The Guardian, Sunday 21 October 2012
Both in Britain and South Africa, the marginalised need constructive ways to articulate their anger.
The riots that gripped British cities in August 2011 were a graphic manifestation of the most disturbing global trend of our time: the growing gap between rich and poor, between the powerful and powerless, between those with unfettered dreams and hopes and those forced to focus on mere survival.
Over the last 50 years the powerful have tightened their grip on – and their influence over – the political and economic levers of control. They have grown ever richer and more exploitative at tremendous cost to the powerless and the earthly environment we share.
The powerless have been increasingly alienated from decision-making. They have been asked to accept relatively modest lifestyles for themselves while tolerating extreme and obscene consumption by their more fortunate brothers and sisters on the other side of the fence.
The 2011 riots laid bare the truth that few human problems are more pressing than halting the slide of young people into absolute disaffection. Have we stopped to understand the factors that drove some young people to go out and riot and loot, while others of similar background – and facing similar predicaments – did not?
Yes, boredom may have played a part, and the global descent into consumerism, and the economic recession. But these riots did not explicitly echo the common protest themes of human rights, equality and justice. And the violence and looting that took place did not seem to be perpetrated by any identifiable or organised group, with any particular goals besides personal enrichment and breaking societal rules.
This situation is not unique to the UK; it is the global trend. At home, in South Africa, we are experiencing a spate of popular protests – termed “service delivery protests” – many of them characterised by violence, looting and the destruction of property. Eighteen years since the demise of apartheid, people rightly feel it is unfair for them to accept their marginalisation forever. Different countries, different contexts; similar causes and outcomes.
We need to create space for people to speak to, and listen to, one another. We need to address the factors that divide us before the divisions overwhelm us and tip us into the abyss. Bridging the gaps of understanding between and within our communities will not come from throwing up our hands in dismay and saying it’s so complicated and far-fetched that it must be impossible.
No. If we abandon our hope that we can build a world in which all people feel dignified, in which all feel they have a role to play and that their contribution is valued, then we are abandoning our faith in humanity.
For no matter where we come from or where we live, whether we drive the latest Mercedes or ride the rustiest old bicycle, the simple truth is that we need each other to ensure the survival of our species. We are members of one family, God’s family, and we were made for goodness, not for greed. We were made to share, not to hoard. We were made to respect one another and our world.
In Britain this week I will participate in an important conversation to examine the causes and effects of the 2011 riots, bringing together people of all ages and backgrounds to articulate their needs and those of their communities.
The inter-generational character of the conversation – marrying the tremendous energy and power of young people to the knowledge and wisdom of adults – is fundamentally important.
Conversation for Change is a key programme of the Tutu Foundation UK. We don’t expect to turn things around overnight but recognise the importance of affording people a sense of hope – in themselves, in each other and in their communities.
Those who are marginalised from power need constructive mechanisms to articulate their anger and concerns to those who have power and resources.
All over the world, including in Britain and South Africa, people feel unable to participate fully in their communities. Indeed, many feel that outside of election periods, nobody really cares.
This is not an incurable malaise. Fixing it requires caring and responsive governments to create environments in which unemployment can be reduced, education, healthcare and housing can be improved and cross-cultural understanding can take root.
It requires citizens who are active participants in determining their personal and community destinies. It requires societies that understand that failing to act to narrow the disparities in the qualities and expectations of peoples’ lives threatens our very existence.