claiming to have the interests of the poor at heart.

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Rory Verified user
28 Feb


You are right, but the EFF has an open field all to itself because there is nobody else out there, churches for example or unions, punting for the poor.

Mike Thurgood Verified user
28 Feb

Middle Class Disconnected from the Poor

In a way I am incensed at this article. As though all whites of whatever origin do nothing but denigrate the poorest blacks, and say the treatment they get from the authorities is no less than what they deserve. You will undoubtedly get the occasional white with these extreme viewpoints - some seemingly with Nazi tendencies, but they were never in Europe during WWII days, were they - but most of us feel helpless, as indeed we are, because "this is Africa". And indeed it is Africa. It's a defeatist attitude, I appreciate, but we only have to look to countries up the continent from South Africa to get the message.

A reminder of the way Africans treat themselves - just look a the new laws in Uganda against homosexuals.

Take the letter that Gillian Schutte quoted from "Law_of_the_jungle Ash". Where was it originally published, and when? Did a white or black middle class individual write it? Or did Gillian Schutte frig it up herself in order to be able to make sure that her point was made in the way that she wanted to make it, whether truly honest or not?

And, although I don't know any myself, there are many black middle class people living in Table View and Parklands, Western Cape - what are their viewpoints on their poor fellow blacks? And what is Schutte's basis for the comment that middle class blacks won't speak up for fear of becoming dissociated from their white middle class compatriots? Can she provide clear and unequivocal evidence of the truth of this statement?

Incidentally, wealth is not "caused" by hard work: it is "generated" by hard work.

From whom did Schutte get this piece of philosophy: "There is no empathy and outrage for the deaths of people at the hands of the state. Instead there is a 'culture of consent' in which the middle class will generally agree that the state acted within its constitutional mandate and for the good of the security of the country and their individual safety". She would be very surprised at the comments in our own middle class household. But being in our 80s we can't become activists, now. And she would indeed also be very surprised at how we treat our own domestic helper.

I wonder what letters published in the Cape Argus over the past few years Schutte can quote which reflect the same views as the one she quotes above? As far as I recall, none, absolutely none. That doesn't mean that none are ever sent in for publication, of course, but we can only judge on what the editors decide to publish.

And what, pray is a "metanarrative". It's a badly made-up word with no sensible meaning unless it's clearly and unambiguously defined.

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Rory Verified user
28 Feb

Systemic Poverty

There is very little evidence in commentary generally that there is much understanding of systemic poverty. In other words of the conditions in a social system that inevitably consign people, born into those conditions, to poverty. A significant factor that fuels poverty here is the current money system. That factor is totally out of public consciousness however because the money system as it now is emerged centuries ago and most people do not think about the money system as such they only think about money within the framework of the money system.

Money was developed to facilitate the exchange of goods and services between individuals. Such exchanges are essential to life and before the invention of money they happened anyway as exchanges actually do not need money. Since the invention of money however two conditions have manifested.

Condition one: money is such a useful addition to the exchange process that in people's minds exchanges have become totally dependent on the availability of money, no money no exchanges, basically money has become the life blood of society.

Condition two: because money has to be issued into circulation before it can be used control of the system which issues money became a 'must have' for the powerful people in society. That remains true until today.

This has led to the emergence of endemic poverty. Why? Because the controlling elite have decided, with all sorts of justifications for this, that money can only be issued to those who already have money. Now, rightfully, money belongs to everybody in society, not just to the powerful. Thus if an individual needs money to participate in an exchange and they don’t have any it should be issued to them then and there. Obviously the issuing of new money to individuals would need to be limited otherwise the currency would in due course become debased, debasement leading to price inflation, as is happening now with the over issuing of new money to people who already have money.

This single change in the money system would bring to an end the existence of cash strapped communities and thus ultimately to poverty.

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