by Lebogang Moeketsi
‘As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they function as a human norm. Other people are raced. We are not. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that- they can only speak for their race.’ Richard Dyer, Whites.
The above quote provided the setting for the convening of a round-table in November 2015 in Constitution Hill whose contributions were collated and published in this book, recently launched by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection. Prior to there being any measures taken on social inequality, the constructs that produced these inequalities and continue to exacerbate them needed to be articulated.
In naming whiteness, understanding the institutionalization of the Afrikaans language and the cultural genesis of the Afrikaner riding on the long arm of colonial theory; we can begin to imagine and re-construct a South African reality that holds its citizens to account in duty and responsibility and promotes the equal rights, privileges and benefits of its citizenship as put forth in the Constitution.
The structure of the book takes three levels which increase in the sensitivity of the topic. The first level looks at what it means to be white today by considering whiteness, white power, the responsibility that whites have towards South Africa and what the leadership of the new South Africa would look like. The second level moves from the political to the economical where the colour of capital is explored and the viability of economic transformation is accessed. This this level also allows for pushback from Afrikaners on black privilege. The third level asserts the Afrikaans language, Afrikaner history and Afrikaner intellectualism has a place in the world of ideas.
Being White Today
At the dawn of our democratic dispensation, great emphasis was placed on reconciliation, with no equal efforts employ to transformation and reparative justice. Accountability found itself in want as white people constructed innocence, withdrew into their communities and claimed victim status. The vulnerability the whites found themselves in when the political power had shifted into the hands of the black majority could have been the best soil for seeds of full collaboration to take root, engendering a spirit of collective responsibility towards a socially equal and inclusive country. Instead, whiteness became normative and the privilege that comes with a normative order became entrenched in the ways of white South Africans. White South Africans have responded with indifference which Melissa Steyn says, is not an ethical response to the asymmetrical arrangement inherited from Colonialism and Apartheid.
Historically, there have been whites who have responded ethically to this asymmetry. The Suzman’s, Slovos, Fischers and Naudé’s were white leaders who stood and acted against a hegemonic system that fostered inequality. These leaders all had paradoxes regarding identity but clarity with regards to ethics. Perhaps it is within these paradoxes, where there is a continuous feedback of influence between society and the leader, which allows for alternative possibilities to be imagined. The ethics, then, propel the leaders to push for those possibilities that benefit others too.
The NDP (National Development Plan) is the framework through which South Africa’s disparities are addressed and the sixth objective of the plan speaks to encouraging a strong leadership throughout society to work together to solve problems. Corruption, mistrust and tension within society can be combated through this strong leadership and particularly in sectors of society that yield a lot of influence such as the government, the private sector and trade unions. What this leadership can learn from the Suzman’s, Slovos, Fischers and Naudé’s is that multiple identities are permissible but acts must be undergirded by ethics. The private sector can still work for profits and also contribute positively within the economy by increasing productivity and employment. In the case of trade unions, the leadership can still fight for the rights of employees and aide in bargaining without being exclusionary.
While leadership is important, Mary Burton says, what is more important when it comes to white people is the acknowledgement of past and on-going privilege and the resultant responsibility to accept radical change and to participate in developing a more inclusive society. One way this acknowledgement was meant to have taken place was through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which however had a lot of detractors. One being that the TRC had exonerated all the whites who had benefited from the system even though they had not violated any human rights but had continued to vote to support a system of discrimination. There were white people who had just plainly looked the other way and got through the post-apartheid transition time with all their privilege intact. The problem then arises that during the TRC, white people were not called to account then, which has produced an indignation and an in denial of privilege which has only strengthened.
Timing is another factor in how the TRC’s role was limited. The time between when the report was submitted by the TRC and actually discussed in parliament increased anxiety and disquiet among black people; that the Reconciliation Register and campaigns such as the Home for All campaign were not ardently promoted then, make them even harder to achieve now. This could have been a way to disrupt whiteness by making it seen and making visible its operation and oppressive norms, as noted by Christi van der Westhuizen in the book.
