Last year in August I was listening to an interview with Andile Mngxitama (black consciousness activist and author) on Redi Tlhabi’s show on 702. I wanted to applaud and salute Andile, especially for his views on the lack of change since the dawn of our democracy and his criticism on corrupt politicians. I felt that we shared the same mission: To truly improve the lives of the poor in this country for the greater good of us all and to root out corruption – once and for all! We needed to make politicians understand that they are our servants and that our vote is not for free – viva the people!!!
I was going to contact Andile to introduce myself – a white Afrikaans 36 year old male – to be part of the new struggle in some way. I felt it was high time for me and fellow whities who entered adulthood at the dawn of our democracy to join forces with like-minded multi-racial individuals, especially black men like Andile, who play a leading role in our country on all levels of business and politics today. Then I saw Andile’s comment on his September National Imbizo Facebook page (removed by time of publishing this): "i think we are clear no whites allowed. if they want to assist let them give us the funds with no conditions attached! [sic]" I froze, and my excitement became anger. So it's an "us and them" situation again. If there ever was a time for us as black and white South Africans to unite, it should be now (then). Why is it that he wanted to exclude whites from his mission to end the suffering? Did he truly think white folks would simply throw money at a cause they can’t be part of and have no say in?
Fast forward to June 2012. I have read many articles and listened to countless debates since my Damascus moment last year September. Our politicians are more corrupt than ever. Our last police commissioner was (eventually) sacked for being corrupt – apparently due to pressure on the ANC from civil society, rather than because of evidence pointing to his corrupt ways. The Spear saga is still fresh in our memories with all its supposedly racial elements as interpreted by “those who have a log in their own eye”. Questions were raised regarding the state of freedom of speech in our country with some believing that this was a white (colonialist?) attack on the black African male in general and should not be tolerated. Andile Mngxitama is still on his “blacks only” mission to rid South Africa of “COCONUT KIDS (who) HAVE LOST TOUCH WITH THEIR ROOTS” so that they may never forget what the evil white people have done to them and may forever be aware of Apartheid which could rise again if the “struggle” is not maintained.
But seriously, could Apartheid rise again? With a constitution protecting each one of us from such a system ever emerging again, it is simply impossible. Not to mention the fact that most of the creators and die-hard supporters of Apartheid are dead by now or very close to kicking the bucket. I am not aware of any sensible white person living today who would want such a system reintroduced after witnessing the devastating consequences thereof. Even those who deny their part in it today will admit to the horrible legacy thereof. But this article is not about Andile Mngxitama’s fear of apartheid rising again. It is about what I call a “collective obliviousness” of our Nation to understand that we are all in this together, whether we like it or not. We are in the same struggle, albeit from different perspectives. We will have to emerge out of this struggle as winners collectively, otherwise we will all end up losing - together. There is no other way. A recent article written by Aubrey Masango made it so very obvious to me when he wrote: ” We all need to come to a crucial understanding that we cannot do without each other, that our destinies are inextricably linked, regardless of the accidents of history.” But what is this new struggle really? What or who are we struggling against? Is it against people like me because I form part of the “previously advantaged” category of our society?
Let me tell you a bit of myself, as it will help to put my views in context. I am a member of a white South African tribe called Afrikaner, sometimes also commonly referred to as Boer. I grew up in the southern suburbs of Pretoria. I lived with my parents in a middle-class house and went to a public school. None of my family members were particularly rich or educated; most of my father’s siblings (him included) joined the army when they were very young – never to leave again. Being in the army back in those days were not as financially rewarding as it is today, but the men and woman in uniform had a sense of pride in them, working hard and believing that they were fighting to protect our country from the “Rooi Gevaar” – the onslaught of the communists on our borders from Angola. They served a system they trusted to be just. They are also the generation who, by overwhelming majority, voted for change in the 1992 Referendum, paving the way for a new constitution to be drafted through negotiation which led to our new Democracy in 1994. This important part of our history is often obscured by “struggle fanatics” as it is not in their interest to portray the white man in any positive way, let alone as having played an important role in their struggle to topple apartheid.
