Whites and apartheid - Really?
Peet van Aardt
Peet van Aardt
I, as a white person, benefitted from apartheid and I still do.
There, it’s off my chest! After I declared this on my Facebook profile I put on my recently bought Springbok World Cup 2011 jacket and went for a walk down the street. I entered a restaurant and ordered a coffee. Decaf.
I expected something to happen.
I don’t know if I thought the walls would come crashing down, or the pothole in the street would widen and an army of men dressed in red would climb out and go on the rampage. Hell, maybe I thought Dan Roodt and seven men dressed in khaki would bash through the door, abduct me and drive off in two double-cab Hilux bakkies.
The waitress came and asked if everything was OK. When I yelled "Yes!" she raised an eyebrow and retreated behind the counter. She was merely enquiring if I'd like another cup of coffee - black or white?
Desmond Tutu’s reported "attack" on whites last week erupted into another race debate. Some white people apparently lost their respect for the Emeritus Archbishop because he dared to utter the words: “Our white fellow citizens have to accept the obvious: You all benefitted from apartheid. But that does not mean that all are responsible for apartheid.”
Other commentators praised him for saying what all the blacks have supposedly been feeling all this time.
The underlying message from both sides, though, was that "the one still hates the other".
I dare say the majority of people commenting on Tutu’s remark did not listen to his lengthy speech in its entirety. It was delivered during a book launch at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (Stias). What the white bashers who jumped on the ox wagon fail to mention in their mini revolt against Tutu is that he started his speech by first thanking everyone in Afrikaans, and even cracked a joke in Afrikaans. He also had some very harsh words for them fat cat politicians in their expensive cars.
Desmond Tutu did not express any hatred towards whites. If there was ever a man who did not hate, I think it’s safe to say it is the man from Vilakazi Street.
Nor did Tutu tell a lie about the whites.
We did all benefit from apartheid. And we still do.
Time to wipe the slate clean?
A friend of mine illustrated it perfectly: If one part of society had the opportunity to attend schools where the teachers weren’t striking most of the time, if they could study with electricity instead of next to candle light, and if they could afford to go to university (albeit with loans or extreme financial sacrifice), buy clothes in shopping malls and spend holidays at some lovely destination (some in their holiday homes), then yes, that part of society had been privileged by the system that made it possible.
And that part of the population was white.
But today, 17 years into democracy - is it not time to wipe the slate clean and regard everyone as equal, another friend of mine asked? (Enter that Microsoft advert where the people browse on their cell phones when they should be engaging in more constructive things; that one where they keep on asking: Really!?)
Thus the answer is simple: No.
Because 17 years into the New South Africa means that the first generation of "equals" haven’t even finished school yet. And the vast majority of their parents are still on an unequal level, and so too their grandparents and in some cases their great grandparents.
Three hundred and fifty years of inequality cannot be fixed in 17 years. And it should not be expected that those who were oppressed now all of a sudden forget about the past. We cannot "get over apartheid" and so we shouldn't. It happened, fo' sho'.
Make peace with the past
What I do believe we should do is make peace with the past: Whites did benefit from apartheid and as long as we own our second properties on the coast, as long as we occupy the majority of top positions in business, have our own alternative to public transport and as long as there are coffee shops and restaurants with almost exclusively white patrons, we still do.
I’m proud to be white. I will not apologise for what happened in the past, because it is in the past. I do, however, admit that it was wrong and that I came off better than millions of other people. I also hang my head in shame for the way us whites try to nullify the past. It happened. Admit it, accept it and get over it. Like Tutu said: It does not mean that it was all our fault.
A word to the wise though: do not interpret the criticism of one group’s way of dealing with reality as approval of how another segment is dealing with it. South Africa is not doing as well as it should. Some people in government are ridiculously incompetent and their focus seems to be on the wrong things.
And even though there’s nothing new about a corrupt person in power, we should not resort to the notion of two wrongs making a right.
'Crippled by guilt'
I just fear that such an evil standard was set during apartheid, that it is impossible to move away from it just yet. And yes, that system of screwing over others for personal gain was implemented by us whites in the past. But some of us can’t admit to it. We keep on pointing fingers at the faults in the current regime.
Tutu said it best: "Some are crippled by shame and guilt and respond with self-justification or indifference."
Amen, tata. We whites clearly don’t understand the consequences of apartheid.
Now, let me order another coffee and keep an eye on that pothole and the restaurant door...
- Peet van Aardt is the Community Editor of News24.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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