STEVEN FRIEDMAN: Society that blames the victims for their plight
A SOCIETY that ignores its victims is in moral trouble. How much more trouble is it in if it blames them too?
Every so often, the story of some of our citizens sheds light on the condition of our society. Media reports about Kedibone Mmupele and her children may be one example. Mmupele, a pregnant mother of four in poverty-stricken Verdwaal, in North West province, lost her four children aged between two and nine to hunger last month.
Because there was no food in their home, she walked to a farm in the area in the hope of finding some. When she returned, her children were missing. "I ran around like a mad person, looking for them and shouting their names," she said afterwards. Only later did she discover that they had set off after her and had died on the way.
As Dickensian as Mmupele’s children’s end is, we all know that many of our fellow citizens live in poverty. This incident differs from many others that are familiar to us only in degree.
But a line in one of the reports turns Mmupele’s nightmare into an indictment of how our society treats people who live in deep poverty. We are told that charges of child neglect have been levelled against her and that the police in Lichtenburg are investigating the circumstances under which she left her children.
Instead of blaming our society for the death of her four children, we blame the bereaved mother. There are strong echoes here of Victorian Britain’s habit of blaming poverty on poor people. Those who lived in comfort insisted that the poor did not work hard enough, had too many children, drank too much — the explanations differed but the common thread was the refusal to acknowledge that the poor were victims of a social system, not architects of their own misery. So the Lichtenburg police’s thinking reflects the prejudices of nearly 200 years ago.
But the Lichtenburg police are not alone: their attitude is widespread among our political and economic decision makers. Within the government and opposition, among the racial majority as well as the minority, blaming the poor for their poverty is far more widespread than we care to admit. Thus, one reaction to Mmupele’s tragedy has been to blame her for having too many children (because, presumably, only middle-class people are allowed to decide how many children to have).
We are, for example, repeatedly warned that using social security to help people cope with poverty will create "dependency" and encourage them to sponge off the state. Behind this is an assumption — that anyone who wants to get on in life need only work hard and show initiative. The poor, therefore, are not victims of circumstances beyond their control; they suffer because of their own irresponsibility.
This attitude is not exclusive to this country — all over the world, those who are comfortable tend to blame the poor for poverty. But here, and in many similar countries, it is more clearly the product of an illusion.
Our elites may differ with each other on many things. But one thing on which they agree is the myth that we can ensure that everyone who wants to work, can. Some tell us that all we need to do is free our markets and everyone will have work. Others insist that all we need is more intervention by the government if we want the same result.
Both are peddling a fantasy. Whatever side of the economic debate you happen to be on, there is no formula that can ensure, in the foreseeable future, that all of us who want to, will be able to work. And this means, bluntly, that there will continue to be, for a very long time, people in our midst such as Mmupele who are condemned to live in poverty.
It is not far-fetched to see the fantasy of full employment as yet another way in which elites across the spectrum wish away the poor. Whether the myth that elites choose to use is another lurid fiction about the poor misusing grants or the claim that one day soon we will all be able to work, the effect and possibly the intention is the same — to avert our eyes to our responsibility to Mmupele and the far too many people in our society who share her plight.
It should be clear that a society that values all its citizens would not be investigating Mmupele; it would be helping her.
All of us who participate in the public debate should insist that the police leave her alone.
But it should also be clear that many of our fellow citizens, through no fault of their own, will, for decades, need help if they are to survive and their children are not to meet the same fate as hers.
Until we stop blaming the poor for their poverty and address how we can do better at helping our society’s victims to cope with their condition, we will lack the moral foundation we need to become a society for all our people.
• Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Source: Business Day