I was taught by my parents to respect all people – black and white. I loved our housekeeper Martha, who sometimes looked after me when I was ill as both my parents had to work to sustain our household. I had little (if any) direct contact with black people whilst growing up, except for our maid and sometimes a gardener, referred to as “the boy”. I often wondered why we called him a boy when he was sometimes an older man. I was too young to know of Steve Biko or Sharpeville and had no idea that black people did not like living in the townships. When Chris Hani was murdered, some members of our family nodded approvingly, since they believed a great terrorist was eliminated. I found it strange that they could approve of the murder of a human being, and did not quite understand terrorism nor the political impact of his death. I did not even know what a township was until later in my life when the media became less censored and all races had a chance to express themselves more openly. Only then – probably in my late teens – did I become aware, and interested in, what was going on in our country politically.
After school I had to start working right away as there was no money available for me to study full-time. My first job was as a door-to-door salesman for a dodgy company situated in Pretoria-west – selling anything they had in their warehouse each week – much like the vendors at the street corners nowadays. My income was solely commission based and I had to work very hard to earn enough to pay my gran with whom I was staying and to have money to buy petrol for my rusty little golf which I bought from my sister. Hopefully I would still have some money left each month for beer, cigarettes and to impress a girl now and then. My first job was very hard and unappreciative and I was often chased out of office blocks by security personnel. Today it is some of my fondest memories because I understand how much I have grown during those challenging times. Why am I sharing this piece of my history with you? It is an attempt to illustrate that not all white people of my generation “had it all“ as is often portrayed by struggle fanatics. I may not have grown up in a shack – a fact that I had no choice in but thank the Lord with all my heart for – but I started right from the bottom, working hard for what I have today and all the way believing that there is something better up the road for me. There are many of my generation of whities who will have a similar story. Indeed, something better later appeared for me when my father-in-law was willing to help me start up a small delivery company – delivering bread and milk to households in our area. I did the deliveries myself. The family business grew over the years and took on many different forms with a bouquet of lessons learnt from each business venture.
Today, as a 37 year old white Afrikaans male, I am part of a family business that have changed the lives of 9 black families in the past 3 years. We have done this through job creation in our small company which was started from nothing almost 20 years ago. We did not kick-start our business with wealth acquired from political connections or tenderpreneuring. We slowly built it up over years with willing family members utilising a small room in the family home until it became big enough to house itself. Now we are able to take care of our staff’s basic needs and focus on schooling and study assistance as well – developing our staff by offering counselling and bursaries. We create the opportunity for our employees to become more than they ever dreamt possible. This is a long-term project which we are all committed to – empowering more people as our company grows. To me this is REAL transformation; real empowerment on the very level that it is needed most. Is this then an example of the white businesses that COSATU seems to hate so dearly – the businesses that are allegedly out to exploit black workers at every possible opportunity? Most definitely not. And yes, I know there are many businesses that operate unethically, but I can assure you that they have no racial identity. There are many small businesses – just like ours – who are truly making a big difference to many poor households. Incidentally, many of these businesses are run by white people like us.
So what should the new struggle be about if it is not a struggle against white capitalist “previously advantaged” communities, per se? I have identified five dimensions to this challenge. Firstly and of paramount importance, it is about education. Our biggest enemy is the lack of quality education amongst the vastest majority of our youth. Lack of education blinds our youth to the power they possess to make change happen for themselves. Due to the advantage of quality education which white people generally enjoyed in the past, they are in possession of the knowledge to create wealth, and to re-create whatever is taken away from them, if need be. It is not because of their skin colour. It is the power of education. If we want black (or any other rainbow colour) people to have that same ability – to be able to compete with all other nations across the world on an international platform, the only form of true empowerment is quality education. If the myth of white supremacy held any truth, it could only be sustained by higher levels of education. Education is the biggest battle for us South Africans. It IS absolute power. The “stupification of our people”, as Andile puts it, must end. We cannot allow our children to be taught by a system of education which believes it acceptable to pass a learner on a 30% average and then wonder why s/he struggles to find a job after leaving school. Education will also empower our youth to see the wrongs of their leaders and to use their vote to bring change – a scary thought for some politicians!
