South Africa is going through interesting times. An irate artist has produced some artwork that depicts the president in compromising positions. Question is: Is this justified. Read my take at http://www.citizen.co.za/1205293/the-emperor-is-very-naked/
Why do our Presidents have a tendency to disappear when the poor rise up? http://www.citizen.co.za/1176389/fiddling-while-tshwane-burns/
- Hi All,
Here’s my latest column on how we can build a common identity im South Africa.
My latest column:
Hello everyone, it’s been a while, haha. Glad to let you know that the writing hasn’t stopped, just changed to a new platform. I will continue to post here as and when I get the time.
My latest column in a local online title, The Citizen, can be accessed through the following link: http://www.citizen.co.za/1144183/the-poor-are-back-in-fashion/
Let me know what you think.
I know, I know, you are feeling all tired and quite worn-out to will yourself to read another piece of writing meant to make you feel guilty for being who you are, for being white. I mean, you didn’t choose to be white, you were simply born that way, and worse still, born on this Southern tip of Africa, where you get reminded everyday that you are white and your ancestors messed up, pretty bad. Just bear with me though, my aim is not to put salt on your already festering wound of whiteness, it’s merely to relay a few sentiments that you might have missed in the recent shouting and screaming match that this country has just been through.
First things first, why write yet another piece when so much has been written on this subject of whiteness in recent weeks?(‘Whiteness’ is used here as reference to the system of white privilege as bestowed upon white people). Sorry to disappoint you, this was no ‘lightbulb’ moment on my part, it’s simply out of the pity that I felt for an ‘ordinary’ white South African who wrote:
“A question – with respect – Most white people are just living their lives, working and paying taxes, paying a home loan, and trying to live as law abiding citizens. Are they less deserving of their homes (land) simply because they are white? A friend works in a corporate company where blacks have to be paid more than whites for the same work. Surely in that company the “playing field” is more than level. I guess my real question is (because maybe I’m a little ignorant) What do black people want me to do? I cannot change the privilege I supposedly have. I am unemployed. My husband works, and we mind our own business. We don’t even vote (and have therefore been blamed for the ANC still being in power). And yet, we are part of the hated minority.”
German philosopher, Karl Jaspers put it aptly when he said “our greatest guilt is that we are alive” in reference to the general feeling of guilt that ordinary Germans felt in relation to the Holocaust. With millions of Jews having lost their lives, it only made sense that the German people take some responsibility for what Hitler had done. To paraphrase him in relation to the ‘ordinary’ South African white person, your biggest guilt “is that you were born white in South Africa”.
To attempt to escape your position within whiteness is to try and deny what has happened, to try and forget, and again, Karl Jaspers issued this warning:
“That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It must be continually remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”
Oh, I nearly forgot. Most white folks are “just busy minding their own business”. They’re not like Penny Sparrow or Steve, spewing racist bile on social media. They are just good white folk trying to get by. Well, I’ve got news for you. Penny Sparrow called black people monkeys not for the sake of it, but because she is assured of her place within whiteness. Steve knows that no matter how much hateful bile he spews “whiteness has got my back”.
The same whiteness that you were born into, the same whiteness that guaranteed that you have a “business to mind”, that whiteness, is what protects the bigots. When you seek to absolve yourself of the responsibility that goes with the privileges that it bestows upon you, you are no better than Penny Sparrow, you make light of the material conditions of the majority of your fellow countrymen whose dire living conditions are a result of a system that legalized white privilege.
Sure, some white people came out and condemned Penny Sparrow, and some declare their hate for the likes of Steve but the truth of the matter is the silent majority of “ordinary” white South Africans still regard Steve as a superstar, he remains a top-selling artist, if not the best in their circles. A huge number of Penny Sparrows sit comfortably in their jobs and come out to share their racist views within the safety net of whiteness, fully knowing, “my people” have my back. Guess what, “my people” are the ordinary white South Africans who allow these bigots to flourish. “My people” keep quiet and mind their own business when the bigots call their compatriots monkeys. Worse still, “my people” react angrily when their black compatriots react angrily and generalize that “all whites are racist”. That angry reaction is very telling if you ask me.
