Mercy & Justice: Whose debate is this anyway?

South Africa’s ongoing journey has been described by many as being similar to the wilderness in the Israelite’s exodus experience. In reflecting on this parallel, Alan Storey argues that, in the South African wilderness experience, the Egyptians (white people) crossed over the Sea of Reeds with the Israelites (the oppressed black people) and that, in this continued journey through the wilderness, the Egyptians did not lose their enslaving ways and thus the Israelites remain slaves in the wilderness. In the original story, the Israelites’ walk in the wilderness represented a break and rupture from Egypt and the Eygptian way of life and provided for an imagination for the future.  This journey in the Israelites’ consciousness was not without challenges: the stronghold of their Egyptian masters continued to find expression within their own community in the wilderness through tendencies such as hoarding, idolatry and lack of faith. The imagery in the South African narrative of both the Israelites and Egyptians finding their way in the wilderness gives these challenges new dynamics and provides a complex commentary on South Africa’s socio-political economic reality. 

The parallels between the context within which black people live can be drawn between both the Israelite-Egyptian experience as well as the Israelite’s 40-year wilderness experience. The black experience in South Africa is what Rene August defines as slavery: “Slaves being people who are measured by what they produce”. This reality is made visible by the very location of black people: in the townships outside the city but commuting every week day to serve in the city, in restaurants (waiters and waitresses), petrol stations (petrol attendants) and other places such as these. In Egypt there was no separation between a slave and an Israelite, just as in South Africa there is no separation between a black person and a labourer (an exploitable, disposable being). The township, which is situated outside of the city as an unwanted space, serves the city in that it reserves for the city the cheap labour that the city needs in order for the city to be the way it is. This is the reality that we witness, in that Stellenbosch is nothing without a Khayamnandi in as much as Cape Town city is nothing without a Langa Township and Sandton is nothing without an Alexandra. However, this unexplainable reality of fungibility of black labourers in the township is what has led to the cleaners of the City of Cape Town living in littered Khayelitsha and to the security guards of the secured N1-City living in the dangerous Dunoon Township. 

I would like to propose that, in the exodus of the Israelites from slavery to freedom, both mercy and justice were necessary. This idea of the necessity of justice and mercy comes from the idea that God gave the law and commandments to the Israelites to conscientise them, but also gave manna to fill their stomachs. Also, in order for slavery to come to an end, and for Israel to no longer be vulnerable to the Egyptian’s enslavement, some form of justice had to be enforced, either by God through Moses or by the Israelites themselves under the leadership of Moses. This was necessary because neither Pharoah nor the Egyptians were willing to simply “Let God’s people go” – just as we know that the oppressors in South Africa were not willing to simply let black people have their complete freedom. Hence some form of justice needed to be enforced (and we might have missed this opportunity as South Africa). In order for the ‘playing ground’ to be levelled, justice is necessary. In order for mercy to be authentic, all must be equal. Mercy in an unequal society where the oppressor remains in power is the continuation of the oppression termed differently. 

Thus I would like to critique the liberal idea of “giving people the tools to fish instead of giving fish”.  An unequal society makes it necessary for some to be in a position to “give” while others continue to receive. If we are to engage with the South African reality with honesty, we must admit that the above statement is as a result of the failure to insist on justice in the last days of apartheid, and this means that black people/labourers remain in the same position they were during apartheid, ie. living in squalor, fear and poverty. Those that are in power to decide whether or not it is okay to give one fish instead of fishing equipment, do so while failing to acknowledge the truth that their power is made possible by the continuation of an oppressive status quo. As a consequence of this status quo, in many instances, even if people were to be given fishing equipment, the system is skewed such that they do not have access to the ocean, or the river where the fish are. So, while we try to imagine and build towards a more just and inclusive society where everyone has ownership of the City and the economy, it might be necessary to give fish to the ones who are hungry now, rather than imaginary equality and imaginary equal access to resources. 

When Jesus was in the wilderness with the multitudes, Jesus fed the multitudes and I think this idea of whether a fish or equipment was better was the same argument that the disciples made: urging Jesus to drive people away with hungry stomachs. Jesus responded to the need of the hungry: he did not ask whether his response was charity (mercy) or his response was justice. I wonder if the people who were fed by Jesus had the time to ask whether Jesus was giving them justice or charity? 

Last year’s hard lockdowns saw many people in South Africa losing their income and, by extension, their bread. This reality led to many people having to depend on soup kitchens.  The people who were beneficiaries of these soup kitchens, many of which are still in existence to this day, do not ask if these are charity or justice. This leads me to the question: whose debate is this anyway? This “charity or justice?” debate is not a debate from below.

The development agenda in Afrika has dismally failed in terms of practically dealing with the challenges of Afrika and this is because the very questions that are asked in these spaces are not the questions that the conditions of Afrika ask. This charity or justice debate is a bourgeois debate that has added nothing in terms of changing the general experience of the Afrikan people. The long queues of old and young people waiting to be served in all the townships’ soup kitchens is a condemnation of this justice and charity debate. The black prayer that says “give us this day our daily bread” is a condemnation of this debate that whilst the developmental practitioners are debating charity or justice, people are dying of hunger. It needs to be stated that though poverty is as a result of injustice, the hungry, when they receive food, never ask whether this is justice or charity. Giving hungry people food is not charity nor justice: it is food and that is how it is received by the hungry people. Therefore a response to the hungry people is an answered prayer of “give us this day our daily bread”.    

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