Judith Butler has begged this question in her writing. Whose lives are grievable? This quote immediately struck a chord with me when I read it. Of late, it has been stuck on repeat in my head. The recent xenophobic attacks resonated deeply with me. It had only been a few years prior that I’d dealt with the issue of xenophobia in my dissertation. The horror of it had overwhelmed me. This time around, many expressed their outrage against such attacks on Facebook*, and a march was organised in my city in protest against the violence. I felt hesitant. What did such things do to solve the genuine social inequality in this country that helped to foster such hatred?
When Munashe, our complex’s Zimbabwean groundskeeper, came to work that Tuesday, I became further unsettled. What if the xenophobic violence should spread? What if it came knocking on Munashe’s door? I gave him some dinner in a Tupperware and asked him to bring it with him next Tuesday. What if there was no ‘next Tuesday’? My boyfriend follows the news avidly and when he brought up more recent instances that evening, I began to sob. I was inconsolable.
A day later and the good people on my Facebook feed were consumed by another matter. This time it was the disappearance of a Port Elizabeth teacher, Jayde Panayiotou. The social network was flooded with smiling images of her. People were professing to pray for her safe return. A search party was organised and again, a march took place. I did not attend this march either. I can only assume that participants were protesting the upsurge of crime in South Africa. Surely, as middle-class South Africans, we had a right to feel safe, to feel protected against the violent crimes that so frequently afflict the poor and the homeless.
A few days later and the tone on Facebook had soured. People had begun to demand that the death penalty be instituted in this country so that Jayde’s tormentors might know the full wrath of the people. I questioned this on people’s pages. Now I can be pretty naïve at the best of times, but even I don’t believe a pauper and a prince get the same legal representation. But so be… Later in the investigation, with certain evidence emerging, it became an interesting turn of events for me. The masses stopped baying for blood (in the literal sense) once the husband became implicated in Jayde’s murder and was to stand trial.
I felt unsettled with Jayde’s case too, but it was a different kind of unsettled. This time it was the general response to her disappearance and murder that didn’t sit comfortably with me. I remembered feeling unsettled in this way before, during the Pistorius trial. For months, the media inundated us with images of the beautiful and young Reeva, with accounts testifying to the spectacular human being that she had been… Nevermind the countless lives that were violently taken during the course of this trial…
We knew in this instance that Pistorius had shot multiple times through that bathroom door. He’d admitted as much. Yet we were not calling for his life in return for Reeva’s. Of course, some thought he was guilty as sin and said as much at dinner parties after a few drinks. But there was always the possibility that he had believed he was taking aim at a couple of nameless intruders in self-defence. In self-defence. There was a chance, then, that he did not mean to take the life of Reeva, a life that mattered so very much. There was a chance, then, that he had blindly aimed to take the life of someone who did not matter much. The life of a common thief, and not a saint. Sure, he’d been a little trigger-happy in the past, but perhaps we could forgive him this one small detail.
Do not mistake my words and think that I am without a heart in these matters. I imagine that it is a gut-wrenching thing to have your daughter taken from this world in the prime of her youth. We should indeed mourn a human life when it is so unfairly stolen. It is only that I wish to live in a world where the life of a Zimbabwean groundskeeper is considered equally. Were his life to be stolen one day, would we mourn him so too? And no, not simply as some unknown victim of a series of hate crimes sweeping the nation… I would want him mourned as an individual. I would want to see his smiling face on the front page of my local newspaper. I would want photos of how happy he had been plastered across a spread captioned by testimonials telling us what a wonderful man he’d been, celebrating his life and grieving our loss because he is no longer with us. Is this something we could all want?
No more do I want to live in a world where the deaths of some women dominate the front page headlines and the deaths of others are lucky if they cut it on page 6. This world I live in now unsettles me to my core. With every media frenzy, Judith Butler’s words haunt me. With every media frenzy, I fear for South Africa and its people. I think how very sad it is that some lives are so much more grievable than others. I ask myself, Is it race? Is it class? With the two so inextricably intertwined in this country, I find it hard to say for certain.
*It must be said that I attended a predominantly white high school. After school, most of the other students in my class at university were white. I have grown up amongst mostly white, middle-to-upper-middle-class individuals. As such, certain posts might appear on my Facebook news feed more than others. However, I hold the belief that the media should not feed off of these instances. Instead, I hope to trust that they will provide the public with the kind of journalism that emphasises the importance of all lives unfairly taken, and not simply those that will sell the most magazines or newspapers.