Inequality and culture: The two key fault lines in our world

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A decade and a half ago, I wrote a play – Brothers in blood – that explored the themes of prejudice and ignorance against the backdrop of the tensions that emerged between the three Abrahamic faiths during the late nineties, when People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD) was active in the city of Cape Town.

PAGAD was led mainly by Muslim men, and their initial campaign against drugs began to extend to other areas, such as manifestations of perceived American imperialism, for example the pipe bombs planted at Planet Hollywood and at gay bars in Green Point. The violence associated with some of their activities and their rhetoric intimidated people of other Abrahamic faiths: Jews and Christians who supported the Jews as God’s chosen people and thus their claim on Israel. Cape Town was tense, and the pages of newspapers at the time were filled with letters to the editor and opinion pieces expressing vitriol and anger toward “the other”.

The Cape Times and City of Cape Town initiated the One City, Many Cultures Festival as a way of building bridges between the various religious communities and people who had different belief and value systems rooted in their religious beliefs or cultural upbringing. I served as the coordinator of the first festival, and that experience resulted in Brothers in blood a few years later.

When I mentioned to people that I was doing a play about Jews, Muslims and Christians, they sucked in their breath and shook their heads as if this were a taboo subject that should not be mentioned in public, like Voldemort – he who must not be named – in the Harry Potter series.

The play featured four fathers, all motivated by the same desire: to do their best for their respective families. In doing so, they come into conflict with each other because of their ignorance about each other, and because of prejudices and stereotypes built up over long periods of alienation and impressions gleaned from the media, rather than direct relationships.

One of the characters, a school principal on the Cape Flats who abides by the Islam faith, drives up and down a road in search of a house that is on sale. It is located in the area where he, his siblings and his parents once lived, but from which they were forcibly removed under apartheid’s Group Areas Act, as it had then been declared a “white group area”. Now that he is able to return many decades later, he is effectively “arrested” by a Jewish father who is protecting the Jewish preschool in that road, given the apparent threat posed by PAGAD. An area where mainly Muslim families once lived is now a predominantly Jewish area (decades ago, before the Group Areas Act was applied, it was a mixed neighbourhood).

Although the play is set in Cape Town, it obviously resonates with the forced removal of Palestinians from their land to make way for Jews after the holocaust of the Second World War, the consequences of which are playing themselves out on our televisions and on social media right now. Again.

Artists in Palestine have called on their global counterparts to take action in helping to stop the atrocities being committed against Palestinians. In a statement being circulated widely, they state:

We, Palestinian artists and arts organisations, strongly condemn the massacres perpetrated by the Israeli army against innocent civilians in Gaza. Israel intentionally targets inhabited private homes with its bombs, killing and injuring hundreds of children, women and men. This targeting is a blatant war crime, for which Israel should be held accountable.

We also condemn the Israeli authority’s attempts throughout the holy month of Ramadan to ban worshipers from the most sacred of their shrines, the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Moslems were deliberately shot at and tear-gassed while praying. The same attempts happened against Christians while struggling to reach the Holy Sepulchre to take part in the mass and celebrations of Easter ….

The statement goes on to call on artists to use their capacity to raise awareness to bring what is happening in Palestine to the attention of the world. They have also re-emphasised the call for a cultural boycott of Israel, in the same way as apartheid South Africa was subjected to a cultural and sports boycott.

Israel, though, has the massive economic, political and military support of the USA and of Europe, unlike apartheid South Africa, so that the call for action against Israel by the Palestinian artists will have, at best, symbolic value.

For our world is structurally and fundamentally divided by inequality: economic inequality, political inequality, military inequality and cultural inequality, ie who has the means to project their values, perspectives and beliefs globally, and who does not. It is no coincidence that Israel bombed the building housing international media agencies in Gaza.

And all of this is textured in no insignificant way by the cultural fault line; by the different value and belief systems, traditions, histories and identities that shape and impact the social, economic and political structures we create; and by our personal and collective behaviours.

It is only when we address both the structural inequalities and the related cultural differences that we will have a chance at sustainable peace and co-existence.

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