In a different class

Protesters march against racism in Cape Town earlier this year. South Africas education system needs to be transformed from one that reproduces racism to one that works as a powerful force against it, says the writer. Picture: Michael Walker

I am one of those people who believe that true knowledge comes from observation and not (only) from thinking. Once I had a curious experience in a lift at work and which involved colleagues of mine. On this particular day, I took the lift down to the ground floor. As I entered, there was one of the cleaners of African origin already in the lift and I greeted her cordially.  Shortly thereafter, we stopped at another level and a white woman in her late fifties stepped into the lift. She greeted me (who is also of European descent) and ignored the cleaner.

My first thought was that this was pure racism and I was very uncomfortable about it. We reached the ground floor and the three of us got out. The white woman walked off and I walked shortly behind her. We had scarcely walked a few steps when another woman (from African descent) walked into the arms of the white woman. They greeted each other as if they were long lost sisters, but the difference between this black woman and the cleaner was one of class. The African ‘friend’ of the white woman was well dressed and one could see that she was of higher class than the cleaner was.

Like so many South Africans – white or black – at first, I have been so blindsided by the issues of racism that I missed another form of discrimination: class. What I witnessed on that day was a clear-cut case of classism, but few people in South Africa seem to be alive to the way in which class can be a cause for discrimination. However, let us be clear, classism belittles and prejudices people in the same manner and to the same degree as racism and sexism do. It is not a lesser form of discrimination.

I believe class is so insidious therefore; South African society never notices it and even less adequately addresses it. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines classism as:  Discrimination on grounds of social class. Although the definition implies that any person can be a victim of classism, in reality, classism usually happens in the form of discrimination from the higher classes towards the lower classes.

Just as racism and sexism, it is not only bitterly unfair, it is also deeply hurtful. I could see the hurt on the cleaner’s face when the middleclass woman did not greet her. It was a painful snub. Therefore, it is not only a matter of philosophy or ideology; it is a matter of humanity. The victims of classism are flesh and blood human beings with feelings. Classism is also a dignity matter and, as we are all hopefully aware, every person, no matter his/her social status is entitled to be treated with dignity. This is a right guaranteed by section 10 of our Constitution.

Coming from the Afrikaner community, I have personally witnessed classism amongst whites. Conservative and racist Afrikaners would have no qualms about entertaining African-Americans at their houses, but would never imagine forming friendships with fellow Afrikaners who are of a lower socio-economic (and status) class. Even today, disparaging jokes about white people living in lower class areas such as Brakpan abound. The inhumanness of these jokes make my hair stand on end. Not only is it an injustice, it is also personal to me: my wife and her family come from a lower class family.

However, never think for a moment that classism is only a white phenomenon; you are mistaken. Because you see it amongst black people too. I cringe when I observe how my black (middleclass) colleagues and friends treat lower class black people! I would have thought that as people who were previously oppressed they would be more alive to discrimination, but it seems that being initiated into the middleclass make people lose all their moral sensibilities.

In addition, of course, capitalism is notorious for dividing people (including workers) into different classes, with the underclasses enduring the most of economic exploitation. Once you are part of the moneyed classes, you move up in the food chain. And, no small number of middle class people develop a mistaken superiority complex. Whether socialism or social democracy will cure this situation might be open for debate, but it is a non-negotiable that classism cannot form part of a humane society any more than racism or sexism can.

This begs the questions as to why; classism being an affront to human dignity is not combatted with the same vigour as racism and sexism. I believe part of the answer is that our society has not been properly sensitised to its existence and prevalence. At this stage, the cure for classism would begin by naming and shaming it. One would have thought that organized labour espousing the ideals of a classlessness (and by implication, classism-less) would have taken up the issue long time ago.

Nonetheless, until classism receives the necessary attention, you and I do not need to perpetrate it ourselves. As Gandhi once said: “Be the change you would like to see in the world”. Always be vigilant that you yourself are not classist, speak about it where you can and encourage others to do the same. Even if we may never become a class-less society, at least we can become a classist-less society.

Martin Labuschagne is employed at Unisa and a member of the Unisa Progressive People’s Forum. He is writing in his personal capacity.