A line was drawn atthe annual Ruth First Memorial Lecture this week, where three women took to the lectern to speak their truths. Panashe Chigumadzi tackled Rhodes Must Fall and why angry ‘coconuts’ are turning on white power, while Sisonke Msimang and Lebo Mashile tackled the disillusion around black-white friendships and relationships. They also raised other, more complex issues. The mood revealed that black South Africans feel they have played footsie with white power for too long. Three City Press writers came away energised. The fourth, not so much
Here’s what the Ruth First lecture did for me: As it ended, I reached for my phone and called my partner with some trepidation.
I was as invigorated as I was rattled and I suddenly had the feeling he was perfectly within his rights to end our relationship.
Because the truth that had finally dawned on me was that a relationship I had regarded as 50-50 was nothing close to equal.
My partner is a black South African. It’s clear to me now that he’s been the one doing all the hard work. And it’s time for that to change.
Now middle class but raised in a township, he has spent decades mastering my language – he is studying a postgraduate degree that he will write in impeccable English.
He follows Afrikaans quite easily. But in our two years together, what have I done to even attempt to learn to speak Sesotho, his mother tongue?
I’ve thought about it, cringed about it, but never committed to doing it. I’ve even told myself I’m bad with languages.
What bulls**t! Even if I was, I have the privilege of a top education and the material benefits to take a course, buy a tape and get stuck in.
I have let him patiently translate Simphiwe Dana for me as we listened to her latest album on a lazy Sunday afternoon. I did not retain one of those lines.
But language is just an example. There are a million other realities I am neglecting to acknowledge and respect.
Do I truly understand his black anger in a white world just because, for example, I vote EFF and sing along to Brenda Fassie?
When he comes from work and has had a kak day, I’ll say I had one too. And we’re equal.
But we’re not. I carry white patriarchal privilege through the office, even a black office. He must stand up to, and negotiate, that structural privilege daily.
I grew up poor, but with land and education. Have I ever truly internalised what it was like to grow up black with apartheid education, pitiful service delivery and a gogo broken by injustice? No, I haven’t.
When someone on stage speaks about a domestic worker who is expected to wash madam’s panties, have I really placed myself within the indignity of that legacy?
Ruth First is held up as a “good white”, but in my opinion, there are no good whites; there can only be better whites. Better at acknowledging the complexity of the past that is burnt on the skin of black South Africans today. For me, it was easier, during apartheid, to hold up a middle finger to the Nats, defy conscription, get tear-gassed and jailed.
It’s much harder to do the actual work of building an equal society.
I didn’t want to write this because, as I told my colleagues, there’s already enough white noise.
But when I thought about it, that’s just another cop-out, a typical display of white apathy in the face of the very real, very hard work that white South Africans have simply never done.
Washing Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s feet doesn’t cut it.
We need to open our ears, educate ourselves, walk in the streets – after lobbying to change the names of the ones honouring evil colonialists – live in black areas, learn the languages of the land we live in, divest from our privilege, share our wealth, raise our children as part of a broader community and a host of other practical, obvious things.
We have had plenty of white excuses and white complaints. What we haven’t had is some real, actual hard work.