Blaming the Victim: South Africa & the U.S.

We are staying in a very nice part of Cape Town – a place called Tamboerskloof that is 98% white. It has nice shops, restaurants, and little crime compared to the rest of Cape Town.

The other day I was at one of Tamboerskloof’s nice little cafes, the Daily Deli, eating dinner. I overheard a man talking about the townships in Cape Town. The townships are the “ghettos” of Cape Town. Many colored and black people were forced to live in the townships during apartheid. They are cramped, have poor sanitation, and do not have enough schools or hospitals. Consequently, gangs and violence, especially gender-based violence, are common in the townships.

The new constitution, that was a result of the end of apartheid, includes a section that guarantees the fundamental human right of adequate housing. As a result, people who were displaced from their homes during apartheid and those with insufficient housing were put on a “housing wait list”. Some households have been waiting 20 years to get their housing.

So when I heard that man talking about the housing in townships, it immediately grabbed my attention. I knew some of the basics about the housing issue but I wanted to hear firsthand what Cape Town residents thought about it. To my surprise, his views were not sympathetic whatsoever. He was saying that he couldn’t believe that “these people” would choose to continue living in their cramped neighborhoods. The man added that if he had to live like that, he would kill his wife too (alluding to the high gender-based violence in the townships).

I was shocked that this white, upper-class man had the nerve, for lack of a better word, to blame the victim. Those living in townships are of no means to change their living arrangements on their own. They are waiting for their government to fix the situation that they were forced in to.

I didn’t say anything to this man. I didn’t think it appropriate that I explain this to him with my American accent, especially only having lived here for a month and a half. Maybe this man’s views are the norm for white, upper-class people. Maybe I thought it was so bizarre because my time in Cape Town has been completely based looking through “social justice goggles.”

This made me wonder about the type of comments one would hear at a café in a well-developed neighborhood in the US about racial and social class discrimination. One might hear the stereotype that the poor and homeless in the US are all drug addicts and lazy. Isn’t this judgment on par with the views of the man in the Daily Deli? What other judgments are normalized in America that blatantly blame the victim?

When I go back to the US in just a couple weeks I plan to be mindful to seek out these judgments. I don’t want them to be normalized to others or myself any longer. Among other souvenirs and memories, I’ll be sure to pack my newfound “social justice goggles” with me when I leave South Africa.

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