Monday, December 10, 2012

The racism of accepting the status quo

Democratic South Africa is nearly twenty years old, and the prosperous and peaceful rainbow nation we dreamed of has, as yet, failed to materialise. There are pockets where our dream has become a reality, but in general most black South Africans remain poor and marginalised and that makes a mockery of the South African dream.

At the launch of her new book a few weeks ago, Dr Mamphela Ramphele said something which suddenly brought clarity to the whole issue for me. She urged the audience to ask themselves why we are in this predicament of black poverty and exclusion. “When you ask yourself why, you are bound to confront the question: is it because black people are stupid and lazy?” she said.

The question is bluntly phrased, and for a very good reason. It helps us to cut through all the crap we tell ourselves to justify our lives. Dr Ramphele is right - there really are only two possible answers to that question:
  1. That we believe black people are stupid and lazy
  2. That we believe there is systemic exclusion of huge swathes of our society. 
Anything else is a candy-coated version of one of those two.

Dr Ramphele’s question made me realise that it is racist to accept the status quo. It is not just apathetic, or defeatist or apolitical. It is racist.

If you do not believe that black people are stupid and lazy, you must concede that the conditions many find themselves in are random. The lottery of birth dealt that hand, and it could just as easily have been thrust on you. 

It should make us feel sick because it means that there is an oppressive structure in South Africa; that we are part of a system that excludes, exploits and ignores people. And not just “people” in some vague, detached collective. Actual people exactly like you. They could be your mother, or your daughter or your uncle or your grandfather. And this is not some “Apartheid legacy” or “historical context” either – those terms are some of the more common candy coatings we find. This is the current structure of our society. This is the reality of our people today. It is the life that most South Africans wake up to.

It means that if we are not trying, every single day – in one way or another – to break down that social and economic exclusion, to free people from this oppressive system, then we are racist. Only a smug, deluded and racist sense that 'we' deserve to be where we and 'they' deserve to be where they are could possibly justify being able to live with the inequality in our society. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Twenty years of pointless blinkers

There have been so many events this year to prove that we have a long way to go in terms of social cohesion in this country. The Spear showed how easily cultural sensitivities can be both overlooked and inflamed, and the scuffle at Joburg Pride was a sad reminder of how little unity there is in the “gay community”. Worse than that, there seems to be very little knowledge of one another's lives and histories. Until a month ago, I had never even heard of Simon Nkoli.

The fall of western hegemony should have presented white South Africans with a beautiful opportunity to wake from the terrible spell we were under – the delusion that we are part of the western world – and to finally see what a rich, interesting and incredible melting pot we live in. Surely it’s time to wake up to our real context? (The lyrics to Binding by Florence and the Machine spring to mind: “no more dreaming like a girl so in love with the wrong world”)

The greatest regions in the world were built by diversity. New York celebrates its status as a global melting pot. Cities at the crossroads of diverse cultures are the most creative, the most innovative, the most interesting.

We are sitting on a cultural gold pot, South Africa, and yet we hate it. So many of us are still stuck in our old, dull, segregated comfort zones – almost 20 years after the fall of the system that put us in them. Heritage and culture are not genetic – so why do we continue to mindlessly reproduce them in segregated ways? The parts of South African culture that I love and am most proud of are certainly not the Anglophone lineage, from which I suppose I technically come. And isn’t it time we started constructing a composite South African culture with elements from all of them?

It breaks my heart that listening to Simphiwe Dana or Miriam Makeba or Thandiswa Mazwai is met with surprise. Why is it more cool to have some arb Australian “indie” band on your iPod? Why is it so hip to have a Peruvian restaurant in Cape Town, or even Ethiopian food now (it’s so trendy and African!) – but we don’t see umngqusho anywhere except cringey restaurants intended for tourists? What the hell is wrong with us that we idolise anything foreign and have no curiosity for the wonders of our fellow South Africans’ culture, music, food, traditions?

Why are we so scared to get to know one another and to celebrate one another? I’m so fucking bored of the idea that there is black music and white music, black culture and white culture, black drinks and white drinks. We live in one of the brightest, most incredible countries in the world, and yet we choose to pretend we're in a bland, monotonous one. Until, of course, foreigners come and make documentaries about us to tell us how interesting we are. When will we wake up?

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Between black and white

An edited version of this post, How whites can reconcile, appeared in City Press in July - you can view it here.

Many excellent pieces of introspection and reflection have been written recently, and it is about time. We haven’t done enough introspection to date in South Africa, and this is especially true among white people. We are a nation emerging from a mass tragedy – much like the Germans after World War II – and yet too few white South Africans have ever questioned their complicity in the atrocities committed, or how we can play a part in rebuilding our country.  Too many have just coasted along since 1994 and expected the country to ‘move on’, without realising how much we have to work on ourselves to build a new nation.

Being White in South Africa

I did not grow up feeling white. I don’t come from a particularly racialised home, nor were my parents political. My family all voted Progressive and my aunt was arrested once or twice for protesting against Apartheid when she was at Wits, but they were by no means a revolutionary family.

