Long way to go before we’re a decent society

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Copy of SI Imraan BuccusETCH INLSA Imraan Buccus

If we were without prejudice, every murder in Gugulethu would get the same attention as Anni Dewani’s death. But that is a world apart from the reality of our society, writes Imraan Buccus.

More women are killed by their partners in South Africa than in most other countries in the world.

A recent Medical Research Council (MRC) study found that one in every two women killed by a known perpetrator dies by an intimate partner’s hand.

This is no doubt a worrying statistic. So, as the world focuses its attention on Oscar Pistorius, I have chosen to focus on Shrien Dewani, the man who allegedly murdered his wife while on honeymoon in Cape Town a few years ago.

Why on Dewani now, you may ask. Well, several reasons. Pistorius already enjoys overwhelming media attention and I think Dewani is likely to get similar attention in the coming weeks, if he is extradited to South Africa to face a trial here.

And the Dewani case has race, class and gender dynamics that are fascinating.

Just this week Dewani lost his latest legal battle to block extradition<&bh”http://www.theguardian.com/world/africa”>. He had argued that he should not be forced from the UK to face trial for the death of his wife, Swedish citizen Anni, until he had recovered from mental health problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

But the court ruled that it would not be “unjust and oppressive” to extradite him.

When the murder occurred, the Anni Dewani case gripped the attention of the nation and generated an incredible media frenzy. Of course we can’t come to any final conclusion until all the allegations and counter allegations have been tested in court. But although there may yet be surprises to come on the basis of the information in the public domain, it certainly seems the police have a strong case against Dewani. Parts of the case still not clear are explanations around how an educated Swedish woman had become so docile, not being party to any decision about the trip. Should we include in the entire dynamic that she was not as docile as he would have liked and this contributed to her being murdered?

This case also tells us a lot about our society and our world.

For a start, if Dewani is guilty, this murder would be a transnational version of the various American murders in which white people have driven to a black neighbourhood and shot their wives on the assumption that the police and the general public would automatically assume that black men were responsible.

And racism is also present in the way in which some of the British media have responded to the case, assuming that our police must be incompetent and that an upstanding British subject like Dewani couldn’t possibly have planned such a diabolical act.

If Dewani is guilty we have every right to be furious that he thought that he could cover up such a heinous crime by making sure that it happened in Gugulethu. In a sense that would mean an assumption that racism would be an alibi.

But there is also the reality, the absolutely shocking reality, that there have been 700 murders in the last five years in Gugulethu.

In addition, a high number of women is murdered and raped in Gugulethu and other townships, the cases often not even reported in the media.

This is where class enters this story. If there had been 700 murders in the last five years in Umhlanga Rocks or Sandton, the media and civil society would be up in arms.

But in a class society, our lives don’t count equally and all of the murders in Gugulethu pass without much response. This is one aspect of what the brilliant Hungarian scholar Anna Selmeczi has called the “social abandonment of the poor” in South Africa. The unequal state of school education systems, the persistence of informal settlements and so on are other symptoms of this broader malaise.

By treating some lives as less valuable than others we have, as a nation, made ourselves vulnerable to the racism of the British media and, perhaps, Dewani too. And the fact that one of the suspects was allegedly tortured by police, which is increasingly being normalised in post-apartheid South Africa in both criminal and political cases, has hardly helped our standing as a genuine democracy.

Class also enters this story in that while there were moments during the struggle, especially in the days of the United Democratic Front, when many people took equality seriously, we have very quickly collapsed back into a rather extreme version of the sort of class society that equates money with virtue.

But you don’t have to look for people eating sushi off naked women to find this conflation of wealth and virtue. It is, for instance, endemic in civil society, where it is routinely assumed that middle-class activists will enlighten the benighted and unwashed masses.

It’s also quite common in the media for the virtue of middle-class people to often be assumed, while that of poor people, especially poor black people, has to be proved over and over again.

The reality is that while rates of some sorts of crime are higher in poor communities, this is simply a result of a lack of opportunities. Rich people placed in the same situation would make similar choices. Moreover, even though rates of crime are high in places like Gugulethu, most people in places like it would never dream of committing a crime and are, despite their difficult circumstances, entirely decent.

Until we can separate our fear of crime, which is just one manifestation of our deeper fear of evil, from our prejudices around race and class, our thinking about the reality of human evil will continually be infected with irrational prejudice. The reality is that you can be rich and British and be deeply evil. You can also be poor and African and be an entirely decent human being.

If we were without prejudice, every murder in Gugulethu would get the same attention as Anni Dewani’s death. But that is a world apart from the reality of our society. We have a long way to go before we can call this society just or decent.

* Buccus is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

Sunday Independent


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