Addressing Privilege in South Africa

2015-07-29 14:28

Privilege, or special rights and invulnerability afforded to particular groups, is a topic that never ceases to stir immense debate. For those who have hidden their shame (for obvious reasons), be it their sexuality, economic status and background, violence or even the need to conform to different cultural values in order to shake off associated stereotypes and fit in, the release of built up emotion is extremely liberating. However, for those who attain to certain privileges, acknowledgment of this fact is anything but redeeming.

Assessing ones status of privilege is complex. In a recent Buzzfeed video, “What is Privilege?” questions pertaining to individuals’ family background,  access to employment, health care, books and general comfort in society, provided a stark visual on privilege. With each question, a person takes a step back or forward depending on how he/she identifies with it. It came with little surprise that at the end; a straight white male dominated whilst, a black homosexual woman trailed the furthest behind.

Addressing privilege, in its many multifaceted and even unconscious forms, is a task that involves both empathy and patience. A common misperception is to fix privilege by focusing solely on fictional entities such as politics, economics, science and religion. Although provisions for education, health care, employment and even laws legalising marriage in all forms  is imperative to achieving societal equality, open communication between social groups and changes in overall perceptions is required to remove the stigma that restrict the daily lives of many.

Due to the complex nature of privilege, most South Africans will identify with privilege in diverse ways. With the recent Rhodes Must Fall Movement, the open acknowledgement of white privilege liberated the pent up inner shame many South Africans are forced to be objected to. The eruption of emotions that continues to follow is restricted by the equally strong emotions from those who just don’t understand.

While, in an argument or debate objections are required, privilege is not a debate, especially an online one. Privilege is the reality that we live in.

Understanding the concept of white privilege takes into account that not all white South Africans are rich, and in turn, not all black South Africans are poor. Crime and violence affects all South Africans, with those with the most wealth and least societal status (be it women, foreigners or homosexuals) respectively, targeted the most. White privilege is the unconscious privilege of not being associated with stereotypes of being lazy, savage, unintelligent, undeserving and corrupt. It is the privilege of not having to change aspects of your identity in order to be accepted and acknowledged as an equal.

It is in these areas, no policy implementation can repair.

Since the start of the Rhodes Must Fall Movement earlier this year, many have begun openly speaking out on their experiences of infiltrated societal white privilege. While some can recognise the truth in such recollections, others become defensive or stifled by guilt and the inability to inflict radical change.

While it is easy to brush off and rationalise the privileges one attains, the South African attitude of avoidance and ‘faking it’ creates a hateful separation. By choosing to not openly and constructively address the issue as a nation, generalizations and unrealised racism prevents the formation of a common understanding and a flow of mutual respect.

Due to this, governmental reforms allowing previously excluded individuals’ opportunities to join the economy, such as the infamous BEE strategy, is still met with grievances. Although these reforms aren’t perfect, the notion of black South Africans being “useless” and in need of constant “hand-outs” is inappropriate and displays traces of unawareness of the past or current reality.

Countless analyses on inequality in South Africa show a skewed economic favourability to the white demographic. The economic stance taken by the ANC favoured, and continues to support those already contributing comfortably to the economy, as well as, a few chosen ones who benefit from BEE. More emphasis is needed on confronting issues of inequality. To detest black empowerment in the work place is unfounded considering the lack of opportunities and the discredit given to those who are not accepted, in our restrictedly favouring society.

While the ANC and their counterparts partake in economic luxury and multiple alleged dealings in corruption, which is still ashamedly normal in comparison to global rankings, there is no evidence of a “Reverse Apartheid”. Instead, empirical and statistical evidence shows that majority of black South Africans still struggle to integrate efficiently into the economy and often are expected to prove themselves against the stigmas associated with their skin colour.

Despite what we’ve accomplished since 1994, radical changes of the South African psyche are required for further progress. Addressing privilege in all forms has little to do with entitlement and the purpose is not to impose guilt. Dealing with the reality of hatred and misunderstanding is a lag the South African democracy must overcome in order to achieve a real integrated Nation.

View the questions used to analyse privilege from Buzzfeed here

What questions would you use to determine privilege in a South African context?

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