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