Blind spot about poor’s needs hobbles comfy intelligentsia - Businesslive

16 August 2021 - Why is it so rare for the most comfortable, articulate and best-educated to grasp that what the poor want most of all is what they themselves have, and to see the value of putting their energy into thinking about what it would take to give the poor a shot at getting it, too?

Michael Morris 
Why is it so rare for the most comfortable, articulate and best-educated to grasp that what the poor want most of all is what they themselves have, and to see the value of putting their energy into thinking about what it would take to give the poor a shot at getting it, too?

Too often, confronting this plain — though not easy — challenge comes second to the spectacle of a moral contest in which, you sense, the sole trophy is burnished self-regard. I suspect the reason is that few among the intelligentsia pass the test of closing the conceptual gap between the ideas they say they are committed to and the reality of their own lives; the ideas, choices and formative influences that have made them who they are.

Which is in large part why I think Phila Mfundo Msimang is mistaken in his criticism of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) in two recent letters published in Business Day (“IRR serves own agenda”, August 9, and “True colours”, August 11).

Msimang misperceives the IRR’s determination to wrest the conversation about socioeconomic reform in SA out of the hands of race nationalists, and to establish a different conversation about steering the country towards a fairer, prosperous future, as a wilful mischaracterisation of the problems we face, and a denial of the scale of “structural elements that perpetuate racial inequality and injustice”.

To Msimang, the IRR is engaged in “(shifting) attention away from what they view to be undesirable options in the debate about how we are to correct for the detrimental material effects of racism”. 

I wonder, though; does he reflect on his own life, the endowments of his ancestors, many of them notable figures in that unofficial aristocracy of late-colonial black society, of teachers, priests and journalists (one of them, Selby Msimang, though a long-time member of the ANC, was a founder of the Liberal Party and later a senior member of the IRR); his education at good schools; the lessons of his upbringing — all of which, combined with natural talent, enabled him to publish his first book, Analytic Aesthetics: An Inquiry, aged 19, go on to excel in his studies, and latterly secure a position in the prestigious philosophy department at Stellenbosch University?

None of this proves that he is wrong about race or racism, but it does help explain why, despite the very considerable odds thrown up by SA’s history, he emerged as an articulate, capable and independent-minded young man who, I have no doubt, takes his place in the academy on merit and is unafraid to pursue his passions and interests as he sees fit. In this he is the avatar of the IRR’s vision of an achievable SA future.

The irony, and it’s a tragic one, is that Msimang is part of a far-too-small privileged class of South Africans whose opportunities and scope for accomplishment are not available to the vast majority, who remain immiserated by poverty, are failed by deficient schooling and are underserved by a state that all but ignores them, penalties they bear through no fault of their own but because of policies that hobble the economy, undermine enterprise and sap individual agency while peddling the illusion that race is really the problem and that all would be well if only racism were rooted out.

To contest these “structural elements” is not to deny the legacy of racial disadvantage — it is to stare it in the face and collaborate in defeating it. Msimang’s own life story is a potent example of the achievable rewards.

• Morris is head of media at the SA Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2021-08-15-michael-morris-blind-spot-about-poors-needs-hobbles-comfy-intelligentsia/

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