The people of Blackheath and Lwandle don’t hate each other, but envy and fear each other, says Murray Williams.
Cape Town - I’m not sure which was more painful to watch – the scenes of loss and grief in Lwandle, Nomzamo, 10 days ago, as people’s homes were smashed to pieces.
Or in Blackheath this week – the trembling fear, prejudice, aggression and loathing as a community stood ready to be “invaded”.
And then the wild celebrations and joy on Wednesday night when City of Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille told them the shack dwellers weren’t coming.
I was reminded of two pieces of writing.
The first is a series of papers and essays written by a bunch of academics about 200 years ago, named The Frankfurt School.
They came up with a word, “anomie”. It refers to “being a stranger in a crowd”. This was how a vast number of people experienced city life, they argued.
They were reflecting on the industrial revolution and mass urbanisation. A lot of people were gathered in these cities, drawn in from rural areas as labour. But amid the crowd, the individual felt alone.
Gone were the community structures they had cherished in their villages, their priests, their old teachers, their cousins, neighbours, the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker – everyone they’d grown up alongside and relied upon, who had given them their identity.
Instead of existing in healthy, functioning, holistic communities, they were adrift, rootless, in these new mega-populated cities.
This argument, inverted, is what the people of Blackheath were partially saying this week. That they wanted to remain “our own community”. And, in part, that’s perfectly healthy.
But there’s an unhealthy side too. And that’s the demand to remain “homogenous”. Essentially, they were arguing it’s essential that “birds of a feather flock together”.
Which reminded me of a second bit of writing. Birds without Wings is a novel by Louis de Bernieres, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. It tells the tragic love story of Philothei and Ibrahim. And, in graphic detail how, around them, south-eastern Europe tears itself apart during World War I, after the effects of religious intolerance and overzealous nationalism.
But the book begins by painting an altogether happier previous life – of a community in western Turkey. Of Greek Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims and others, harmoniously living side by side. Not only did they “tolerate” each other, but they deeply, wonderfully enriched each other’s lives.
Until, that was, outside forces, geopolitical, nationalist tides, washed in and ripped their community apart.
Birds without Wings shows two things: that diversity in practice offers a beautiful richness. And, second, that prejudice is not instinctive to the individual, but is typically born out of macro or group conflicts.
On our own doorsteps, prejudice is born out of even more fundamental forces.
Politics I usually opens with the statement: “Politics is about the contest for scarce resources”, and how this breeds the false myth of “group identity”.
The people of Blackheath do not hate the people of Lwandle, nor vice versa. But they sure do envy them, fear them, suspect them.
For decades, under apartheid, the distribution of resources was deliberately between “us and them”.
And it continues today, against the slow crawl of incremental redress – between apartheid’s competing second and third classes, between “brown” and “black”, both with equally desperate, equally legitimate claims for houses.
The war in Blackheath this week was not about “race”. It was about the race between neglected people for a simple, proper roof over their heads.
* Murray Williams writes a weekly column called “Shooting from the lip” in the Cape Argus every Friday.