Society that blames the victims for their plight

Society that blames the victims for their plightNdifuna Ukwazi – DARE TO KNOW

STEVEN FRIEDMAN: Society that blames the victims for their plight


Panel discussion  at the Johnnic auditorium.pic Simon Mathebula.Whatever side of the economic debate you are on, there is no formula to ensure that all of us who want to, will be able to work

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

  1. Many thanks for this article. It touches on very deep issues in our society that we are not facing. We would rather blame the poor for their poverty and look away than admit there is a lot wrong with our ethics and our economic and political system.

    Hiow can any economy work that depends on elitist access to resources and the selfish interests of those with capital? A just economy would allow equitable access to resources, and the production thereof in all areas. What resource could this be that provides food and employment and carbon-neutral energy for all? Only Cannabis sativa, (hemp) can do this on the scale needed. We MUST Legalize Cannabis for the people’s benefit in South Africa, especially in the coming global economic downturn that is heading our way.

    If Cannabis was permitted, Kedibone Mmupele’s children would be alive and well-fed on hempseed, the most nutritious seed on Earth.

    Jeremy Acton
    IQELA LENTSANGO: The Dagga Party of South Africa.

  2. Not only should the police leave Mmupele alone – she needs care. Who can comfort a mother who has lost four children? How will she rebuild what has up to now been a virtually unbearably hard life? Do we have social and psychological services to give support that is so clearly needed – not only for this mother but for the 1000s of others with similar plight, even if on less overwhelming scale?

  3. It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness.

    People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

    ~ Penn Jillette

  4. This is a critical matter that is being raised here.I wish each and everyone of us especially those who are in positions of authority can have a conscience and start to go to the ground and work to better the condition of the poor.We should adopt a strategy of putting aside our fun and resturants especially on weekends and go to the poor people and address their plight.Lastly the church as well has forgotten their programme instead has become obssessed with church buildings,buildings that don’t even have members.This is a call to everyone to stand up and make the difference.

  5. We need moral, social and economic regeneration in SA, yes. And to do this we need to abndon the historically established parties and start afresh – a new political party which enshrines the values of the new society it seeks to co-create with all the people of South Africa. A party whose bosses are not bosses, do not drive flash cars or live in numerous houses. A party which channels funds in the direction of most need and effect as opposed to into its own coffers or the pockets of some of its self serving individuals and a party which is committed to true empowerment – of its individual citizens, its society and its wonderful and potential filled country as a whole. Sound like a pipe dream, maybe but with the vision and commitment of its leaders completely within reach (or at least a good start towards a truely transformed society). Dream it – be it – see it!

  6. “a PREGNANT mother of four”

  7. Thank you for your article. The strength of a nation is dependant on the care of the most needy, most vunerable and most rejected. Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In building a new nation we need all people moving forward, empowered and set free! We did not come this far in our struggle to only liberate the rich and priviledged. We arrived at the junction because we sort to build a New South Africa for all, irrespective of colour, class or creed. A South Africa for all to enjoy and be proud of. Let’s not throw away our dreams and ideals on which so many people had laid their lives, for a few extra pennies in our pockets. Instead let us throw off any entrapments of old apartheid thinking of supremacy, entitlement and priviledge and gouge out anything that hinders us from showing compassion, kindness and love. Let us not tinker with compassion to the needy instead let us be overwhelming generous to the millions that lie poverty stricken on our very doorsteps…. and even across the world. For in doing so we are responding to a plea from God, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward him for what he has done.” Proverbs 19:17.

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