The protest against Pretoria Girls High hair policy was a tacit indicator that South Africans are no longer prepared to remain docile in the face of discrimination and prejudice. This story sparked a social media storm with many South Africans rallying under the hashtag ‘Stop Racism At Pretoria Girls High.’ The story itself eclipsed everything else that was happening in the country and proved once again that stories covering race-related issues will always remain popular.
Sadly, it also showed that distancing ourselves from our racially divided past will be more difficult than we imagined. And so as we limp along to build a cohesive nation, we find ourselves easily tripped by incidences such as those at Pretoria Girls High.
We keep thinking that apartheid is dead and buried, but it continues to rule from the grave. In fact, in the aftermath of the hair saga, apartheid became the knot that ties black South Africans together. From Pretoria to Port Elizabeth they delivered a message that they are tired of pandering to whiteness and its notion of beauty.
This story touched a particular nerve with the country’s black middle-class. But it is a pity then that the 3 000 under-age girls who were recently found to have been impregnated by older men could not be accommodated in their bond of solidarity.
The story of these girls broke around the same time as the one at Pretoria Girls High, but it hardly gained traction. Many of these girls were forced out of school into early motherhood, with the youngest reported to be about 12 years old. But unfortunately their story did not have social appeal.
The contrasting manner South Africans responded to the plight of these groups of girls made me realise that sympathy is context-dependent. Certain conditions have to be met for people to feel empathy for others.
For instance, there has to be spatial and social proximity. Spatial proximity is when people exist in close geographical space. People in that context are more likely to feel empathy towards each other.
Social proximity follows a similar pattern. It happens when members of certain groups favour people who are members of groups similar to their own. In other words, there is a ‘nearness’ or proximity factor.
This means that the further people are from us (whether racially, geographically or economically) the less likely we are to feel empathy with them. And so in relation to the country’s black middle-class, the girls from the North West were a distance away.
Empathy itself is “fellow-feeling” or the reaction to the distress or need of another life form. However this feeling is only experienced when attention is given to that person in need.
And so the lack of attention or distraction severely limits the ability to feel empathy towards someone. Out of sight and therefore out of mind, as they say. The North West girls are from villages in Ratlou Municipality, which has a population of about 100 000 people.
Pictures of their distressing situation did not trend online, as was the case with the girls from the country’s capital city. I took to Facebook to challenge users about this selective expression of empathy and solidarity.
My labour was sadly in vain because many felt that I was creating an unnecessary distraction. They felt that addressing racism at Pretoria Girls High is more of a pressing issue.
And yet to me, the social conditions of the girls at North West show that apartheid’s storm had also touched down on their little villages. In fact, it is these conditions, characterised by poverty and underprivilege, that has increased their vulnerability to sexual predators.
As a Christian, I cannot help but feel torn by this. I know that on one hand, it is important to confront racism and rid our country of its lingering stench. And yet I cannot have a heart that beats stronger around issues of racism than it does about other issues. Justice to God has no colour, and it has no class. But in South Africa it unfortunately does.