Max du Preez

White South Africans, listen more but don't be silent

2015-04-28 08:20

Max du Preez

I felt the effects last week of the new dictum that white South Africans should shut up, stick to their own kind and let their black compatriots do the talking and the governing.

I wrote in a column that King Goodwill Zwelithini should be held to account for his reckless utterances about foreigners in South Africa. There are strong indications that his remarks had a direct effect on the wave of xenophobic violence that followed his remarks, I said.

I was immediately confronted by angry black readers, all of them identifying themselves as Zulu-speakers.

The charge was led by someone who has become a public figure only because he is President Jacob Zuma’s son and because of his own xenophobic views, Edward Zuma.

The accusation by Zuma Jr and others that I was being disrespectful of the Zulu monarch is one that I can engage with. I would point out that I didn’t insult “Zulu culture”, something that means different things to different people, in any way.  I didn’t attack the monarchy as an institution. I merely pointed out that the king himself was a powerful public figure; that he was paid some R65m per year by South African taxpayers and that most of them don’t recognise him as their king; and that even the Zulu king can’t be above the law and the Constitution.

But the other accusations are of a different kind. Zuma Jr and others called me a racist and argued that because I have a pale skin, I had no right to comment on “black affairs”.

'Whites should withdraw from the public discourse' 

In his bizarre outburst, Zuma Jr asked why I didn’t also “put Queen Elizabeth in her place”. (Perhaps my surname sounded very English to him?) I needed to be reminded “where I come from”, he declared, and requested that I “hit the ceiling”.

There are quite a few white opinionistas who share the view that whites should withdraw from the public discourse and stick to talking to themselves – their only role, is the argument, is to conscientise fellow whites about their privilege and inbred racism – their “whiteness”.

Last week a former UCT student leader, Jon Hodgson, wrote in an opinion piece on the debate around the Cecil Rhodes statue that “white voices shouldn’t matter on the subject of the removal of the statue”; that “white voices shouldn’t speak up in this process, other than to thank Rhodes Must Fall” (referring to the UCT activist group of that name).

Hodgson and others quote black consciousness leader Steve Biko, who said about whites “their place for their fight for justice is within white society”. He was referring to the role the white left had to play in opposing apartheid.

I have a very high regard for Biko’s philosophy and insights. He is still relevant today, 40 years after he was murdered. But we have to keep in mind that he was speaking in the early 1970s at the height of apartheid and with no signs that white oppression was going to end soon. His words can’t all simply be applied to our society 21 years after apartheid – at least as applies to political freedoms – came to a fall.

I find statements like Hodgson’s to be a form of the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. He seems to think black students and intellectuals don’t have the capacity to stand up to their white counterparts in a debate. They’re still catching up, he seems to say, so let’s stay out of their way so they can develop and grow up – almost like a kind teacher allowing his teenage pupils to argue in the class without the interference of a superior mind.

I have a surprise for Hodgson and his ilk. I know quite a number of black intellectuals and have engaged with a number of black students at Fort Hare and UCT who’d eat him for breakfast in a debate.

Hodgson believes transformation really entails white people “filling up” less space and black people “taking up” more.

I’m going nowhere

The protesting students have no need to be given space by whites; they don’t need to be treated with kid gloves. They’re tough and clever and assertive. They will occupy the space they think they need, whether condescending, patronising whiteys want them to or not.

Edward Zuma and people like him forward another argument: whites should shut up because they’re not indigenous. This is black country, you whiteys are here only because we tolerate you. You oppressed us for many generations, now you will dance to our tune.

This argument doesn’t actually deserve a response. I’ll only tell Zuma this: deal with it, my friend, I’m going nowhere. I’m as South African as you are.

The responses of many white people to Zuma Jr’s attack on me in the comments section below my column and on social media were crude and racist, reinforcing the worst suspicions many black people have of whites.

I found it depressing and embarrassing. But it is still no argument why whites should hide and let blacks do the talking. All people have equal capacity to behave like bigots and fools, as Edward Zuma has proved.

I would advise fellow white South Africans to listen more and to try harder to understand what their black compatriots think and feel. I would suggest to them that they should, in their own interest if not that of the whole society, be more careful and sensitive. But I will never ask them to withdraw or to shut up.

Drawing new boundaries that determine who should be allowed to say what about whom smacks of a form of neo-apartheid.

- Follow Max on Twitter.

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Read more on:    edward zuma  |  goodwill zwelithini

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