“He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself.”
– John Steinbeck, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’
First published in 1939, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath chronicled the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s Great Depression by telling the story of a family from Oklahoma, driven from their land and forced to head West in search of a better life. Taken from a particularly moving chapter, the above excerpt highlights the complete disillusionment at the root of the problem, namely, the disconnection of those pulling the strings to those that have lived and worked the land for generations – a world void of accountability: “We’re sorry, it’s not us” explains the man on the iron seat, preparing to drive his tractor through their house, “It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man… The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.”
From India and Bangladesh to South Africa and the DRC, the tale of displacement seems to follow a similar narrative – the indigenous peoples must be moved out in the name of development, following the global demand for natural resources. But, and here is the crux I find so eloquently handled in Steinbeck’s novel, just where is this demand coming from, and what does this monster look like?
I’m on my way to see ‘What’s The Matter?’ a group exhibition in Cape Town’s CBD. I am being ushered along by people milling about in the streets, some talking hurriedly on their phones, others clustered together, swilling beer from plastic cups. Just before I step out of the street and into the gallery space, I pass an open roof car (the game viewing type) boasting their own masquerade of people in an odd mix of sporting attire and industrial gear. All eyes are on them as an elderly man appears out of nowhere, asking if I have any spare change. “Sorry, I know it’s not much” I admit, handing him the few coins I’ve managed to forage before slipping into the gallery, feeling remarkably uncomfortable by this spectacle of indifference. “It’s the monster,” I tell myself, “Nothing you can do…”