Afrikaans people have operated under strict conformity where anything that was volksvreemd (strange to the people) or andersdenkendheid (thinking differently) was not tolerated. Post-apartheid, three groups of Afrikaans people have been identified: Afrikaans African nationalists (the former NP rulers), the neo-Afrikaner (those who have reinvented racism as culture and heterosexism as family values) and the Afrikaans South Africans (those who believe in a shared national inclusive identity). The majority is the neo- Afrikaner which has very specific rules on sexuality, gender and race and this then poses a threat to the transformation and intersectionality endeavours of society as a whole.
Whiteness and the South African Economy
All systems of oppression are marked by economic imperatives; it is no different with apartheid. The best place to start is always with labour. It is noteworthy to mention FOSATU which was the umbrella of the non-racist trade unions. Prior to that, trade unions would promote the interests of white employees only which further alienated black workers. Politics and economics joined forces when COSATU became affiliated with the ANC. Politicizing COSATU meant that the needs of the black working class may have been neglected. It is within the context of the struggling black working class, where the advantages that come with whiteness can be seen. It is also within the context of the struggling black working class where the tensions between social, welfare state and capitalism can also be seen in developmental programmes such as the RDP and GEAR.
Capitalism was the drive behind colonial activities. The colonisers first took the land which allowed them to accumulate other assets, this was followed by the development of professions and then of networks which all had the face of whiteness. Education as well still bears the face of whiteness. Those from poor communities would either have to contend with a primary or secondary education that is ineffective and also with university spaces that are rather hostile towards them. From fees, to accommodation, to a lack of access to digital infrastructure outside campus, the university spaces are those such that the ones who are likely to succeed bear whiteness. The start-up of the Oppenheimers, Rosholts, Ruperts and Wessels were managed more friendly than the current fund managers. The behaviour of the fund manager marked by greed is in stark contrast to the behaviours needed for social justice, nation formation and stability.
Afrikaners have illustrated the behaviours needed, albeit unfortunately, on an exclusionary basis which have contributed to privilege asymmetries. While it’s important that whiteness be defined and explored from a point of privilege because of the prevalence of inequality; there are also white historical contexts that cannot be ignored. As a people, Afrikaners saw their own set of misfortune at the hands of colonisers. They were able to war against colonialism and were also able to completely make themselves a part of the South African fabric. They developed their own culture and language as all others who had settled in South Africa. Although they do not see themselves as colonisers, Apartheid is a cautionary tale that the colonised can also become the coloniser if there are no systems in place to prevent this. Afrikaans people have been placed in a permanent position of guilt and exclusion but this correlates with the seemingly permanent state of inequality in South Africa.
In order to addressing equality in South Africa, transformation has to take place but according to Ernst Roets, black privilege is the privilege to implement racist policies and then call it transformation. Blackness has been defined before democracy as an ethnic group, particularly one that posed a threat to the system and now with the state attempting to be inclusive to black people, to give black people dignity and an identity; blackness has become redefined. This comes across as an exclusionary process to the white minority of South Africa who see themselves as Africans but feel that they are denied that identity based on history and skin colour.
The Population Registration Act was repealed as being racist and yet it is still being implemented. The Overton window speaks of whites killing blacks but not of blacks killing blacks and this may lead whites to speculate on the privilege of black people. There is a dualistic approach that has to take place for full social participation. The objective is not to displace whites from their privilege and replace them with blacks, the objective is to create an equal society for all, while redressing historical injustices. Therefore, both blacks and whites have to interrogate their thinking. In the same way, black people are not only immune themselves from being racist towards white people but should not find any legitimacy from the law, statesmen and pop culture in this regard.
