White SA: Racist or in recovery?

When I was a child in the 80s, our gardener’s son once wistfully confessed that he wished he was a European. I remember it vividly because it made absolutely no sense to me. It was as if my mother had confessed to dreaming of becoming an oriental circus performer. I imagined that he wanted to don lederhosen in the bracing Bavarian hill-country or bury fish in a village outside Tromsø. I didn’t realise that to him I was a ‘European’. Being 8 years old or so at the time, I had only ever known Apartheid and had no idea that my life in the suburbs and his in the township was anything other than normal. I was an ordinary oblivious white South African.

I was born into a system that I had no role in setting up or choosing. If asked, my family would have said that racism is an evil. When Mandela was released from prison, I was barely 11 and only followed the sports section of the news. If an apology needs to be given for Apartheid why would I need to give it? When it comes to taking responsibility for Apartheid, should that include me?

In varying degrees that seems to be the attitude of most of white South Africa. When non-white South Africa suggests that whites have not done enough to heal the wounds of Apartheid, we point to how long ago Apartheid was and how it’s about time we all just got over it. When fellow whites suggest that we have not done enough, we tell them to let go of all that ‘white guilt’.

White South Africa is like a cheating spouse—we’re kind of sorry, but what’s done is done, and we’d really like it if our significant other could stop bringing it up over and over. Non-white South Africa (the significant other in this picture) is willing to try and make it work with us, but there is legitimate pain that a mumbled apology won’t heal. They would rightly like to see some evidence of contrition and a new attitude.

Instead of that, most white people—the ones who have a vested interest in forgetting the past—seem not to believe that racism and Apartheid are still a problem. We have already apologised, and so why should we continue to have an apologetic stance towards black South Africa? Why can’t we just move on? We didn’t invent Apartheid when we were in it, we didn’t benefit from it (because we worked hard for our money), we left it behind in ’94, and we’re not racist now (because we’ve stopped using the ‘K’ word).

And this is really the main issue. The problem is not that whites haven’t apologised for our racism (after all, who would someone like me apologise to and what exactly would I be sorry for?). The problem is that we have never owned it at all. It was all someone else’s fault.

The problem is that racism is not only a matter of overt hatred for others. Racism is about classifying people, assigning value, defining what is normal. The political system may be dead, but social attitudes have long gone unaddressed, and these continue to provoke misunderstanding and hurt between groups. In fact, with the passing of time and with the provocations of government mismanagement and corruption, our society seems to be becoming more polarised, and once again this expresses itself along racial lines. Us-and-them language is experiencing a revival, as are references to black labourers as ‘boy’ and other derogatory Apartheid-era favourites.

I realised that I was still a racist as late as the mid-2000s, when while driving past a team of labourers it occurred to me that I saw that as normal—perhaps even right—that they should be black, and that if a white man were digging there, I would have seen that as strange or in some way below his station. My racism was not malicious—it may even have been mixed with love and good-will—but it is undeniably racism of the deepest, cruellest, most systemic kind.

In this sort of way, I think that there is a latent racism in how most white people perceive social order. It’s not necessarily a matter of hatred; it is a matter of seeing white concerns as normal and important, and the plight of black poverty (that we had the formative hand in causing) as unfortunate—but in its own way normal.

It is more obviously active in the odious talk of ‘white genocide’, which is outraged only at how many whites are killed each year without concern that it is still proportionally less than the number of non-white deaths. It is more subtly there in the fear-based emigration of whites who ‘see no future’ for their kids in South Africa, or in those who treat any inefficiency as confirmation that we are ‘3rd world’. It is there when we are troubled by the idea of white informal settlements, but have been sleeping soundly for the many decades in which millions of non-whites have been living in those conditions.

Apartheid may be dead, but it bequeathed to all of us those coloured contact lenses that make racism part of our way of seeing. Realising to what degree you see the world with Apartheid’s taint is the first step to owning the past, and taking nation-building forward into the future.

White South Africans have a habit of labelling any calls for introspection as ‘white guilt’, which is odd when one considers that—objectively speaking—whites are guilty. As a point of fact, Apartheid was a white thing in which we did evil to non-whites. Quibbling over how much guilt you personally should be made to bear is really only a matter of sentencing. The verdict is open-and-shut. Non-white South Africa has thus-far followed Mandela in forgiving us a phenomenal debt. How we make amends for the crime is the issue. It is beyond shameful that our approach has usually been to protest innocence or to blame the victim for getting so upset about the crime.

Fixing racism is not a matter of ‘hanging onto the past’—it is a matter of owning the effects of the past on our daily present. It is not a matter of having apologised (or even continually apologising)—it’s a matter of daily recognising the racism that is a poisonous part of our make-up and exorcising it from ourselves when we find it. Owning due blame for the past is not self-hatred—it is acknowledgement of fact, and it should motivate us to share in the concerns of all South Africans, particularly those whose suffering we have been instrumental in causing.

I am a recovering racist. If you’re a white South African, you are either a racist or you’ve joined the same life-long recovery programme. We either confront our own racism and put a stop to denial, or we reanimate Apartheid’s corpse anew every day.
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