As soon as I could piece together what had happened in South Africa (I was ten in 1994) I became truly disgusted by white South Africa. I was angry that the older white people I knew had not been more active in opposing it, and I wanted no part of white society – and have, to this day, prickled with irritation if white people assume I share some sort of solidarity with them.

Luckily for me, it was the Golden Age of Mandela and South Africa was bursting with excitement. As a new nation, we were getting to know one another. I had black friends at school, and new realms of popular culture were opening up to me. I listened to Yfm and bought Miriam Makeba CDs. I felt proud of my country watching as every year there were more wealthy, successful black people in our malls and on our TVs.

Throughout my teenage years and early twenties the Rainbow Nation was fully real to me. I felt like “my culture” was a composite of the previously disparate cultures of SA – and “my people” was South Africans. There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – and if there was, it was between the young, integrated generation with which I identified and the older, conservative, divided racists.

It has only recently become clear to me just how much of my self-esteem derived from being accepted by black people. I needed that acceptance to give me a sense of belonging, to legitimise my identity as a proud citizen of a non-racial new South Africa. It was an acceptance that I felt among young people, but also an acceptance that I took for granted.

And recently, I feel like that acceptance is being withdrawn. South Africa, more and more, wants to define me as white.

Here is why: not enough white South Africans have put in the work required. Not enough white people have genuinely committed themselves to this new nation of ours or grasped just how different it needs to be from where we come from. Too many seem to think the change has already happened; that the political transition is over, so can’t everyone just get on with things? They feel the pressure is off, when in fact the pressure is only now starting to build.

Here is the thing that white people need to understand: Apartheid was that bad. It was a ruthless, evil, cold and dehumanising system of structural oppression, deprivation and violence. People were tortured, people lost their homes, people had their salaries capped at near starvation levels and people were subjected to an education system designed to enslave them.

It was not, as FW de Klerk is so fond of saying, just a failed experiment in separate development. That was never the intention and it blows my mind that anyone can buy into that hogwash.

It will take decades to recover from Apartheid and get to a point where every child has equal opportunities in South Africa. The status quo is still completely unacceptable. Our Constitution envisages the sustainable and equitable transformation of society based on socio-economic rights, and we should all be anxious to accelerate that process or risk being derailed by radicals who are also, rightly, unimpressed with the pace of change but whose solutions will only make things worse.

Apartheid was also – and here is another penny that needs to drop – psychologically damaging for white people. White South Africans are psychologically damaged. We need to acknowledge this in order to move on. Apartheid desensitised white South Africans to human suffering and filled most of them with an unthinking sense of superiority and fear.

Perhaps most damaging of all, Apartheid blinded white South Africans to the enormous privilege they enjoy. The result is the bizarre situation we now find ourselves in, in which many white people are enormously privileged while simultaneously feeling marginalised and put upon.

I saw an exacerbated comment on twitter the other day about reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy who said: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?”

No, we haven’t.

We haven’t all become fluent in the indigenous languages of our home country. Worse, some will judge a black South African’s intelligence purely on his or her accent in English, and completely overlook the humbling and impressive multilingualism of so many black South Africans.

We haven’t yet learnt to listen to differing points of view before trying to ram what we think down people’s throats. But we demand to be listened to ourselves.

Most of us don’t yet even notice, let alone feel uncomfortable, when there are only white people in a boardroom or in an advert or in a restaurant. But I know many who would leave a club if it were ‘too black’.
In short, we haven’t yet freed ourselves from the blindness of privilege and the last vestiges of subtle racism.
The consensus is emerging to call this paradigm ‘whiteness’. I dislike the name because generalisations are never true and seldom useful. They almost always lead to prejudice. “Whiteness” does not afflict all white people, and nor do I think there is anything inherently white about it – it crops up in various parts of the world at various points in history. It just so happens that in South Africa, at this point in time, it is a paradigm typical to many white people. Name aside, the phenomenon is real. It is a disconnected, insensitive sense of arrogance and lack of self-awareness.

Think of how many people rant about affirmative action without considering just how many more opportunities they had before they got to that job interview than the other guy had. As children, they almost certainly had more books at home, never went hungry, and attended better schools. They were also probably more likely to have been given a leg up. If it’s not what you know, but who you know that matters, then white South Africans are already at an advantage in terms of economic inclusion. And how many will actively try to hire from outside their social circle and expand opportunities to previously marginalised people?

Think of how many will speak about ‘their tax money’ as if they should have more say in government because they have more money, implying those without money are somehow lazy and not, in fact, suffering from decades of Apartheid’s deliberate restriction of skills and asset accumulation.

South Africa is angry at the moment and many are giving up on the reconciliation project. This upsets me because I think we could be an amazing country, and it frightens me because things will get very ugly if we give up on ourselves.

