Talk Series V3. The black elite, are these the new oppressors? (Part 1)


We recently hosted our third volume of talk series Johannesburg. Below we delve into some of the discussion points that came through on the night. If you missed our first two volumes or need a refresher on who we are and what we do as the #talkseriesJHB team, you can read more about us here: TalkSeries V.1 and TalkSeries V2. You can also expect a few more posts on this topic as we had some really good discourse on this. 

The topic of discussion for volume three was; the black elite, are these the new oppressors? 

Oppression: prolonged cruel or unjust treatment or exercise of authority. The experience of repeated, widespread, systemic injustice. 

Oppression need not be extreme and involve the legal system (as in slavery, apartheid, or the lack of right to vote) nor violent (as in tyrannical societies). The term "civilized oppression” is used to characterize the everyday processes of oppression in normal life.[1] Civilized oppression "is embedded in unquestioned norms, habits, and symbols, in the assumptions underlying institutions and rules, and the collective consequences of following those rules. It refers to the vast and deep injustices some groups suffer as a consequence of often unconscious assumptions and reactions of well-meaning people in ordinary interactions which are supported by the media and cultural stereotypes as well as by the structural features of bureaucratic hierarchies and market mechanisms.”- Beyond Intractability

There is no question that large groups of our society are currently being oppressed. What is perhaps less clear, is who is doing the “oppressing”. 

We live in a world of extreme inequality, this much is obvious. The system is flawed and dysfunctional, that much is also obvious. These facts make it crucial for us to question how we do things. They make it crucial to find alternatives to our current ways of living. 

At the heart of the third volume of talk series, we wanted to question and explore a specific type of oppression which we feel is not discussed enough. We wanted to speak about whether the black elite, particularly in South Africa, have a hand in economical, psychological and emotional oppression over our people. 

At the core of this topic for me, was trying to figure out the many ways in which my actions, conscious or not and however direct or indirect, were contributing to a society that perpetuates a reality where 14 million South Africans go to bed hungry every night, more than 7000 are homeless and a greater majority live in shacks, squatter camps and colonial ‘townships’. 

The first place to start was with the definition of ‘elitism”, trying to find common ground that would allow us to understand who the elite are, what makes them elite and in what ways their actions are oppressive or not. From the discussion on Wednesday it became very clear that the lines of elitism aren’t as clear cut. As one guest described it; ‘I often ask myself where I belong as I am too rich for NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) but too poor for a bank loan”. Economic elitism is the notion that there are gatekeepers who ‘let people in”. The gates open or close based on how they can serve the system which is fuelled by white supremacy. Some questions around describing the elite included:

  1. Are they the millionaires who have enriched themselves on the back of overworked and underpaid workers?
  2. Are they the entrepreneurs and tenderpreneurs who have benefited from BEE?
  3. Do they include any black South African with access to a certain level of comfort? If that is the case how do you measure this? Are we talking income or are we talking wealth?

Questioning who the elite are in relation to oppression is important because if speaks to power. One cannot oppress without power, economic elitism and privilege affords that power. 

With respect to why we chose this topic, which is somewhat accusatory, there is also the question of whether black people, elite or not, can ever self actualise. When will black people just have the opportunity to do and be whatever they want? At the heart of this question is the realisation that perhaps privilege when accepted unquestioned will result in perpetuation of a broken system and ultimately make one an agent of oppression. My personal take on this is that absolutely, black people should not be policed with regards to how they live their lives and spend their money but in a world where children are literally dying of hunger, hopeless teenagers are forced into suicide and groups of people are denied basic human rights, self actualisation feels more like a privilege than a right. 

Okay, so we speak a lot about the “system” but for some overthrowing this system sounds a bit too “revolutionary”. This then raises the question of whether the elite can effect change from within the system. Some believe that there are ways in which we can find solutions within the current systems of education, health, financial sector, city planning etc to ensure that the black majority can rise out of poverty. The other camp advocates more for the reconstruction of these systems all together, as one guest put it; “the system is dysfunctional and any black person who operates within that system is also dysfunctional”. The urgency here is that you cannot continue to stick plasters to treat cancer. 

My take from the discussion is that a lot of us who were afforded a "decent education", have jobs and earn a living wage are absolutely perpetuating the status quo. I believe that in many ways we are privileged and in securing that priviledge are allowing social ills to thrive.  

I believe that these discussion and debates are incredibly crucial as they represent the first step in understanding the world we live in, understanding how our relationship with that world and the status quo affects lives. They are important because they can hopefully push us to live more deliberate conscious lives. It’s only when we are conscious and deliberate that we can mobilise ourselves as powerful solutions to these institutional and systematic injustices. 

Please join us on the 3rd of August as we discuss: “Schools in South Africa - public, private or somewhere in between - and the impact on the psychology of our nation.” 

For more details find us on: 

Twitter: @talkseriesjhb