So many “ordinary” white South Africans push themselves to a point of “minding their own business” because look at what happened to Gareth Cliff for not minding his own business. This is exactly why yours is huge responsibility, to ditch the arrogance that whiteness has bestowed upon you and come to a realization that although the problem manifests itself in a million different ways, the primary problem eating away at our supposed social cohesion is nothing other than whiteness. Like an addict, an alcoholic, until the patrons of white privilege come to a moment of clarity, that moment when the addict admits to himself and the world that he has a problem, arrogance will continue to prevail and more “innocent, ordinary” white South Africans will fall by their own sword.
That arrogance manifests in whiteness wanting to retain its superiority complex which seeks to tell black people that “the playing field is level”, “more black people earn above what white people earn”, “there are unemployed white people”, “apartheid ended 22 years ago, get over it”. Listen, the reason some people claim to prefer the outspoken Penny Sparrows of this world is because there is nothing as condescending as whiteness that refuses to acknowledge its arrogance but rather stands on top of a hill and trumpets how ” I am unlike the others”, claiming that it is more enlightened. Yet it cannot believe that a black person can determine how whiteness affects him and how he will choose to react to it.
Steve Biko wrote on the role of ‘liberals’ more than 30 years ago. Not that as an “ordinary” white South African I would expect you to be familiar with the writings of Steve Biko, that would be asking too much of a person “minding their own business”. But since I’ve invited you to read this far let me paraphrase Biko for you: the “ordinary” white South African must fight for himself. He must realize that the bigotry of a Penny Sparrow and Steve oppresses him too. (“The liberal must fight on his own and for himself too…Steve Biko in White Racism and Black Consciousness”)
The question that seems to be a burning one for many “ordinary” white South Africans is “What do black people want me to do?” , because when I open my mouth I’m wrong and when I keep quiet I’m accused of complicity in racism. Biko gave you the answer years ago, “fight for yourself, fight for your own freedom”. Renounce your whiteness. Your white privilege. Truly doing this will mean you will not give the bigots the space to flourish in your midst. You will be the first to scream when a Sparrow or a Steve spew their racist bile at that Sunday lunch where you are all on your own.
When you are truly free, you will not have to be scared that your drunken Facebook post or Tweet could make you trend on the social networks. That man, Karl Jaspers says: “…to forget is guilt”. When you are truly free my dear compatriot, my dear ‘ordinary’ white South African, you will not want us to forget the past in a hurry nor will you feel guilty about it, you will be driven to truly work towards a society in which past injustices are corrected. When you are truly free, you will realize, on your own, that you do not “supposedly have a privilege”. You will simply own up to that privilege. You realize that there is nothing such as an ‘ordinary’ white South African. ‘Ordinary’ carries no privilege
About two months ago my little boy who started school in January this year looked at the wall clock in his room with a serious look on his face. He frowned a little bit. And for a second I thought my little boy is about to tell time for the very first time in his life. It’s a wall clock decorated with the animated characters Woody and Buzz from one of his favourite movies, Toy Story. As I continued dressing him without wanting to give away that I’m rooting for him to give this thing a try, he opened his mouth, carefully mouthing the first word, and it took him a while before any sound came out. “We come to play” he said.
I looked at the wall clock, right next to Woody and Buzz were the words “We came to play”. It didn’t matter that he got the tense of the middle word wrong, I was ecstatic. I wanted to shout, to scream: “My boy can read!” It didn’t matter that he’s still got no concept of time, that will come later, to me, by reading those few words he was confirming that he is getting ready to join that privileged class of people on our continent and indeed the world who can read.
I have recently been involved in social media discussions with a few friends who are consumers of the written word. I have learnt that some of South Africa’s best authors struggle to sell their books. Whatever the reason for that, I’m really concerned that our low literacy levels have indeed translated into an artificially reduced love for books. More worrying for me though is that even amongst the classes of people who are literate, our love for books, especially books by black South African authors is really low.
In my mind, our love for books should be unmatched. Yes we cannot all love books but the majority of us should. The way I see it, a people with our history should not have an option of not loving the written word. I’m almost tempted to say our love for books should be mandatory, not an optional hobby. We owe it to ourselves to discover that which we were denied for decades, or even centuries.
I have to admit, my own love for reading was purely coincidental. I grew up in a large family and unlike other people who love literature I was not born into a world rich in books. I struggle to this day to recall what Cinderella and other children’s classics are all about. I didn’t have access to those. Any of the classics that I read were books that an older cousin had for his English Literature classes. Danny the Champion of The World, The Big Friendly Giant and Oliver Twist come to mind.
