Tweets of a Mad White Woman

2015-01-21 19:39

South Africa’s twittersphere was set ablaze last week when former President Nelson Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda La Grange, seemingly went mad. La Grange was reacting to comments made by incumbent President Jacob Zuma who ascribed many of the country’s present governance problems to Jan van Riebeeck (the Dutch settler who ‘founded’ Cape Town in 1652).

The substance of her tweets does not require much attention. Whether Zuma genuinely believes that white people are the root of the country’s problems is unknown. But, his inarticulate statement, and La Grange’s tone-deaf response to it, accurately reflects much of South Africa’s present race discourse. Regrettably, it lacks nuance and introspection.

The debate is usually framed in the following way. Many (black) people believe that the arrival of white Europeans in South Africa started a long process of black subjugation; and, that democracy did not make them compensate enough. In response, many (white) people argue that colonialism and Apartheid – though morally indefensible – did benefit the country; and, that post-1994, they bear little responsibility for the systemic issues which democracy has yet to address.

It is wholly correct for people to assert, as Zuma does, that the arrival of whites in South Africa resulted in nearly four centuries of struggle for blacks. And many of our present day problems can be attributed directly to our country’s racialised history. That does not, however, excuse the present government’s incompetence nor give white people license to forget it.

White people must acknowledge this. No matter how much technical and modern development white settlers may be responsible for, to deny that it came at the cost of black bodies is abhorrent. At its worst, it is almost as callous as the original sin: to blithely suggest that white domination of South Africa is something that black people themselves should be grateful for.

However, it is wrong for Zuma – and others – to use whiteness and privilege to limit debate and scapegoat. Making white people conscious of their privilege is crucial for them to be more self-aware and, hopefully, more sensitive to unobvious manifestations of inequality. But, using this as a filtering mechanism is dangerous: delegitimising a white person’s contribution because of their demographics is reductionism of the worst kind. It denies their legitimate concerns and pushes them out of conversations that they need to be part of. Especially where doing so educates them of their privilege. But only allowing participation after they have gone to extraordinary lengths at self-flagellation is not the way to do it.

Had she been anyone but herself, La Grange’s tweets could have possibly been ignored as the ranting of another race-blind white person. But, her proximity to Nelson Mandela, and the fact that she was a physical representation of our transition should make us look again. The greatest irony is that the racists that she played a hand in overcoming can now look to her as one of theirs. She should be ashamed.

As I have written elsewhere, race is often used as a political tool. ‘‘An acknowledgment from both sides in an increasingly polarised South Africa is what is needed ... Only through genuine understanding will progress be possible: otherwise the racial fury that fringe politicians thrive off will only become more popular and the hope of a truly united South Africa will be lost forever.’’

The legacy of our racialised past is a heavy burden for us all carry and, if we fail to radically rethink the way in which race is used, we run the risk of being crushed by it.

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