Dear Black South Africans...

2013-08-17 10:43

In any open letter, or article I may write, let me assure you that I would never have the audacity to lump any one group of South Africans into a generic bundle, and address the group as if there were not vast differences in ideologies, cultures and beliefs between people.

So I continue to be surprised that so much is written – blogs, columns, open letters, tirades – that address ‘groups’ as if every person in the group is in essence the same.  Examples abound of the extremist view, of thinly veiled racism, of vitriol, of intellectual one-upmanship that blacks and whites use to diminish each other. It seems we’ve yet to address the very concept of racism, the artificial construct which self-perpetuates, forcing the wedge between us. This then, is a reflection on how we treat - and label -  each other.

Consider the anonymous letter, posted by blogger  Esethu Hasane on this site in July, from the UCT Facebook Confessions Page, addressed to ‘All White South Africans’:

The writer stresses that he (or she?) would never go so far as to say that "white people are lazy and just want to live off their apartheid inheritance..." – although it's implied. The writer reassures, "Let’s just respect one another and acknowledge that this country is for everyone." Which is a shared sentiment, but I was irritated as I read the continuing references to white people: "We don’t want to kick you out (white people), this is your home too...."; "Anyway, white people, please understand that black people don’t want to steal your wealth or prevent you from success, or exclude you from jobs, they just want to enjoy the same benefits and access of our economy. So don’t feel punished."

I felt disconcerted, that I, a whitey, was yet again lumped together with all other whiteys. I am not merely a white; I am certainly not an exploiter, nor am I fearful or unwilling to share. I see myself as a South African with talents to offer which can, and do, empower people of all hues.

Max Du Preez, in his latest column, A reality check for white and black, concludes: "The white minority should wake up and face the fact that living as if nothing had changed is a dangerous delusion; that new sacrifices will have to be made. And black South Africans should realise that those whom we had voted into power must be held accountable for betraying their mandate." My problem with this wrap up, is that it too keeps whites and blacks separate.

Not all whites have their heads in the sand; not all whites are made of money; not all whites are oblivious to the needs of those less privileged, or are oblivious to their own privilege. Not all blacks are blind to corruption; not all blacks condone the abuse of power of the ANC – which in turn is not all black.  Talking in extremes - whites must do this, blacks must be prepared to do that - is a perpetuation of ‘apartheid speak’. The stereotypical thought that all whites are rich, lazy bastards living off the fat of the land and the spoils of apartheid and that all blacks are too stupid to see that ‘their’ government is cheating them left right and centre, has to be challenged. Us and them. Black and white. This ‘group classification’, drawing an invisible line between blacks and whites, is a dangerous habit which deepens resentment rather than bridges the gap.

Let’s not ignore white privilege. Social commentator and author Professor Sampie Terreblanche spells out the sacrifices whites will have to make in a forthright interview with Fazila Farouk: "The Whites were, in the beginning of the 20th century, 20% of the population. When the transition took place in '94, they (were) only 10%. Ten percent of the population has all these entrenched privileges. ...They are not educated about their history. None of us deserve what we have because it was a cruel system. It was a system of...(unjust) as can be. So the Whites will have to make a sacrifice. We cannot grow out of this situation. We will have to do something at the top to improve the position of the 50% at the bottom. There is no other way.”

Currently the stats show, says Terreblanche, that 20% of the population are the rich elite, 30% are neither here nor there, and 50% are impoverished. But Terreblanche goes on to qualify that “of that top 20% - 10 million people – which receive 75% of total income, 3,7 million of them are white and 6,3 million are black, (though) the whites are the richer part of that group. The lower 50% of the population (receive) only 8% - less than 8% - of total income. It is a shocking situation.”