But the first assault on my literary senses came in the form of a Tsonga language book, Xisomisana. I read that book at about age eleven, and even though it was a book prescribed for a class 4 or 5 years ahead of me, I learnt that a book can move you from this world we inhabit into a totally new world where you are at the mercy of the author. I was quite a sensitive child and I remember crying copious amounts of tears at Xisomisana’s fate, an orphaned girl who had so much trouble in her life because she seemed to have no one in the world.
By the time I went to boarding school to start my high school and coming into contact with a library for the first time I knew that this world, this physical world wasn’t our only option. There existed a world which could be accessed through reading books. I plunged myself into series’ like the Hardy Boys and read them sequentially that I felt that I knew their world, a world so far away from mine. By my middle year in high school I had discovered James Hardly Chase and Sidney Sheldon. Material I would not recommend for an impressionable fourteen-year-old mind but books nonetheless.
Imagine my joy when I learnt of the trials and tribulations of Mariam Makeba, Don Mattera and other South African artists at the hands of the apartheid government, their years in exile, forced removals and all that was going on then. I learnt of culturally iconic places like Sophiatown throw books. I learnt of Nelson Mandela and his speech in the dock through banned books. I escaped my depression, which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time, through burying myself in a good paperback.
I remember the sadness which would come over me on school holidays at the realisation that I was running out of paperbacks faster than I was running out of holiday time. I had no qualms about being labelled a ‘bookworm’ at some stage in high school. Books that I could lay my hands on were my life.
I regret that I had no adult to guide me towards reading material that could develop me as I grew up because young and impressionable as I was, I realise now that with more guidance I could have discovered more authors who could talk to my age at the different points in my life. I could maybe have developed a more positive approach to poetry and other disciplines.
Of paramount importance though is that books gave me the idea that world is so much more than our physical surroundings. That’s why I find it so difficult to understand that there are people who can read, and should read but don’t.
I honestly believe that the saddest thing that can happen to any individual is to be denied the opportunity to learn how to read. If there was a magic wand that I could use to transform the world I’m afraid I would use it to make everyone literate. Imagine me being asked that not so bright question that is asked of most beauty pageants winners (they still do don’t they): “What are you going to do to change the world during your reign?”, “TEACH THE WHOLE WORLD TO READ!!” would be my answer all the time. That’s why that education activist, the teenager Malaala Yousufzai is my hero. she discovered at a very tender age that books can save the world.
I have at various points in my life gone through dry patches of depression when it has become so difficult to do anything. The first sign that things were improving has always been the return of my need to read. To get buried into a good paperback and forget the world.
I hope I’ll have the presence of mind to feed my kids’ minds the right books at various points in their development and that they will develop a very healthy love for reading. I beamed with pride recently when my boy brought home a little certificate that he has completed 50 kiddies books for his age group, the little certificate states, “Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader”. I can’t argue with that.
I think my obsession with the written word might be clouding my judgement when it comes to a lot of what I observe about our society, mostly African society. Recently there was a discovery of an 18th century Shipwreck off the coast of Cape Town that was confirmed as a slave carrier from Mozambique headed towards Portugal, filled with hundreds of Africans destined for a life of slavery in Portugal.
The media commentary that I heard or read on the discovery labelled it as “fascinating, intriguing, a breakthrough”. None of those voices were African. They were voices of an observer of Africa. It pained me that none of our people have put themselves in a position to cry out and shout “That’s not fascinating, it’s a painful monument to the lives of all those Africans who were shipped off as slaves to continents where to this they are still fighting for full citizenship”.
I cannot see a people who have a deep love for reading letting that happen to their memory. It has been my untested observation that all the indigenous peoples of the world whose cultural heritages are disappearing have been deprived of books.
I digress. The point I’m making here is if enough of us had an appetite for books this discovery would be another chapter in those books, books that we would write with respect about our own past. Our love for books should not be optional. Our history, our continent and our future demands that we develop an insatiable appetite for books.
If you were to stop anybody on the streets today and asked their thoughts on South Africa’s transformation you’ll most probably get a response that has to do with how many people of color are in the national rugby or cricket team. Transformation has been reduced to numbers on a sports field.