White South Africans have an important role to play in dissipating that anger. We need to genuinely commit to being part of the transformation of South African society, and to realise that transformation is as much about transforming ourselves as it is about numbers or demographics. It is not what other people must do; it is what every single one of us must do. The real work of building a new South Africa is less in the grand, national government programmes and more in the hundreds of interactions and tiny decisions we make each day.

The real work is in becoming conscious. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

From obvious to subtle: the shifting face of racism

Why it's surprising for many to discover racism in Cape Town

The sad truth is, there are still plenty of racist South Africans. No one can guess the percentages, and I would imagine (and hope) that it is a tiny minority of people, but they are there. Those of us who grew up in the golden years of Mandela don’t like to see it or to admit to ourselves how far we still have to go, but racism is still a problem that we have not yet laid to rest in this country. 18 years is not a long time in which to change the entire paradigm of 50 million people.

As a “white” South African, I have been subjected to those skin-crawlingly awful and infuriating situations in which other, usually older, white South Africans say something derogatory about another race group in my company on the assumption that I will be okay with it. I’m sure many of us have been in those situations. Nothing makes my blood boil more than racists who think I share some sort of solidarity with them because we’re both white. And more than that, I find white racism so much more offensive than racism from black people towards me. It is worse because a nation that chose to forgive the unspeakably evil things carried out during Apartheid is deserving of nothing but awe and gratitude from white South Africans and those who continue to believe they are superior to other race groups should be ashamed of themselves.

But I digress. My point is this: in my experience (I know, my experience isn’t the point – I’ll get on to that), I find Cape Town one of the least racist places I have been in South Africa. The kind of exchange I mention above, where some racist asshole says something they assume everyone will agree with, has never once happened to me in Cape Town. It has happened to me a lot in PE, for example, and I imagine it happens in small towns all over the country, but not once in Cape Town have I had to go to war with an openly racist person. I’ve never had the feeling that “white Cape Town” sees itself as a community in a laager. And white Capetonians, in my experience, have never struck me as racist. They are chilled, easygoing and pretty liberal, and that was one of the things I loved about the city (Incidentally, I feel the same about Johannesburg, where I grew up. It’s not surprising that our biggest cities are the most progressive.)

Why white people’s experience in this debate doesn’t really matter

The only thing my experience of Cape Town proves is that we have succeeded in creating a city in which racists do not feel safe disclosing their views to others. We have a city in which it is simply not okay to say racist things, and a lot of us, therefore, assume that no one thinks racist things. We should be proud of that, for sure. It is a step in the right direction that racists cannot spread their poison openly here. But we should not be smug. Open racism is only the most obvious kind and it is also, perhaps, the easiest to stamp out. Getting rid of it is only the first step in a long process of growing social cohesion.

Why the defensiveness?

I would guess the simple reason so many white Capetonians got defensive in the "Cape Town is racist" debate is that they don't like racism, and because they probably never hear other white Capetonians saying anything racist (as they still do, sadly, in other parts), they believed the city was being maligned for something they did not see to be true. It was not a particularly sensitive or useful reaction, but it makes sense. When a city sees itself as progressive and liberal, it is quite a shock to hear that it is not experienced that way by another group of people. I was also surprised by the massive discrepancy between my experience and that of my black friends when I first heard the assertion that the city is racist. Clearly, the racism that exists – by the accounts of black friends and twitterati – is precisely the kind that white people would not see unless they looked really hard. It is not obvious, and it is not directed at other white people in the way that racist jokes are.  By definition, white people cannot experience it, but that does not mean it does not exist.

So where to from here?

If there is a problem of pockets of racism in Cape Town, it needs to be addressed. Ranking our cities on their level of racism is a bizarre and completely useless exercise. But what we should be doing, in every city that we live in across SA, is trying to stamp out all forms of racism – even the quiet, underhanded, hard-to-see kind. All that really matters, in the end, is how people interact, and how they treat one another. If black, coloured or Indian people have been treated badly by certain institutions in the city, then ALL of us need to listen to that experience and do what we can to change it.

The problem is the subtle, underhanded racism is much harder to deal with than the obvious kind. It is something that lingers in certain people’s minds and can only be addressed by introspection, not legislation. Those of us who would like to make Cape Town as welcoming and open as we believed it was before our blindness was pointed out should be boycotting establishments that treat black Capetonians with disrespect. All of us should consider every action we take with increased sensitivity. Privilege is blinding - try to see when others are not afforded the same opportunities as you, and take on the person responsible. You may not consider yourself racist at all. But, for example, are you hiring a new intern because you know his parents? That has pretty racist outcomes if your family friends are all the same race as you. Do you get irritable when someone is battling to express themselves because your language isn’t their first language? Do you strike up conversations with someone of a different race when you’re sitting at a bar, alone, waiting for someone?

There are a thousand different interactions every day that contribute to how others’ feel about us and our city. Slowly but surely the infrastructure of the city is reintegrating and drawing our communities together, but that will only lead to co-existence rather than cohesion if we do not look deep within our behaviour and our assumptions. The problem has not gone away until none of our residents experience it. And the problem is also not going to be fixed by other people.