Exorcise our white ghosts

Achille Mbembe
Achille Mbembe

The ground is fast shifting and a huge storm seems to be building on the horizon. May ’68? Soweto ’76? Or something entirely different?

The winds blowing from our campuses can be felt afar, in a different idiom, in those territories of abandonment where the violence of poverty and demoralisation have become the norm. Many have nothing to lose and are now more willing than ever to risk a fight. They simply can no longer wait, having waited for too long.

Out there, from almost every corner of this vast land, seems to stretch a chain of young men and women rigid with tension. As it slowly swells, it becomes ever more important to hold on to the things that truly matter.

A new cultural temperament is gradually engulfing post-apartheid urban South Africa. For the time being, it goes by the name “decolonisation” – in truth a psychic state more than a political project in the strict sense of the term.

Whatever the case, everything seems to indicate that ours is a crucial moment in the redefinition of what counts as “social protagonism” in this country. Mobilisations over crucial matters, such as access to healthcare, sanitation, housing, clean water and electricity, might still be conducted in the name of the implicit promise inherent to the struggle years – that life after freedom will be “better” for all.

But fewer and fewer South Africans actually believe it. And as the belief in that promise fast recedes, raw affect, raw emotions and raw feelings are harnessed and recycled back into politics itself. In the process, new voices increasingly render old ones inaudible, while anger, rage and eventually muted grief seem to be the new markers of identity and agency.

So it is that the relative cultural hegemony the ANC exercised on the black South African imagination during the years of the struggle is fast waning. In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years – these years of stagnation, rent seeking and mediocrity parading as leadership – there is hardly any centre left standing as institution after institution crumbles under the weight of corruption, a predatory new black elite and the cynicism of former oppressors.

In the bloody miasma of the Zuma years, the discourse of black power, self-affirmation and worldliness of the early 1990s is in danger of being replaced by one of fracture, injury and victimisation – identity politics and the resentment that always is its corollary.

Rainbowism and its most important articles of faith – truth, reconciliation and forgiveness – are fading. Reduced to a totemic commodity figure mostly destined to assuage whites’ fears, Nelson Mandela himself is on trial. Some of the key pillars of the 1994 dispensation – a constitutional democracy, market society and nonracialism – are also under scrutiny. They are now perceived as disabling devices with no animating potency, at least in the eyes of those who are determined to no longer wait. We are past the time of promises. Now is the time to settle accounts.

But how do we make sure that one noise machine is not simply replacing another?

Settling accounts

The fact is this – nobody is saying nothing has changed. To say that would be akin to indulging in wilful blindness.

Hyperboles notwithstanding, South Africa today is not the “colony” Frantz Fanon was writing about in his Wretched of the Earth.

If we cannot find a proper name for what we are actually facing, then rather than simply borrowing one from a different time, we should keep searching.

What is being said is that, 21 years into freedom, we have not disrupted the structures that maintain and reproduce “white power and supremacy”.

We are being told we have not radically overturned the particular sets of interests that are produced and reproduced through white privilege in institutions of public and private life. “Whiteness”, “white power”, “white supremacy” and “white monopoly capital” are firmly back on the political and cultural agenda. To be white in South Africa now is to face a new-old kind of trial with new judges – the so-called born-frees.

Politics of impatience

But behind the trial of the whites looms a broader indictment of the South African social and political order. The country is fast approaching its Fanonian moment. A mass of structurally disenfranchised people have the feeling of being treated as “foreigners” in their own land. Convinced that the doors of opportunity are closing, they are asking for firmer demarcations between “citizens” (those who belong) and “foreigners” (those who must be excluded). They are convinced that, as the doors of opportunity keep closing, those who won’t be able to “get in” right now might be left out for generations to come – thus the social stampede, the rush to “get in” before it gets too late, the willingness to risk a fight because waiting is no longer a viable option.

The old politics of waiting is therefore gradually replaced by a new politics of impatience and, if necessary, of disruption.

The age of urgency is also an age when new wounded bodies erupt and undertake to actually occupy spaces they used to simply haunt. They are now piling up, swearing and cursing, speaking with excrement, asking to be heard.

They are claiming all kinds of rights – the right to violence; the right to disrupt and jam that which is parading as normal; the right to insult, intimidate and bully those who do not agree with them; the right to be angry, enraged; the right to go to war in the hope of recovering what was lost through conquest; the right to hate, to wreak vengeance, to smash something, it doesn’t matter what, as long as it looks “white”.

All these new “rights” are supposed to achieve one thing we are told the 1994 “peaceful settlement” did not achieve – decolonisation and retributive justice, the only way to restore a modicum of dignity to victims of the injuries of yesterday and today.

Demythologising whiteness

And yet, hard questions must be asked. Why are we invested in turning whiteness, as well as pain and suffering, into such erotogenic objects?

To properly engineer the death of whiteness, we urgently need to demythologise it. If we fail to properly do so, it will end up claiming us.

As a result of whiteness having claimed us; as a result of having let ourselves be possessed by it in the manner of an evil spirit, we will inflict upon ourselves injuries of which whiteness, at its most ferocious, would scarcely have been capable.

Indeed, for whiteness to properly operate as the destructive force it is in the material sphere, it needs to capture its victim’s imagination and turn it into a poison well of hatred.

For victims of white racism to hold on to the things that truly matter, they must incessantly fight against the kind of hatred that never fails to destroy, in the first instance, the man or woman who hates while leaving the structure of whiteness itself intact.

To demythologise whiteness, it will not be enough to force “bad whites” into silence or into confessing guilt and/or complicity. This is too cheap. The demythologisation of whiteness requires that we develop a more complex understanding of South African versions of whiteness here and now.

This is the only country on Earth in which a revolution took place that resulted in not one single former oppressor losing anything. In order to keep its privileges intact in the post-1994 era, South African whiteness has attempted to fence itself off, to remaximise its privileges through its enclaves and the logic of privatisation.

The unfolding new-old trial of whiteness won’t produce much if whites are forced into a position in which the only thing they are ever allowed to say in our public sphere is: “Look, I am so sorry.”

It won’t produce much if, through our actions and modes of thinking, we end up forcing back into the white ghetto those whites who have spent most of their lives trying to fight against the dominant versions of whiteness we so abhor.

Furthermore, we must take seriously the fact that “to be black” in South Africa now is not exactly the same as it is in Europe or the Americas.

After all, we are the majority here. Of course, to be a majority is a bit more than the simple expression of numbers. But surely something has to be made out of this sheer weight of numbers.

We can use this numerical force to create different dominant standards by which our society lives; paradigms of what truly matters and why; entirely new social forms; new imaginaries of interior life and the life of the mind.

The neurotic misery of our age

Finally, it is crucial for us to understand that we are a bit more than just “suffering subjects”.

“Social death” is not the defining feature of our history. The fact is, we are still here – of course, at a very high price and most likely in a terrible state, but we are here.

We are here – and hopefully we will be here for a very long time – not as anybody else’s creation, but as our own.

One way of destroying white racism is to prevent whiteness from becoming a deep phantasmal object of our collective unconscious.

In a black-majority country in which blacks are in power, we have to ask ourselves: what is the cost of our attachment to whiteness, this mirror object of our fear and envy, our hate and attraction, our repulsion and aspirations?

There will be no plausible critique of whiteness, white privilege and white monopoly capitalism that does not start from the assumption that whiteness has become this accursed part of ourselves that we are deeply attached to, in spite of it threatening our own future wellbeing.

Mbembe is the author of On the Postcolony, recently republished by Wits University Press

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