“I will not preside over a tweaked apartheid education system”. These telling words were uttered two weeks ago by the Gauteng Provincial Minister of Education, Panyaza Lesufi. It was in response to a report that confirmed that a Curro Private school had been caught out using race as a determinant in the separation of kids in their school. Lesufi has decided that the government would finally do what they should have started doing 20 years ago and overhaul the way our education system is structured.
That there is a private school that will accept money from black parents and yet find it acceptable to humiliate them by declaring their kids not “culturally” in sync with the norms of the school is testament to the fact that the custodins oftransformation have outsourced their fundamental responsibility for the true transformation of our society. What exactly must this transformation look like? At what point can we declare society transformed.
The most tragic thing about transformation in our society is that the victims of the artificially constructed race-based “crime against humanity” have turned around and trusted the beneficiaries of that system to voluntarily give up their unjust benefits and invite their former victims for a share in the spoils of their ill-gotten gains. That’s like a deer expecting a lion to suddenly give up his naturally endowed position in the food chain because it has been declared unfair. It’s not not going to happen, moreover the lion will fight to hang on to his position.
The victims of the unjust system made the grave mistake of believing that because they have repealed the laws that put the system in place, the benefits of that system will suddenly flow in the “right” direction. With a little help from affirmative action, society will be put right and everyone will be happy they thought. Twenty one years into democracy it’s suddenly dawning on them that they should not only have repealed the laws that kept them captive but also actively defined what they see as a transformed society and also clearly put in place the means to achieve this transformed society.
One of the most beautiful examples of transformation in nature is that of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Right at the beginning of the process, nature saw fit to ensure that every single caterpillar possesses the means(genes) that will ensure that the process happens, but also, it ensures that a cocoon is in place to safeguard the process. No caterpillar ever finds itself halfway through the process and wondering “is this going to happen for me? Am I stuck here? Will I ever become a butterfly?” But we have identified that we want to transform into butterflies without putting in the safeguards in place to ensure that the process happens, and happens for the benefit of everyone concerned.
I was was unfortunate enough to find myself in a University class as one of 5 black students in a class of more than 30 students in the early 90s, this in a country that’s 80% black. And I remember clearly the dead quiet that engulfed the class each time I raised my hand to ask something, like there was an expectation that I would ask something “wrong” or “not clever”. But also the “congratulations” that came with the “surprising” eventuality of me actually asking a ‘very good question, keep it up’.
Two weeks ago a black author, Thando Mgqolozana, issued a statement on why he would be attending the Franschoek Literary festival for the last time this year, detailing how tired he was of being viewed as a “specimen”(my word) at this festival. This took me right back to my Microbiology class more than twenty years ago. Yes, maybe my alma matter “transformed” their campus, but there are still many situations in this country where South African citizens are still treated as curious visitors, there for a while, but without much expectation of them making an impact because the agenda was set ages ago, and these visitors better shape up or ship out. And by shaping up, the expectation is that they will willfully go along with the tone and agenda of the festival.
In Thando’s own words: “I feel that I’m here to perform for an audience that does not treat me as literary talent, but as an anthropological subject – as though those people are here to confirm suspicions that somehow I’m inferior to them”. Mqolozana went on further to explain that the current literary setup in our country “systematically excludes black people….setups like this one, the Franschoek literary festival”
Here’s the deal, tears of anger and outrage flowed from some members of the white literary community because they wanted the public to receive “what they paid for, not this”. “They were tired of being made to feel guilty”, they said.
Remember the example above, about the lion, he will not voluntarily give up protecting a system that benefits him, because after all, it’s his natural position.
But we, the victims of the current setup have it within ourselves to transform that setup. But we need to stop asking the lion to change voluntarily in the first place and define the path to that transformation ourselves. We must stop “defining” transformation and start demolishing the current system. Mgqolozana sums it up best when he says ” I don’t want this literary festival to change anymore….the kids at the University of Cape Town are not asking the university to change, because that would mean tweaking a few things…what we want is the demolition of the whole system…starting something new”.
Many people will readily agree that something new altogether must be the result of the process of transformation but what matters is not good intentions but actions taken to bring it about. Most beneficiaries of the current setup want transformation, as long as they are comfortable with the process. When uncomfortable, you will hear them utter such deep reflections as ” transformation must not result in the lowering of standards”. Really? Is that what they think of the “other side”? That we want things watered so we can feel capable of fitting in? It is not surprising then that “the other side” is now saying, keep your exclusive clubs and festivals, we will create our own.
