The struggles of ‘the poors’ have exposed the limitations of the traditional language and forces of resistance – ‘the people’, ‘the patriotic bourgeoisie’, ‘the all-knowing father of the nation’, ‘the vanguard’ – as next to worthless…
With these words at a conference in Johannesburg in 2005, Ashwin Desai summed up the state, then, of the ongoing struggle of marginalised South Africans (whom he describes evocatively as ‘the poors’). It is as true now as then – and the sense of urgency has become greater: in today’s Gospel (Luke 16:19-31) we are reminded of the judgment of Lazarus (‘the poors’) upon Dives (complacent middle-class South Africa).
A few days ago I raised the question of inequality in South Africa as an ongoing theme of the last twenty-five years. In our country at the moment there is palpable anger among the populous resulting from the failure of service delivery, especially from Eskom. This anger is shared by those who voted for the ANC in the last election; this year, who knows who they’ll vote for, or if they will bother to vote at all. The elite few might find in this occasion an opportunity to be in solidarity with the many who are poor as they realise what the daily reality of the ‘poors’ is like. Can we all create a situation where there is efficient delivery of services, especially to the poor?
It remains to be seen whether the Economic Freedom Fighters will become the party of choice of the poors. It remains to be seen whether the EFF will become (whatever one thinks of the viability of their policies) the new party of the Left – or whether, like other splinter factions from the ANC, they will simply represent the interests of themselves: marginal, discredited or just comrades out of favour with Luthuli House.
But what the ‘poors’ symbolise in themselves, with or without party political representation, is a reminder to South Africans: our Lazarus is still poor. Lazarus is still ignored, despite decades of ‘pro-poor’ rhetoric. Since 1994 there has been an embarrassingly cynical realignment of elites, with old enemies suddenly finding after decades of conflict that the (financial) ties that bind them are greater than previous animosities. But Lazarus has been left out.
And to make matters worse, the very things that could have helped the poor – education, public health, infrastructural improvement – were allowed to stagnate or decay. Tax monies, that could have been used to raise the standard of living and give people the opportunity to improve themselves and their communities, were squandered away on useless military contracts, on home improvements for politicians, or disappeared into the ever-widening cesspool of corruption.
Jesus in today’s Gospel is clear: the rich man had a moral obligation to help Lazarus. In failing even to notice him, in failing to care, the rich man damned himself and his equally blind descendants. If we in South Africa fail to notice and simply don’t bother about the poors, if we who have influence (and that in a democracy is anyone with a vote) don’t look to Lazarus at our gate, we should not complain when things explode.