It’s not everyday that you see the TV show Desperate Housewives and African-American writer James Baldwin cited in the same piece—and in the South African press to boot.
The young white blogger Jason Hickel invoked both in his hotly debated editorial, “Rich, White and Crazy,” about widespread neurosis gripping the wealthy white suburbs of Johannesburg.
Hickel visited Pretoria East, a neighborhood of three-story homes with terraced gardens, columns and fountains. But what struck Hickel the most was how “the place was choc-a-bloc with therapy outlets. Psychotherapy, play therapy, thermotherapy, magnet therapy . . .”
The setting is familiar to American audiences, and Hickel compares the environs to the dystopian suburbs portrayed in American Beauty, as well as Desperate Housewives. “The only difference,” he writes, “is in the South African version of this tale the houses are hedged about with electric fences, alarm beams, guard towers and burglar bars instead of white picket fences.”
And, he notes, in a majority-black country, the only blacks in sight are service workers tending to the gardens and the children.
The context is important here. South Africa is one of the most crime-ridden countries in the world. But Hickel argues that the fear, the crime and the widespread neurosis are all symptoms of a larger problem.
Hickel notes that the black service workers in Pretoria East don’t earn enough to pay the rent and electricity, much less pull themselves out of poverty. And this fact, Hickel suggests in his piece for the Mail and Guardian’s op ed page, subconsciously troubles the wealthy whites. And here is where Baldwin comes in. Hickel cites this observation made by the American author: “It’s a terrible, an inexorable, law, that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminishing one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.”
The rest of this fascinating column is below. Make sure to read some of the more than 70 reactions to the piece. Most thank Hickel, but there is also the comment that says Hickel ignores “the herd of elephants in the corner of the room: the gardener, who gets R100 a day, has five children. People continue breed themselves into poverty and then blame those who do not.”