The loss of meaning of the word transformation is not limited to universities, national sports teams and the literary sectors only. These are simply the ones that fall onto the media radar every now and then. Agendas set in the apartheid era continue to bedevil transformation efforts in the economic sector. The emergence of radical groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters are a direct result of the window dressing that is labelled as transformation. The Marikana massacre, the deadliest of the post-apartheid era is a result of this watered down version of transformation.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of accepting tweaks to the current setup as acceptable ‘reforms’, but we have a responsibility to future generations of overcoming our unfounded fears of dropping standards and demolishing what seems to be working now, for what will be inclusive and working in the future.
We need to accept that the majority of the citizens of this country are located where apartheid put them, but they are not out of sight. They are there and conscious effort by us, those that recognize the abnormalities of the current setup to construct new and inclusive ones, must be aimed at making them ‘mainstream’.
Reforming the current setup will not work because as demonstrated by Literary festivals like the Fraschhoek one, the current beneficiaries will continue to set the agenda with the excluded groups doing just the listening, to paraphrase Steve Biko. What else can you do if you are only there by invitation? You do not reform abnormal, you get rid of it.
The pain or uncomfortable feeling that comes with us breaking out of the current system to form a new one is one of the necessary ingredients in transformation. Breaking down and demolishing a system cannot come easily and we must be prepared to witnesse some ‘gnashing of teeth’ and ‘violent’ protests from those that are tired of ‘being made to feel guilty’.
On an unusually cold day in August 2014 we laid a Comrade to rest. Not comrade as in friend but a man who had earned the title of Comrade in the trenches of the struggle for the emancipation of the people of South Africa. ‘Com’ in spoken language or Cde in writing, not used lightly but with reverence when referring to freedom fighters. This was the chosen form of showing respect to a fellow freedom fighter during the struggle.
Such funerals happen every weekend in this beautiful country of ours but this one held a speci al significance for me. The man we were sending on his last journey had lived right across the street from our house, ‘front opposite’ in township talk.
When the then President of South Africa PW Botha, the last true defender of apartheid as president declared a state of emergency in 1985 the man we were laying to rest was the most practical evidence of its enforcement for me. Comrade Stanley was detained without trial during that period.
I remember reading hastily written graffiti on walls: “Realise Stanley”. My grasp of the English language back then was not enough to understand that the author had misspelt the word “release”. It didn’t matter though because I read the misspelt word as it was intended.
Even though I was barely a teenager when that state of emergency was declared, I understood the state of the country because of the constant skirmishes with the police and army in the streets of our township. I too grew to know the searing smell of teargas and I grew accustomed to young white soldiers jumping fences in pursuit of comrades. The kind of comrades that Stanley was part of.
In 1986 my parents decided to ship me off to boarding school in the homelands, far away from the burning streets of Johannesburg. In the week I was due to leave Stanley the Comrade requested a meeting with my father. He was already in high school and a member of the Student Representative Council of the school. Very well spoken and convincing. Back then he spotted quite a big Afro in the mould of the Black Panthers of the United States.
“Sending your children away from the raging battles we are fighting in the streets of Tembisa is just what the Boers want you to do. It reduces our numbers and weakens our structures. You are also playing into the hands of the regime by sending them to the homelands, that’s what they want”. I cannot recall word for word what Comrade Stanley said on that day but I recall my dad listening intently and engaging him. My respect for the high school pupil grew. See, he was presenting his case clearly and without fear, and at the same time doing a lot to ensure that even I could grasp the state of the struggle at that time. My dad’s mind was made up though and off I went to boarding school.
When I heard of Comrade Stanley’s passing it had been a while since I had last seen him. My mind raced back to the days of my youth and I knew, I just knew that I had to make his funeral to pay my last respects to the first comrade I ever knew.
In the week leading up to the funeral on the weekend there were reports of gunshots by some of his comrades as they came to pay their last respects at his home. You are right, it’s very irresponsible to set off a gun in a residential area. But this was something else, this was Stanley’s comrades telling the world that a soldier had fallen. One of our own is no more. So with my irrational fear of guns I still set off for the funeral that Saturday.
