Why many whites feel alienated

2010-03-04 00:00

AT a meeting last month with opposition leaders, President Jacob Zuma complained about the visible lack of white participation in celebrations to mark national events. The president wanted to know why there are so few whites in the crowds, waving flags and cheering, when he opens Parliament or addresses meetings to mark national days. This is a good question: it goes to the heart of what the ANC calls the ”national question” and also points to an underlying defect in our constitutional system.

There are several obvious answers. To start with, it is a cultural thing. First World people everywhere tend to be individualists. Many of them feel uncomfortable waving flags, toyi-toyiing and singing liberation songs. They can think of many better ways of spending their time than by listening to speeches (often critical of themselves) by leaders with whom they profoundly disagree. Others, rightly or wrongly, might feel exposed, isolated and even threatened at large rallies where they would be a conspicuous minority.

The underlying reason is more serious: it is that many white South Africans — and many members of other minorities as well — feel themselves less and less represented in the institutions of their country. The glow of the initial years of the “rainbow nation” has, unfortunately, faded. The wonderful gestures that Nelson Mandela made to embrace whites to the bosom of our new multiracial nation are no longer forthcoming. There are no present equivalents of tea parties with Betsy Verwoerd or the donning of the Springbok jersey (although, to give Zuma his due, he did appoint Pieter Mulder as Deputy Minister of Agriculture).

Instead, there is a growing sense of alienation. There is a perception that white expertise in public administration is not wanted. For example, critically important posts in police forensic laboratories go unfilled because the only suitable candidates are white. White candidates for judicial appointment are passed over, despite impeccable judicial and struggle credentials. Offers by former municipal managers to help sort out the service-delivery crisis are ignored. The tone of anti-white sentiment in the rhetoric of ANC demagogues becomes more strident. Internationally respected institutions such as the Nasionale Afrikaanse Letterkunde Navorsings Museum in Bloemfontein are neglected and allowed to fall to pieces. Everywhere there is a sense that white history and the contribution that whites made to the development of the country are being air-brushed out of the national identity.

Zuma himself adds to these perceptions. He derides the contribution that whites made to the creation of our new nonracial democracy when he says that FW de Klerk, when president, was “forced” to make the announcements of February 2, 1990 by the “irresistible pressure” of the “armed struggle”. He forgets that white South Africans could have stopped the transformation process dead in its tracks had 70% of them not supported De Klerk’s call for continuing the negotiations in the referendum of March, 1992. The objective is evidently to ensure that non-ANC elements emerge from the history of our transition with as little honour as possible.

Perhaps this was inevitable in our winner-take-all constitutional dispensation where the built-in racial majority determines everything. Under these circumstances, minorities inevitably feel that they are excluded. It is a pity, therefore, that our 1996 Constitution did not include some provision for the institutional inclusion of our minorities. In De Klerk’s view, there should have been a State Council, on which minority parties would have been represented, that would have considered all questions of national importance and particularly those that directly affected minority interests.

The State Council would not have had a veto over the decisions of the Cabinet — but it would at least have ensured a greater sense of inclusivity and consultation in the processes of government. Perhaps the minority parties could have elected an apolitical ceremonial deputy president to help officiate at national events and represent the country at home and abroad? No doubt minorities would be more inclined to attend celebrations that included leaders with whom they could identify.

Zuma is right to be concerned about this “national question”. In a 2005 policy document, the ANC observed that “the national question around the world, far from being solved, is raising its head in an unimaginably barbaric manner”. It went on to point out that “the lesson for South Africa is that we dare not ignore the national question in our own country”. It then succinctly summarised its own position:

“In the South African context, the national question is not principally about the rights of minorities or ethnically motivated grievances (this statement is not intended to diminish the importance of the rights of minorities). It is, in fact, principally about the liberation of the African people.”

Elsewhere, the ANC states that, in considering “the identity of the South African nation in the making ... what is required is a continuing battle to assert African hegemony in the context of a multi-cultural and non-racial society.” The ANC insists that “the affirmation of our Africanness as a nation has nothing to do with the domination of one culture or language by another — it is recognition of a geographic reality and the awakening of a consciousness which colonialism suppressed”. In fact, hegemony has only one meaning: it means domination — and it is irreconcilable with the principles of equality and human dignity upon which our Constitution is founded.

Zuma should not mistake the absence of whites from national celebrations as a lack of patriotism or commitment to the future of the country. Most white South Africans have a deep and abiding love for their country and share a commitment to the future success and happiness of all its people. If they are absent from flag-waving celebrations, they are over-represented in nongovernmental organisations, charities and service organisations that work tirelessly, effectively and without pay for the benefit of our society — and especially for its most disadvantaged members.

However, many of them feel increasingly excluded and alienated  — inter alia because of the growing pervasiveness of “African hegemony”. Perhaps the time has come for frank discussions between Zuma and the leaders of minority communities to discuss these issues — because the ANC is right: “The lesson for South Africa is that we dare not ignore the national question in our own country.”

• Dave Steward is executive director of the FW de Klerk Foundation.

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