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.