Secondly, our struggle is about our identity as South Africans. What is a typical South African? Is he really only black, since black people are the majority? If so, then from which indigenous group? isiXhosa? isiZulu? Sesotho? Or is it about language, or the colour of our skin? Which groups we feel comfortable with? Are Indian people okay, or are they not dark enough to be South African? Who did South Africa originally belong to? Who are the original titleholders – anybody with a black or brown skin? Does South Africa still belong to them (exclusively) today? And the rest of us? What of those who only have South Africa as a home? Those of us who have no other passport than our South African one? Did we choose to be born here in this day and age? Do we, as a nation, understand that the world has become a global village? We cannot believe any longer that any specific group of people – black or white – could isolate themselves as a “chosen” group, socially or economically, thinking that they can survive in this way on this global village called earth. All nations are interdependent of each other. The old Apartheid government was a classic example of this. When they were isolated for long enough, they had to start negotiating a different path. The path of isolation was a doomed one for every citizen of South Africa. We need to create a national pride – an identity as South Africans. We are NOT the same, but we can celebrate our differences and still have a common identity as South Africans. We have done so very successfully during sporting events in the past.
The third dimension of the new struggle is the black man’s struggle for identity. What is an African man in South Africa? Is he black of skin colour? Must he speak an African language at home? Where does he live? Does he live in a rural village wearing traditional clothes, practising subsistence farming with maize or cattle? Does he travel by foot or by donkey cart? Or is it okay for an African man to wear Western clothes and drive cars engineered by Europeans. At which point will he become a “coconut” and lose his African identity? Is it when he starts studying at an English university? Is it when he starts learning the way of the Western (or Eastern) world by educating himself in their economic and political systems? Is he losing his African identity when he allows himself to venture into these “things of the Western world” or is he empowering himself as an African man by expanding his views and horizons to create an understanding of how the world of today works so that he himself can play in it – to his own advantage and that of his people. In my opinion, the real enemy of the black man today is twofold:
1. He does not know who he is. When he tries to steer clear of the “white ways” of the Western world and their systems, they overpower him into surrendering to their own agendas of national or strategic importance. They overpower him because the system of the world is a system that works. If you understand it and play it, you can use it to your own advantage. You can even change it if you know it well enough. If you resist it, you will eventually break yourself against it. The apartheid government is, again, a good example. Zimbabwe’s current government is another. Luckily, Zimbabweans have South Africa to flee to when there is nothing left for them in their own country. Where will South Africans flee to if we are unable to govern our country successfully in the system of the world? Here again the old coconut comes into play – the option to follow the Western way. If a black man becomes too much like a white man – be it in the way he looks or where he lives, but especially in the way he thinks about the economy or about politics – he is deemed a coconut. Not black enough. Inevitably, you are either a comrade – fighting against everything white or Western but with no convincingly better plan, or you become a mindless zombie following the white man and his ways, with no true identity of your own. Is this really the only two options for black people? If not, what then is an African? Once you define your identity as an African, you will understand your role in the global village, and it need not be “copycat slave of white supremacy” nor “mindless revolutionary comrade”.
2. Education. Again, this is the Holy Grail, so to speak. This is why our government should spend the absolute majority of its efforts and resources on it. Not on multi –billion rand arms deals, train networks and toll road projects. Infrastructure development may also be important, but not in the least comparable to the importance of providing world-class education to our children from the youngest possible age. Proper, world-class education will empower our black youth to understand the world economic and political stage, set by the dominant powers, on which they have to survive. It will empower them to play the system to their own advantage - to use it to benefit themselves, their families and their country. It will also empower them to change “the system” and improve its shortcomings – to make this world a better place for generations to come. But it can only be achieved by understanding the weird and wonderful ways it operates in. You have to know the system to change it. The world is in a changing season – it is ready for more change and Africans can make it happen!