On my arrival at the local church that hosted the funeral service I was left in no doubt that Comrade Stanley’s funeral was not going to be an ordinary one. In a scene reminiscent of the many marches of the 1990s a group of ‘freedom fighters’ in full millitary regalia were congregated at the gate of the church. They were part of a group singing freedom songs that took one back to the heart of the freedom struggle in the1980s. I felt really overdressed in a formal jacket and pants. One didn’t go to marches dressed formally.
The fence of the church was draped in flags of the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and Orlando Pirates, the football team that meant everything to him. Freedom songs reverberated inside the relatively small church. As I had already guessed, there were no empty chairs so I settled for following proceedings through an open window.
Every speaker prefaced and ended their speeches with shouts of “Viva Comrade Stanley Viva”. When I arrived the current provincial Minister of Education was on the podium. These were the bigwigs. I strained my neck to look at who else had turned out for the funeral of the first comrade I had ever known. It was a who’s who of political personalities in there. And that’s when it sank in, Stanley, Stepisi as we had come to know him, might have been my local comrade, but he belonged to South Africa at large.
He represented all the youth who had stayed defiant at the sight of a brutal regime that was determined to do anything to stay in power. See, Stanley and his generation had attended clandestine organisational meetings, and as many a speaker testified at the funeral, Stanley was a brave MK. That shocked me to the core, and you’ll find out why shortly.
I left the church window to join a group of friends I had grown up with, so many of whom I had not seen in years. We all had stories to tell about the man we were laying to rest that morning. Most of them humorous. See, later on in his life, when the struggle for political freedom was over, Stanley had taken to the bottle a bit, and when he had had a few he would threaten anyone who got into altercation with him with the words: “I will shoot you right now, I’m not a coward”. He never shot any of those people though or took out a gun on them. So we concluded he was deluded, thinking himself more capable than he was.
So imagine our collective shock when my friends and I discovered for real that Stepisi was MK, a member of the now defunct military wing of the African National Congress, umKhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). All these guys owned guns, Ak47s and the like. So all those threats, “I will shoot you right now” were empty insofar as carrying them out but he had the capabilities to carry them out!
The funeral procession itself was taken over by his comrades, they chose the songs that were sung and made sure his favourite freedom songs were on the menu. One has to spare a thought for his family and his parents who were gracious enough to let Stanley’s comrades send him off in the way they wanted to. The cemetery that he was to be interned at was a good 4 to 5 kilometres away. We got ready to get into our cars for the drive there but his comrades chose to march there on foot. And the gunshots started ringing again. A comrade was on his last journey.
Having witnessed the funeral service and how it was conducted, I had no doubt that Stanley was going to be laid to rest in the Heroes Acre section of the cemetery. This section is reserved for those members of the community who have given selflessly to the cause of the liberation of the people of South Africa.
A proper 21- gun salute was given at the cemetery. We stayed silent for that period. A special person had left us. There was a celebratory mood to the whole procession so it was no surprise that we all partook in the now obligatory “after tears”, where we all took time to catch up with one another and marvel at this giant who had appeared ever so ordinary to the rest of us.
This scene probably plays itself out in several communities throughout our country whenever people deem it necessary, but this particular Saturday was our turn to say goodbye to a comrade. The first comrade I ever knew.
REST IN PEACE STANLEY MATHEBULA. VIVA.
(Published with the permission of the Mathebula Family. Thank you.)
This past week I sat in a school hall with about 30 other parents, playing our role in being responsible parents, attending our first PTA meeting(damn, I’m old). Halfway through proceedings I got a little lost in thought. What if I raised my hand and when afforded the chance to speak I directed this question to the school principal: “During the last week’s orientation meeting I noticed that about 30 to 40% of parents here are either African, coloured or Indian, with the remainder white. But your teaching and support staff are all white people. Seeing that 30% or more of your student body is not white, what plans do you have to get your teaching and support staff to reflect the composition of your student body?”
In my mind’s eye I could see and hear the hall quieten down. To the point of being so silent I could hear myself breathe. I could see the discomfort on the principal’s face, I could also hear the very loud objection of a white male parent shouting me down from the back of the room: “You want black teachers, take your child to the township schools!” I also heard the resounding “Yeah!” from the rest of the white parents in the hall. The principal regained his composure and some colour in his face, and responded: “Sir, this is neither the time nor the place to raise matters like that. Those can only be raised at the School Governing Body(SGB) meeting which takes place once a term, and you have to be elected to be on it at an election that only happens once every three years”.