Indeed it is. I would have been in favour of Terreblanche’s proposed wealth tax which was pooh-poohed at the time he suggested it in November 1997. But now, in 2013, why does public figure Khanyi Dhlomo get away with a R34-million loan from government to fund her top-drawer Sandton boutique selling dresses at R100 000 per pop, while the white house-wife who drives a fancy car is crucified? I couldn’t agree more that Droom paleis holiday homes which stand idle apart from six weeks over December, and 4x4’s negotiating city speed bumps, are an obscene gesture of indifference toward South Africa’s poor. At this stage, however,  in a supposedly democratic nation, reparation or compensation or sacrifice - or can we rather begin to refer to more regularly as sharing - should be required by all those who are currently wealthy, no matter their skin colour. 'Yes, Khanyi is black, get over it' is the wonderful headline of Ferial Haffajee's latest column. The headline alone spells out what we have to do as a collective: get over skin colour. To take the analogy further -  no matter the skin colour, exploitation is exploitation, and wealth is wealth. If there are ten million obscenely wealthy people in this country, a little under two-thirds of whom are black, it should not only (as it seems) be whites who are called to account. No one would deny that whites occupy an extremely privileged position. But plenty of coloureds, Indians, blacks, Chinese and other 'groups' in the top echelons are as wealthy and as privileged as the rich whites. We can't ignore the fact that there are villains other than the whites and that in too many cases obscene wealth accumulated by ‘groups’ other than whites is done so by unsavoury measures. And we can't gloss over current government corruption which keeps the 'poor black'  in chains - which when done in the past was rightly vilified.

Another recent posting of inflammatory black/ white speak was penned by Athambile Masola on a Thought Leader blog: "Private schools," she writes, "are a crude reminder of how white privilege and white supremacy continue to prevail in the new South Africa. They also appear to be unapologetic for their privilege as though they accumulated their wealth in a vacuum. Former white private schools ...have not been transformed." As Masola denigrates private schools, her statements show little understanding of context, no knowledge of the fact that these very private schools opened their doors to children of all skin colour during the apartheid years. Again whites are seen in terms of ‘they’ – the way we speak about the invisible lurking criminal forces.

Sticking with private, or independent schools for a moment, the truth of the matter is that the ANC took the woeful state schooling system it inherited and rather than rehabilitate it, has trashed it further. As Jaundiced Eye columnist William Saunderson-Meyer reminded us in March, School kids pay the cost of political schizophrenia: “Public schooling has been battered by failed curriculum changes; by the hasty retrenchment of experienced teachers; by the closure, later reversed, of training colleges; by the disbandment of the schools inspectorate; by the perennial failure to deliver textbooks; and most damagingly, by government’s tolerance of a teacher union militancy that has corroded any learning culture."

Saunderson-Meyer may well be spot on when he says that "What the ANC perhaps most dislikes about a burgeoning independent school sector is that it is a constant and bitter reminder of government failure."  There's a reason there currently exists 1,571 independent schools, of which 451 were established in the past five years:  "African pupils and parents confronted with failed or overcrowded state schools are voting with their feet" to opt for independent, and decent, education despite the price.

A reader responds to Masola’s blog: Sorry but I’m a Cape Coloured who grew up under apartheid and went to a private school in Cape Town more than 20 years ago. It was expensive and cost my mother 1/4 of her salary. I had to walk 3 kilometres everyday just to save money on transport. ...My education came with a lot of sacrifice. Don’t make it sound as if private education is about apartheid and whites – it’s not.

Good point. Not everything is black and white. We have yet to learn, it seems, that people deserve more than to be ‘grouped’ according to any single criteria. By continuously talking ‘colour’, and making generalised assumptions, all we do is pour salt in wounds that are so obviously yet to heal.

So to coin a famous line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears...”

Dear South Africans...

It’s long past time to find a way of relating to each other that forgoes the ‘group’ mentality, the apartheid mentality. We’ve been there, done that and we continue to pay the price.  It will take some effort to consciously regard others as human beings primarily, which is what we have to do. Race? Colour? When do we get it into our heads that it's a man-made construct which has already done untold harm.

The challenge is to avoid talking entirely in terms of black versus white, in terms of white supremacyand black poverty; to find ways of sharing that do not leave any ‘group’ – any South Africans - ostracized or emotionally diminished, while accepting that sharing has to happen in order to empower the 50% of South Africans in dire straits, and so bitterly abused over the years.

Join the conversation!

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