Guest Column

The position of white privilege

2017-02-12 06:06
Police assaulted in Potchefstroom.

Police assaulted in Potchefstroom.

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Theo Mapheto

The recent video showing a white man ­assaulting an on-duty black traffic police ­officer is a clear illustration of the positionality of whiteness in South Africa.

True to the adage that a picture is worth 1 000 words, the video graphically paints a picture of the invincibility of white privilege and the invisibility of the black body.

The pitiful image of a police officer, no less than a symbol of state power, getting down to pick up his cap off the ground is a normalised daily experience of black life.

The point has to be made, however, that it is even more worrying that the video plays itself out under different guises in all four corners of the country as if its aim is to debunk the convenient myth that you have to be illiterate and powerless to suffer at the hands of whiteness.

White privilege is an all-pervasive power with a firm grip on the country’s boardrooms, courts, farms, mines, media houses and academic institutions.

That South Africa sits with a government that has no political will to change the material conditions of black people only serves to rub salt into the wound.

Why did the police officer, armed with a firearm, not place the aggressor under arrest? Or why did he not hit back?

There can be no other explanation than that the officer could not bring himself to foil the ­attack.

He has come to accept, like many black folks, that he is defenceless and helpless. It is inconceivable that he would have let a fellow black person get away with the attack.

This is because he has resigned himself to a ­debilitating sense of inferiority in relation to white ­privilege.

Doing nothing in the face of violence, in much the same way as the government of the day neglects an overhaul the country’s economy, is cowardice of the worst kind.

Inaction in conditions where action is ­required is an abrogation of a person’s responsibility to exercise agency and to determine his own destiny.

Our forefathers in the struggle against colonialism would not have fought gallantly if they were not guided by this belief.

So sacred is this freedom from violence that Malcolm X, in his “the ballot or the bullet” speech delivered in 1964, said:

“I’m nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me. But when you drop that ­violence on me, then you’ve made me go insane, and I’m not responsible for what I do.”

No greater violence is meted out on to the black body than the structural violence experienced by black people the moment they step out of their doorways to get packed like sardines into barely functioning minibus taxis to get to work so they can try to make ends meet, or to wait in interminably long queues to receive government grants.

The less fortunate ones have no land – in their country of their birth – to call their own.

There can hardly be any moral justification for government’s ineptitude to annihilate the legacy of apartheid with its mutually reinforcing effects of poverty and an inferiority complex exclusively reserved for black people.

In all fairness, it is not the ANC government that birthed colonialism and apartheid, but it would be disingenuous not to accept that it is the government of the day that perpetuates – in action and inaction – the structural violence inherent in colonialism and apartheid.

The solution may not lie in the predictably ritualised mass-manufactured anger, driven in large measure by political parties for their own benefit, in the wake of every racist attack that finds its way into the media ­spotlight.

In the year that marks the 40th anniversary of Steve Biko’s death, black people may do well to interrogate their relationship with political parties that have ­allowed their material conditions to remain unchanged even after the introduction of democracy.

A people’s capacity to love themselves and to eliminate all fear of others is premised on a consciousness of self.

Love for oneself will lead to the realisation that it is morally unjustifiable to fear another solely on the basis that he or she belongs to a different race.

Even more importantly, love for oneself, as espoused in the black consciousness movement, will have no tolerance for a system that perpetuates indignities that have ­afflicted black life since the colonial invasion of Africa.

Mapheto is a youth activist and attorney based in Johannesburg

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