“And just to add, we’ve had black pupils in this school since I’ve been here, which is six years and I’ve never had one parent complain of racism”. I want to challenge him on that, that my point is not about racism but having the school start to reflect the reality of our beautiful country. To allow ALL the kids in the school to learn that positions of power and authority in our society are not the sole preserve of one chosen race but that everyone, irrespective of their skin colour stands a good shot at being in charge. I want to continue this imaginary dialogue with this seemingly nice hardworking man but my reverie is rudely interrupted by the urgent and pressing matter of attending to this year’s fundraiser at the PTA.
Later, much later, I tried to imagine how a real life discussion about race would have proceeded in that setting and all I kept hearing in my head was “Why do you people have to keep raising apartheid at each and every turn? Why must you spoil everything and blame apartheid all the time?” I didn’t answer because some of the black parents in the hall started shouting back, and chaos ensued. Far-fetched? Hardly. This, although mere constructions of my imagination, sums up the level of public debate on race in this country.
“When we blame the legacy of apartheid most white people take it as a personal attack on them…This is not the case. Blaming the legacy of apartheid is an attack on the system…We are not asking you to feel guilty…”(Khaya Dlanga,2008). I have quoted this passage elsewhere on my blog before but I’ve found it necessary to return to it because of recent events. Move away from my imagined PTA exchange with the school principal to the very real issue of one Zelda le Grange.
Zelda went and put her foot in it, actually I think she put her whole leg in it but I’m not sure that’s good English. Le Grange, Nelson Mandela’s erstwhile Personal Assistant had until last week been held up as a living example that race relations in this country are not beyond redemption and that her saviour and employer, Nelson Mandela, had done enough to show us that despite our rather painful past, we can get this race thing right. And then she goes on a Twitter rant and undoes all of that, shame on her. Okay, okay, she apologised but the damage was done already. The daggers were drawn for her and her apology did nothing to reassure those that looked up to her that she didn’t mean what she said.
Her apology is not unlike the morning regrets of a person who had too much to drink and then waking up with that weird feeling that they had opened their mouth and said everything that was in their heart. Only thing was, the audience was everyone they had wished was not around when they finally said their ‘truth’. So sheepishly, they apologise. Fully knowing the damage is done. Ask Mel Gibson, he knows rather well the consequences of a drunken rant to an unintended audience. But the truth of the matter is, what she said is what had always been in her heart. She just lacked the sober courage to voice it.
Sadly, Zelda’s rant at the President’s assertion that South Africa’s problems only started with the arrival of the white man on our shores in 1652 captures what the black majority of this country believes is the view of white people on their past and present sufferings. To allege that the President’s views that Jan Van Riebeeck was the beginning of our problems shows that “white people in this country are not wanted” is stretching the limits of degrees of association by 364 odd years. But let’s not dismiss her views as entirely racist and not worthy of discussion. And here’s why.
Each time some racist takes to an online platform to spew their racist nonsense that’s the kneejerk reaction of the majority of South Africans. “She’s showing her true colours”, “White people never loved us”, “Ja, they might as well pack up and head back to Holland” are but a few of the responses to Zelda’s utterances. But that never gets us anywhere does it? We trade insults, have a few talk shows, “condemn Zelda in the strongest possible terms” and then life goes on. In a way, for a short while, the country becomes that school hall during my imaginary PTA exchange.
What will it take for South Africans to have mature discussions on race that are not punctuated by insults on either side? I’m a bit of a dreamer and an idealist. Every once in a while I dream of “fireside chats” not very different from the ones that FD Roosevelt used in the US during the Second world war to get America to think as one. Not the contents of the chats but the style, a relaxed approach to a very difficult and messy subject. Cooling and calming emotions and dissecting an issue to its core.
Zelda might never know why what she said is racist, she knows it is for sure but that’s only because we came down on her like a ton of bricks. But if we agree Zelda represents a “majority view” of white South Africans can we honestly say we are doing enough to get them to appreciate that their view is racist?
I have come to believe that racism is not going to be solved by the racist because frankly, he couldn’t be bothered and sometimes doesn’t even know he is racist. It is not going to be sorted out by the victim of racism because he didn’t cause it. That leaves a large majority of “non-racist” whites with the responsibility of reaching out to their fellow white people and pointing out the error of their ways.
