Khaya Dlanga

'The past isn’t the past'

2011-01-11 13:40

Last week was a fireworks week after I wrote a column responding to We are not all Africans, black people are! My position was that white people are also African.

Later I had a discussion with a white acquaintance and our discussion led to her, for reasons I cannot recall, saying, “I did not benefit from apartheid.”

Few things annoy me more than hearing a white South African say that they did not benefit from apartheid. You don’t need to have contributed to the system to have benefited from it.

Why am I writing a column on the fact that white people benefited from apartheid? It is to put it in perspective. I think at times, in our attempt to put everything in the past and to forget, we try to forget what should not be forgotten, because in our forgetting we insult history. We also fall into the trap of emotionalism when we talk about the past and thus forget to put things in perspective.

South Africa has a traumatic past as we all know. The victims of the past feel cheated when they are told that the past is the past and should be buried. To quote Barack Obama in his “A More Perfect Union” speech as he addressed the issues of race in America: "The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past.”

The realities

This is what we are faced with in South Africa. The past isn’t the past. For many, the past is still very present. And so to deny someone who experiences the past every day is not to have what is happening in South Africa in perspective.

I will ask the readers of this column to refrain from emotionalism when reading this and just look at the realities.

I am not unmindful of the fact that some will say, “Get over it, black South Africans, it’s been sixteen years already. Why must we keep talking about race and who benefited?” An understandable position to make when one feels like they belong to a group that is constantly being attacked for no reason other than physical appearance.

On the other hand you will find black people say that if you think that what is happening is an attack, you have no idea what an attack actually is, when your very existence means you are below humanity.

Some white people find it difficult to accept that they benefited from apartheid. No one wants to believe that they may have benefited from something they abhorred. If I were white, even an 18- or 16-year-old white person, I would be uncomfortable with hearing this.

I know that it is very difficult to stomach, but if you are white, you unwittingly benefited from apartheid. A white person may have opposed the system from the very core of their being and marched with the UDF and been a member of the ANC. That does not take away from the fact that they benefited.

Mindless argument

What do I mean? Being white meant that one had access to better schools, which meant that the government spent at least eight times more on the education of a white person than it did on a black person. What is the result of this? Generations of white people received a superior education and the consequence of this meant that they had access to better jobs (not forgetting that the best jobs and universities were reserved for white people anyway). Naturally, white people would end up with more money than black people.

This also meant that for generations white people were able to accumulate wealth, knowledge and knowhow while black people were left behind. As a result, white children who were born after the end of apartheid still benefited from what their parents benefited. A nice house in suburbs, better healthcare, access to good schools because the parents were able to have a better job because they were able to go to varsity and receive superior qualifications. That is then transferred to their children, who then start off from a better station in life than their parents started. This principle applies to the rich too. That is how the rich keep getting richer.

I also know that some will come with the mindless argument saying that black people also benefited, look at the rest of Africa that is run by black governments, South Africa would have followed suite were it not for apartheid. Again, that is making assumptions based on no facts. South Africa is run by a black government. It is not falling apart. Could it be run better? Of course. Like any other in the world.

Now this is not about pointing fingers and blaming anyone; all we want is for people to simply acknowledge that they benefited. That will not harm anyone. It is an insult to say that you haven’t benefited when you breathe that very benefit. I know that some will not agree, but these are the facts.

- Follow Khaya on Twitter.

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