What are we afraid of?

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Tales of a divided city

Our city is born of conquest: divided, broken, brutally unjust - and beautiful in the eyes of some of its inhabitants. But most in our town are not in a position to see much beauty.

The divergence in perspective between those who live on the east side of town and those on the west is staggering.

Those on the west tend to see the city as quaint and charming (comfortable, easy to get around in and a great place to bring up children).

Those on the other side tend to experience our city as a place of torment, of languishing without purpose, of hunger in the face of opulence - an opulence that often presents itself as a dehumanising provocation.

Our city has two names, informing us of an epidemic of incomprehension. One name celebrates the conqueror and the other the vanquished.

Two centuries on, and little has been understood.

A ravaged body lies on a vacant plot; cut up people stream into Settler’s Hospital; malnutrition lingers… and at world class cafés, those who have the “right to admission” are met at the doorways by supplicating young men who are living for nothing.

Our city is nestled at the edges of the unforgiving Karoo: hard, dry, and yet sublime. Viewed from the air, our city is but a minor feature on the landscape, and yet the conquerors who violently built it could not contain their sense that the world belongs to them, unable to see the great expanses against which their alleged might appears pathetic.

And that blind arrogance can still be felt along the geopolitical fault-lines of our city.

The Egazini memorial, just above a sewage-infested stream that runs through Belmont Valley, commemorates humiliation and bloodshed — small, vandalised, ripe for rape — while the settler’s trophy overlooks us all, telling us, through its aesthetic, that the white man is here, pumped up with alienating fantasies of greatness.

Civilisation fetishism.

The descendants of the conqueror live on the Western side and on the Eastern side one finds the shacklands, erected from the waste of the western side.

The master knows not how to humble himself, knows not that his value cannot be found in the power that he can exert upon others. He cannot put things into proper perspective.

There is so much that I do not understand, so much pain that needs to be placed into a framework of meaning. How could one place ravaged bodies of women, taken out by wolf men, into a framework of meaning?

How can madness be put into a framework of meaning?

More personally, how can I live in this city with a clean conscience that does not come at the high premium of ranking the suffering of those on the east side as second-rate, or, relatedly, pointing the finger of blame eastward or solely towards a state that is failing everyone.

That is, pointing away from the self.

For blaming others can play interesting games in the economy of the psyche.

Pilate's gesture exemplifies this well.

The most important issue is not who is to blame but, rather, how can we make this place happen, how can we stop the madness that is expressed in the schizophrenic configuration of our city?

Who are we kidding when we think of ourselves as citizens of the City of Saints? And yet there is so much (compromised) beauty here, so much potential, so much more that could be done.

Why are we holding back and largely leaving things unchanged? What are we scared of? To what extent is our ability to imagine a better world thwarted by too much hardship or too much comfort? 

By Pedro Tabensky

This is the first installment of a series of monthly reflections on our city. The aim is to generate conversation about our place and its meanings. Pedro A. Tabensky, series editor and author of this piece, is the Director of the Allan Gray Centre for Leadership Ethics, located in the Department of Philosophy, Rhodes University.

Source: Grocotts Mail