The fourth dimension of the new struggle is about economic inequality. So, we have had a black government for eighteen years now – right from the highest possible position down to every public servant who has to report to our ministers. Ditto SAPS and the SANDF. Despite all of this, the Andiles of this world still blame white capitalists (directly or indirectly) for the lack of service delivery and the inequality experienced by the majority of our society today. What do they want then? At what point will they be able to accept that black people are fully in charge of this country and need to take full responsibility for the consequences of their (in)actions? It may be true that the dwindling white population of South Africa still is the biggest tax base. This does not, however, equate to white people controlling the black government. It is simply a reality which will in time change as the black middle-class and black entrepreneurism grows, given our economy keeps growing progressively. We must remember that among the white tax base there are many citizens who feel like me – who pay their taxes (a good 60+% of our total income) and still feel serious enough about change to write letters like these – to participate in positive debate and to contribute to empowering black people around us; working toward real change. My generation of white people genuinely want all fellow South Africans to live a dignified life. Could it make any sense to still blame the white minority for the lack of change since ‘94? Can you hold so little faith in the intelligence of your black comrades whom you voted into government to think that they can fully control this country politically but still be puppets to their so called Western colonial masters? I simply cannot believe that. Furthermore, I would accept some responsibility for the sins of my forefathers (Apartheid) if I knew that this government did everything in its power to uplift the previously disadvantaged with my financial contribution to them through countless forms of taxes. I would even be willing to pay Tutu’s “wealth tax for whites” if I knew it landed in responsible hands. Unfortunately, the only hands we see in our government are those coming out of the cookie jar. How can my black fellow citizens then demand of me, on top of financial compensation, to continue apologising fervently for the injustices endured by their forefathers during an era I was not part of? I am willing to help correct the inequality we are faced with today, but I cannot take eternal responsibility for our country’s “accidents of history”, as Aubrey Masango calls it.
This brings me to the fifth dimension of the new struggle. It is about our democracy and the power of our vote. This links to the struggle for quality education and to the struggle for economic equality. Could it be that the ANC has lead us to believe that they (the ANC) is the only political party we can vote for? Have they brainwashed us in believing that if we are not voting for them we should not be voting at all? If this is what they have made us believe, it is indeed a true victory for them – setting the table for ANC rule “until Jesus comes” as Jacob Zuma once prophesised. It forms part of the “stupification of our people” as mentioned earlier. The whole point of a democracy is that you get to choose every so many years who you want to entrust the (huge) responsibility with to manage your country. Could it truly be that there is no one else, no other political party capable – if given a chance – to manage our country better than our current government? The only way of getting our politicians to take us seriously is to make them understand that our vote is not for free. It is simple: When they deliver to our needs and hopes – we vote for them. When they are corrupt, self-enriching tsotsi’s – we vote for someone else. If that someone else does a better job, they keep our vote. But not forever, because we have options and choices. As long as our politicians understand that they serve us (that is why they are called public servants), we may decide to keep voting for them. To abstain from voting simply silences us. It is fodder to the concept of “stupification of our people”, because the ruling party remains in power when our voice is not counted. If it is not counted as a vote for someone else, it is simply not counted at all. Let us choose to utilise the ultimate weapon against a government who ignores our woes!
Dear comrade Andile, what if our destinies are indeed inextricably linked, regardless of the accidents of our history so far? What if we are looking at the same struggle through different perspectives due to the diversity of our history, our backgrounds and our contrasting cultures? There must be some point of common ground for us to find a way of dealing with this great challenge together, considering that everything we hold dear is at stake. We all have the same to lose in the end – our children’s future. I am willing to work towards making South Africa a better place for our children – mine and yours. Yes, yours too. But it will only work if I can trust you to do the same for my children. We come from different worlds and we are not the same, but it is not about us and our differences anymore. We have to be bigger than that. It is about our children’s future in this country and for that reason – for them – taking hands is our only choice.
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