Resistance that is still relevant

2010-05-20 00:00

THE trouble with people like Frederik van Zyl Slabbert dying is that they are such a rare breed than even in death they pose uncomfortable questions about their society as they did when they were alive.

Who, for example, from the Afrikaner community has the courage he had to speak out and take on the establishment instead of constantly moaning about being left out? Who of the present day beneficiaries of the new political order — the black middle class — is ready to look beyond their personal benefits and speak truth to power, even at the risk of losing potential­ prestige, power or wealth, as Van Zyl Slabbert did.

White South Africans will probably argue that peacetime revolutionaries have hijacked the struggle against white racism and replaced­ it with a form of black arrogance­ that would have been alien­ to the true revolutionaries who led the freedom movement.

I agree with that view. Though peacetime revolutionaries are the first to chant that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, they foolishly think that marginalising whites is a revolutionary act and therefore do all they can to “other” their compatriots simply because they are white.

They cannot see the contradiction in saying that something belongs to all while creating firewalls to prevent others from accessing or making inputs to it. This only serves to aggravate the racial tensions that already exist as a result of the skewed material resources enjoyed by whites, relative to black South Africans.

Only a complete idiot would think that white racism died with the end of legislated apartheid. Black people in virtually every field of life still have to prove themselves before they can be accepted as equals. Conditions of many farmworkers are no better than they were when Drum magazine exposed the slavery on potato farms in the fifties.

It is also naive to think that one’s life chances have stopped being governed by race and class with whites generally being on the right side of both equations.

But it is always worth remembering that the anti-apartheid project was never about replacing white racism and exclusive privilege with black chauvinism. In the words of that exponent of Black Power himself, Steve Biko, it was about in time “bestowing upon South Africa the greatest gift possible, a more human face”. Or, as Pan Africanist Congress founder Robert­ Sobukwe had said earlier, a country where the colour of a person’s skin would be as irrelevant as the shape of their ears.

To pay tribute to Van Zyl Slabbert is therefore not a favour blacks owe to a white Afrikaner male. It is a mark of true commitment to the struggle against all sorts of bigotry, a struggle that Van Zyl Slabbert lived for.

To exclude or dismiss whites because­ they are white is also an inefficient way of using scarce resources­.

As with Van Zyl Slabbert, white South Africans enjoyed better education than their black counterparts. It was not fair but they did. But it is inefficient to want those skills to go to waste when the country has a serious skills deficit.

Like Van Zyl Slabbert, there were many white people whose education and intellect enabled them to foresee a future society and identify the fault lines which had to be dealt with if we were to get there.

He was the embodiment of the rise in the Afrikaans middle class’s growing discomfort with an ideology founded on falsehood — an unintended consequence of giving a people a quality education. He was part of a few who realised that their children would never enjoy the benefits of the good life if this was a result of the perpetual exclusion of the majority­.

Replace white Afrikaner male with middle-class black and you still have an issue with how the minority enjoys political and economic benefits while the majority are excluded, just as it was when Van Zyl Slabbert entered politics in 1974.

It remains incumbent on white intellectuals to follow Van Zyl Slabbert’s example by breaking out of a culture of silence and speaking out today. He did not wait until conditions were favourable to speak truth to power. He did not sit at a braai and go on about how “they” are ruining everything.

The same call needs to be made to the black middle class and intelligentsia.

They must take a leaf from Van Zyl Slabbert’s book and realise that sitting quietly hoping that their blackness and proximity to the powerful will be rewarded is not patriotic.

In the same way that he who could have enjoyed the benefits that came with being a gifted white Afrikaner male in apartheid South Africa chose the difficult life of being an outcast in his community, the black middle class and intellectual community have the same responsibility to speak out when bigots and new-age fascists try to reverse the gains of our struggle.

Van Zyl Slabbert knew he could not live with his conscience knowing he was a beneficiary of a system that continued to exclude the vast majority of South Africans. For as long as the majority of black children still get the poor education, health and housing they do, the black middle class as beneficiaries of the new political order will, in time, have to ask itself the same questions he must have.

Like Van Zyl Slabbert, it will have to envisage the inevitability of the excluded coming to demand their fair share of their country’s endowment. By choosing to remain in their ivory towers or engage only around exclusive braai fires, white South Africa and its intellectuals will have to contend with black fascism that will inevitably rise for as long as social and economic injustices continue mainly in their (whites’) favour.

Typical of a visionary, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert will not die until his vision is realised.

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