I am an idealist but not naïve. It’s been said before that one cannot change people’s warped racist ways by appealing to their “inherent” goodness. I concur, fully. If the goodness was inherent in them we would not be having this discussion now, would we? So it is necessary to come down hard on the likes of Zelda and Steve Hofmeyer when they go on their drunken Twitter rants, but the rest of sane society needs a way, a platform to educate those naïve and gullible enough to swallow their untested “truths”.
White people of our generation have access to a get-out-of-guilt-free card, “It wasn’t me”. So long as the mention of Jan Van Riebeeck, the Dromedaris, white settlers and apartheid causes white people to feel guilty, we are going to stay in diametrically opposed racial camps as a country, unable to talk anything with sense once the “A” word is mentioned. The idealist in me wonders why a white South African today would want to carry the burden of the guilt of events carried out by their ancestors (unless they believe they are still benefitting from that system or its consequences).
I know what you are thinking. I do, I kid you not. So what about your side, “it’s not like blacks don’t spew racist bile, yes, what about them?” See, I knew, what you were thinking. You are right. Black people can say hurtful things. Crazy things. And some of us believe we have earned the right to be downright nasty to other races simply because they did it first. And they did. But when have you ever seen a tit-for-tat spat resolved by pointing at who started what. Call me a Mandela apologist but I admire that man for teaching me that creating racial cohesion is a process that requires the victim to reassure the racist that there is nothing to fear. “Look, I’m normal, just like you”.
But it is a mistake of mammoth proportions on the part of the white section of our population to expect black people to suddenly stop talking about an aspect of our country’s history simply because it “doesn’t sit well with us. We are made to feel guilty”. That would legitimising the shame that the system sought to implant in us. And that shame has unintended but dangerous consequences. It spawns a new brand of black consciousness that is based on a hatred of the past (the system and the white people who created it).
This new brand of “black consciousness” is based on hatred for white people and anything white. The exponents of that consciousness would actually take offence at the views I have expressed here, probably calling me all sorts of unprintable names suggesting I grovel at the feet of the masters. But they forget one simple truth. White people are here to stay. Yes, you’ll get the yellow-bellied few who will run at the first sight of trouble but it is almost impossible for white South Africans to claim another continent as home.
Zelda was wrong when she asserted whites are not needed in South Africa. They are needed, what is not going to happen though is people will not stop looking back. And if looking back and blaming a system that placed whites above all other races makes whites feel they are not needed, then white people need to look at themselves. Zelda needs to look at herself. Start with the man in the mirror and ask him why he needs to be reassured that he is needed.
If anybody needs reassuring it should be black people who have factual evidence that “they never loved us”.
Zelda, the rather likeable blonde who dedicated almost two decades of her life to be personal assistant to the man who has come to embody racial reconciliation the world over went further to suggest that she would henceforth change her surname to Van Riebeeck. To the unlucky few who are not old enough to have learnt old syllabus South African history Jan Van Riebeeck is the Christopher Columbus of South Africa. He “discovered” South Africa in 1652 and set up base in Cape Town. And as the say, the rest is history.
So Zelda Van Riebeeck understands that the black people in this country hold a rather dim or negative view of the Dutchman adventurer Van Riebeeck. Otherwise she wouldn’t suggest that marrying him posthumously is revenge enough for the president’s insults to white people.
“If I was a white investor I would more or less leave now. It’s very clear whites are not wanted or needed in SA”. This for me was the lowest of her insults, the idea that “white investors” are doing South Africa a favour by investing their money here. I swear I would have puked if I wasn’t made of sterner stuff. And then she wonders why people like the President figure white people are the origins of our problems? It’s because of this patronising attitude that they think they are also the solution to our problems, because they can tell their fellow white folk not to invest in this black people’s country.
Maybe poor Zelda didn’t get the memo, investors will invest in any place that promises returns on their investment, they follow the smell of money. President’s Hollande’s France is not looking for a group of white people who are afraid of fixing up what their ancestors messed up.
But the biggest message I have for Zelda is that your fellow countrymen, those of a darker hue, don’t hold you personally responsible for our lot. We are a bit more intelligent than that, and the majority are simply looking for a hand up from their man-made colour-based misery. PS Your dislike for No 1 is shared by millions in this country. If you think “investors” can help us get rid of him, please don’t exclude us in your campaign based on our skin colour, we want him out too.