Xhanti Payi provides a different take on transformation. Transformation has been the measure of freedom and the degree to which transformation has taken place has informed the success of the post 1994 era. One way this transformation was to take place was to reverse the legacy of the country before 1994 and the question is whether the current social contract actually allows for this reversal to take place? While black people have achieved political inclusion and they are free to participate in the political environment; financial exclusions prevent them from being able to participate in the economic environment. Spaces that were once inaccessible to black people remain inaccessible due to open market forces which can interrupt or negate accumulation, debt and the democracy dividend.
The world of ideas
When the youth of 1976 took to the streets to protest, they were protesting against the imposition of Afrikaans on to them in their learning. Afrikaans was the language that was used by the Afrikaner nationalists for hegemonic purposes and therefore the language itself can be quite incendiary to black people who lived through apartheid.
There is more to the language beyond Afrikaner nationalists and that six out of ten people in South Africa speak Afrikaans is telling. In Cape Town, there were Muslims who wrote Afrikaans religious texts in Arabic script. The language has been influenced by the Malay, Portuguese and the Indonesian. It is an African language and is a language that is spoken in other southern countries such as Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Afrikaans is also the language of resistance where Afrikaans people fought back against imperialism. Afrikaans itself was derided as not being a language by the Dutch and there was an insinuation that those who spoke it were either poor or lacking in intelligence. The language persisted and is a resource of communication for many. Hein Willemse says, ‘The construction of language as ‘an international language’ or ‘a tribal language’, or ‘a language of love’, or ‘a language of the oppressor’ has little to do with the language itself. It says more about the social environment where language serves as a metaphor for a variety of ideas, images, aspirations, economic, political and social power’
According to Nico Koopman, language is one of the elements that mark our diversity in South Africa but of our diversity, we have made division, discrimination and dehumanization.By the nature of their name, discourses almost always exclude affect, in that discourses usually take the form of intellectual rigour. Affect has a place to play in forgiveness, peace and restorative justice. It has a place in understanding and navigating the ambivalence that comes with the formation of a new South Africa with a difficult past. It has a place in embracing duality in that even within diversity, there can be coexistence. It is within constructive proximity where interpathy can come alive, where shared living can produce collective personalities and communal characters which lay the foundation to a collective striving for an equal society with equal opportunities for all.
The three main positives of the book were that the book provided a more inclusive narrative which expressed the dissent that Afrikaners may feel as a result of their own lived experience. Dirk Hermann and Ernst Roets prevented the ‘echo-chamber’ effect with views that may ruffle the feathers of black people. What remains important is that the spaces for discourse are those that allow its participants to be honest even if their honesty may be met with anger, which is precisely how Mathatha Tsedu reacted. In vulnerability, where defence mechanisms are laid to the wayside, there lies potential for people to actually work together and to experience authentic reconciliation.
The second positive was that the book provided key historical insights on the Afrikaans language and a coherent interpretation of the intellectual history of the Afrikaner. Ignorance would lend us to the suspension of belief when we have to entertain the idea of an intellectual Afrikaner using his/her intellectual capacity outside the apartheid system. Pieter Duvenage and Hein Willemse completely confront this ignorance and prevail.
The third positive came from Xhanti Payi, where something that is easily taken for granted like Parks and yet is so fundamental in that it sits right at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as recreation; can tell a whole story of transformation in South Africa.
The one drawback I have for the book is linked to what was said about the TRC above; that white English speaking people often get off the hook when they themselves gained through apartheid. The face of whiteness in so far as it is spoken in respect to black people seems most likely than not to bear Afrikaans resemblance.
In this book, Afrikaners fight for their place and prove legitimacy and yet the other face of whiteness does not need to. It just is and is then able, albatross-free, to pursue enterprise and wealth unencumbered. Dirk Hermann alludes to this in his “Dear Mother Africa” speech and it comes across, in a very unproductive manner to indirectly exclude an important stakeholder in the entire process.
**Moeketsi is a Social Entrepreneur and an Alumni of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI).