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.
A thoughtful and thought-provoking analysis, Sydney. It’s difficult to overcome entrenched attitudes. Awareness of the wrongs and mistakes of the past and a willingness to think, discuss and change are what’s needed… schools should be open to that kind of discussion, or where can it start if not there?
Thanks for reading Heidi. A few hours after I published this we have a private school in the news that has admitted that it separates black kids from white kids to allow the kids “space to make friends easily”. I’m gobsmacked, that adults can sit in a room and decide to go against what is the natural order of things. I’ve watched kids of all races in the playground, they couldn’t be bothered who they are playing with, unless they’ve been previously poisoned by their parents. It’s a debate that should be ongoing without anyone taking offense.
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I love your political commentaries. I love your “what if” question. It makes perfect sense to me. You worded it so well, not accusing them of anything, not griping about the situation, but asking for an action plan, focusing on the future. If I was the administrator, I would ask you to be the first member of the ad hoc committee to address the issue.
Have you considered making an appointment to discuss this issue with the principal? Would you feel more comfortable raising the issue in that environment, where white parents would be less likely to pounce on you?
I did a “happy dance” when I read that you know that investors are not there doing you a favor or because someone wants them there; they are only there for their own profits.
“positions of power and authority in our society are not the sole preserve of one chosen race” I wish I could sit beside you while you ask your question.
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Grace, thank you so much for reading and for your comments. In the days following the PTA meeting I have considered the idea of a private chat with the principal. I have to say though that given the history of the area that the school is situated in, the idea of the school governing body considering transformation without external pressure just seems like something that will never happen. I’m not sure what course of action I will finally settle on but I plan on doing something about the situation.
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May your desire to do something act like a splinter in the bottom of your foot 🙂
I find the kind of attitude that would segregate kids at school astounding. Mind you, I don’t think segregating kids by gender into boys’ and girls’ schools is healthy, either. I’ve met too many private school boys with very strange attitudes and social ineptitude when encountering girls! How do they think the same thing won’t apply in this case?
here’s a very interesting article about New Zealand. There are some problems, it seems, but they’re being studied and discussed and people are trying to improve matters. Shoving a problem under the carpet never yet made it go away, did it?
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http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11249785 This article about NZ Steiner schools is also very interesting http://www.listener.co.nz/current-affairs/education/fairy-tale-fallout/ – this is why I left the Steiner school I taught German at for 2 years. The teachers and parents were mostly lovely, but the basic philosophy underpinning the whole thing is still evident. As for the kids being strongly discouraged at a young age from using black or brown crayons, I encountered that, too and thought it was unspeakably wrong.
Lovely read. I would differ on one aspect, the characterisation of what you have termed the “new Black consciousness”. I find it so differs from the positive ideal that is black consciousness, that is best represented by “we are pro-black and not anti-anybody”, that the phenomenon you rightly say is festering should be given another title.
Thanks for reading Shuffle. I have to fully agree with you that labelling this new phenomenon “the new Black Consciousness(BC)” is misleading. This new “anti-everything-that-is-white” ironically defines itself in terms of whiteness which goes against everything that the original proponents of BC sought to achieve. The loose link to BC is achieved through some of its proponents claiming Steve Biko as one of their own. Thanks for pointing that one out.
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