Community engagement or communal entitlement?

He is the hero we need but not the hero we deserve right now”- the famous line from the acclaimed movie, The Dark Knight, describes a flawed hero swooping in to rescue a city from itself. Though Batman wears a black cape, he is a typical representation of white privilege and ego. The man, Harvey Dent, who comes undone in his attempts to combat evil, is a product of our selfish natures that breaks anything good or real in this world. However, this is not a movie filled with good intentions and happy endings. Communities do not require saving by a lone wolf with a heart of gold, they need targeted and constructive engagement that has sustainable long-term effects.

UCKAR, the city of Grahamstown, and the people making up this municipality exist within a context. We are in the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest spaces in terms of service delivery and infrastructure development in the country. Almost half a million households in the province reported to having run out of money for food in a month to Stats SA last year. The inequality in Grahamstown rises in the East and glares at the affluence of Grahamstown West or ‘White’ daily. I say Grahamstown ‘White’ because this is all a legacy of Apartheid. Yes, the ‘A’ word over which most of South African middle-class white people have a collective amnesia. We claim restoration, reformation and reconciliation when it suits us but keep our property and privilege without historical recognition. You didn’t work for it nearly as hard as you think you did. You can suffer and still not know the systematic destruction of your person if you are white.

While we refuse to acknowledge privilege, we often refuse to listen to the disenfranchised – this is when the white saviour complex approach to charity and community upliftment comes into play. The white saviour narrative, like Batman, is a popular “cinematic trope portraying a white character saving people of colour from their plight”, according to Wikipedia.  Through personal sacrifice and hardship, the white saviour – who knows best and has suffered much in their own past – redeems the morality of the poor community of colour, restoring them to a life of ease and happiness. Some singing in local dialect and traditional dancing at their feet is usually displayed in absolute gratitude for their intervention.  Did he ask if they needed the 10 tonnes of polyester blankets that cost more than a month’s worth of electricity for a household of eight living on one disability grant, or do they actually need assistance with getting in touch with the local municipality about their housing application? Is there a problem with dumping, and instead you build walls to keep people out rather than build recycling depots that create long-term employment?  The white saviour doesn’t ask because bureaucracy is boring and doesn’t make for nice short newsreel videos and instant recognition. Working with, not for, a community doesn’t get you a rent-a-crowd of grateful locals.

Working with communities to stage necessary and lasting symbiotic relationships is called community engagement. Going into communities and ripping things up or knocking them over is a one-man crusade. Further, what is problematic about these kinds of interventions is when those bestowed upon are not grateful for misplaced and entitled ‘help’, they are perceived as lazy and problematic. The most important part of listening to communities is not just seeing what they need, but hearing them when they tell you what they don’t need. One white man cannot tell womxn that they don’t understand and are wrong when asking to be taken into account on problematic interventions on their behalf.

The UCKAR community engagement office is located on Prince Alfred Street. Masifunde is located on Bathurst Street by the Observatory museum. These groups have been continuously and thoughtfully engaging with the Makana community for years, making lasting partnerships for change. Ask them what you can do to help. Stay engaged to criticism, your privilege, and learn to listen to what people are actually asking for when they ask for help.

Put the cape away crusader. We don’t deserve or need that kind of hero.


Words by Julia Fish

In response to Michael Wynn’s objection to the above article, a meeting was held with the Oppidan Press editors and the following statement was agreed upon:

As the current Editor-in-Chief of The Oppidan Press, I would like to acknowledge and speak to the issues that have been raised concerning the article titled “Community engagement or community entitlement”, published in our second edition of this year.

As journalists and as students, the reporters of The Oppidan Press are constantly learning about the world around us. We are constantly learning how to function and act as mature adults in an ever-growing and ever-changing global society. Grahamstown is a small town. With small towns come small communities, and with small communities come even trickier roads to navigate as young journalists.

When the article was presented to me, I looked at it through the purview of strict objectivity and media law. I thought it addressed an important issue dealing with community engagement in Grahamstown, I failed however, to look beyond the theories of my journalism textbook in order to see the larger picture. The intention of the article was not to cause harm of any kind, but to raise issues. But in making the decision to publish, the intended interest and concern of our Grahamstown community was lost.

Studying at UCKAR forces one to become constantly aware and critical of your surroundings. Topics like race, class, socioeconomic inequality, and transformation are perpetually brought up in classrooms. We learn an academic discourse which tends to provoke a critical attitude rather than develop fruitful relationships.

The article intended to raise important ideas about the ways that residents in a small town engage with a very complex and precarious community, but complicated its effectiveness to do so by using the name and character of “Batman”, a name that has become synonymous with Michael Wynne. Since the publication of the article, Mr Wynne’s reputation has been affected. I have met with Mr Wynne along with The Oppidan Press’ Deputy Editor and ombudsperson in order to listen, recognise, and resolve his concerns about the impacts of the article. We have resolved these issues and recognised and acknowledged Mr Wynne’s feelings and point of view. As the Oppidan Press leadership we regret the hurt caused.

I would like to ensure students, staff, and community members that it is my full intention to foster positive and mutually beneficial relationships between the community and this organisation as a means to benefit our readership and our community. UCKAR and Grahamstown have seen struggle, violence, and hopelessness over the past several years. My job as a journalist is not to exacerbate those issues, but to create thought provoking and enriching content with strong intentions to progress and resolve.

Since my time as Editor, The Oppidan Press has worked to create a Community page in each of our editions. This page is managed by our Community Curator, who works with local organisations to assure that the page is filled with content by and for our Grahamstown community. Building off this page, I look forward to bettering The Oppidan Press’ relationships with the Grahamstown Residents Association as well as the Grahamstown Business Forum and other local organisations. In this regard, I would like to issue a public call for all interested organisations and businesses to send me an email so that we can work together.

In light of all of this, I will admit that I have encountered difficult decisions as Editor, but I have become a better journalist and leader as a result. I look forward to more positive relationships with the Grahamstown community as well as UCKAR students and staff. I implore our readers to communicate any concerns with us as a means to create more positive spaces for community members, and more positive journalism.

In sincerity,
Kathryn E. Cleary

12 May 2017