MICHAEL MORRIS: Communities need to stand up to make a difference - Business Day

Apr 15, 2024
Like a grimly fascinated outsider, I listened keenly last week to an account of a knifing.
MICHAEL MORRIS: Communities need to stand up to make a difference - Business Day

Michael Morris
Like a grimly fascinated outsider, I listened keenly last week to an account of a knifing.

I had already been shown on bared chest and back the now imperfectly adhering bandaging, some of it pulled aside to reveal the faintly gleaming gristle of untidy knotting where the stitches pursed the skin. It looked sore. 

The larger story and what it might signify unfolded soon enough at my kitchen table, the wounded gardener, who comes fortnightly, having had to come in person rather than send a WhatsApp to let me know that he wasn’t able to work for the time being. And, of course, “they” had taken his phone.

As she made him breakfast, our housekeeper delivered her unsentimental assessment: “But you shouldn’t have been walking alone! Where I live, we never walk alone. And even then ….”

These days, she said, the robbers drove around in cars, and they had guns. “They just point and say, ‘Give ... bag, cellphone, money!’” 

The gardener said he planned to move to a safer area, or one he felt sure would be safer. He seemed to lack conviction though. Even now, days later, and on the mend having been patched up at the clinic, I could see that his world had been deeply unsteadied.

“He looked sad,” I told my wife. I recognised that what had happened to him was more than the crime, the incident. It was not momentary, and not especially out of the ordinary either.

The housekeeper’s certitude about his plans, that hint of optimism, brought this home with a jolt. “No,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where you go. That won’t make any difference.” 

She didn’t say it in so many words, and didn’t have to, but it was perfectly clear that what she meant was: this is true for both of us, you can’t deny it. And there’s nothing you can do about it either.

I half think it would be quite plausible to brush aside much political commentary in SA and offer this small, forgettable narrative instead as an explanation of political habits (rather than the choices we will them to be) that account for votes and seats and say-so.  

This is too simplistic, but what lingers is that seemingly hope-obliterating phrase, “That won’t make a difference”. While I happen to believe there are things that really can make a difference, the worryingly — but perhaps rationally — low expectations across our society warrant closer attention.

Making a difference is possible if we steel ourselves to recognise that as we take the steps our circumstances demand to secure ourselves and our interests — the “fragmentation” my former senior colleague Frans Cronje spoke of recently at the BizNews Conference in Hermanus — we also heed his precondition. 

Cronje noted that the question was not whether “politicians (are) going to be wonderful”, but how successful people were in ensuring their and their community’s “material circumstances improve as far as possible”.  

Communities that succeeded “are going to be some of the most exciting emerging markets of the next 20 or 30 years, but communities that fail ... are going to have a very hard time”, said Cronje. 

But a key condition was that those seeking success must recognise that it was “obviously not just for themselves (as) the people who live down the road in shacks ... are very important too and are definitely going to have a say in how (the community) evolves”.  

Yet millions may still need convincing about what really will “make a difference”.

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


MICHAEL MORRIS: Communities need to stand up to make a difference - Business Day

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