Privilege, Peace, and What South African Violence Has to Say to the World

Recently, a colleague of mine related the story of how she posed this interesting question to her college students: “Can peace exist when poverty remains?” As the facilitator of a project the students are conducting in an impoverished part of town, she felt ill at ease with her own relative financial comfort.

At that moment, one of her students, also a member of this class project, raised her hand and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to ask: what does this really have to do with me?”

My colleague, ever quick on her feet, deftly turned the question into a lively discussion. The reason she was able to so effectively handle this seemingly callous, even snooty, question is this: the young lady asking the question was merely giving voice to what many of the students silently wondered. And the question she asked was crucial: Do these social ills really have anything to do with all of us?

To say that violence and unrest has erupted in South Africa over the past couple of weeks is not an entirely accurate statement, for it places the focus on the recent acts of apparent xenophobia perpetrated by black South Africans against black immigrants from other African nations. However, these acts of violence are not even necessarily xenophobic, as it is properly understood, but are essentially reactions to a daily existence characterized by stress, poverty, racism, and suffering for many black South Africans. Only this time, the daily situations of violence and suffering are being perpetrated by the victims against other victims, and for whatever reason, they have only now become newsworthy.

Writing about South Africa – especially about black South Africans – is no simple task, especially given my identity as a white American. I do not pretend to speak for South Africa or to South Africa, nor do I excuse the violent actions of the perpetrators of the recent attacks. Just as importantly, I do not wish to paint a general portrayal of black South Africans as victims, white South Africans as oppressors, and the cultures and country of South Africa as wanting for external expertise. Instead, I am writing to my own context – to my own white privilege, my own Western privilege, my own employed privilege, my own formally-educated privilege, and any other privilege that might be attached to my identity. I am writing to you, all who enjoy privilege, to ask yourselves these questions: what is the price of our privilege, and who pays this price? Privilege always comes at a price and is rarely if ever paid by the person who enjoys the privilege.

For those in the Christian faith, this question is no stranger to us, and yet we are indeed strangely comfortable with the question, rather than being disturbed by it. We speak of the “price” paid by Christ for the “privilege” of the grace we receive, the opportunity for new identity and healthy relationships we enjoy, and the promise of the triumph of love over evil and of eternal life with God. But all too often we gloss over the horror and brutality of Christ’s murder and instead joyfully celebrate the rewards we receive from this violence. Why are we not more stricken by the fact that an innocent life was lost because of the sinful world we created and perpetuate? Privilege in this world comes through inequality and on the backs of others who suffer for our comfort. But we have not evolved as Christians, persons of faith, or simply persons of morality beyond the systems of oppression that viewed Christ as a threat worth killing. Instead, we often move unquestioningly about in a world characterized by these same sorts of economic transactions in which human lives are the tokens of exchange. What was the cost of my privilege? What is the cost of yours?

In South Africa, certain white South Africans – and now a few black South Africans – enjoy privilege that was won through centuries of colonialism and decades of violent apartheid. Perhaps legal apartheid has ended, but the imperialism at its root survives in new iterations, and the privileged across national borders benefit from it. This is not a “South African problem”; this is a problem that our world has created and from which certain persons and groups in our world benefit. For example, indigenous women in rural South Africa produce 70-80% of the food supply for the country’s domestic population, which also comprises roughly 8% of South Africa’s exports. Agricultural production in South Africa grew 10% between 2008 and 2010, valued at nearly $7 billion. Research shows that demand for South African agricultural exports is increasing in Africa and Asia and is holding steady in Europe and North America. However, the indigenous women who produce the vast majority of this food are starving to death because they have no land of their own but are instead working the land of white commercial farmers for little pay. Sizani Ngubane, founder and leader of the Rural Women’s Movement, is heading a campaign called “One Woman, One Hectare of Land,” which asks for a mere 1% of South Africa’s land to be given to rural women to farm for their own communities and families. People around the world are enjoying South African exports in growing numbers, but those who eat the food are not the ones who are working to produce it. And how is it that this industry is increasing in value while the workers are dying of starvation? This is just one example of how privilege is not bound by nation-state borders but is linked trans-nationally. In such a way, this system of privilege that some of us enjoy has created a world of poverty and competition for limited resources – a world of privilege but not peace.

Privilege is not worth the price of peace. However, privilege is not something that can necessarily be erased and reversed, for it is forged in history, though it does not have to be part of our future. Instead of simply feeling guilty, we ought to use our privilege to speak to those who will only listen to privilege. We must tell them that we do not want any part of it, that we wish only human rights, peace, and as much of a share of our earth’s resources and power to thrive – provided that all else have this same access. Until we live in an equal and just world, we can perform our privilege differently to persuade others to choose peace over privilege. Privilege is a comparative term and only exists where inequality does. Its alternative is peace – a world characterized by loving, just, mutual self-giving and the equal access and opportunity of all God’s people to the rights and resources necessarily for their holistic liberation and thriving.

Image Source: GovernmentZA (Attribution via Flickr Creative Commons)

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2 thoughts on “Privilege, Peace, and What South African Violence Has to Say to the World

  1. Recognizing privilege in discussions of poverty and inequality I feel is important, as understanding how one’s position as a member of a higher social class can impact how you view people who occupy other positions. Understanding how your status involves the work of other people to help maintain it, as well as how that status benefits you, communities or whole countries at the expense of others I feel is a step in the right direction to create greater understanding and empathy.

  2. Thank you for your insightful comment, Eli. I completely agree with you. Our world needs more people with your sensibilities and heart!

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