South Africa: How I live in that Strange Place – By Desné Masie
South Africa is a strange place. It’s almost 20 years since apartheid ended, but for many South Africans, living there doesn’t get any easier. So, what should we do about it? How should we go about being South Africans?
Samantha Vice, a highfalutin doctor of philosophy at Rhodes University, South Africa, thinks that she has at least part of the answer. As Vice sees it race is such a loaded issue in our public discourse – we can never get away from it due to the simple fact of being black or white – so white people should step back, and disengage with political and public life.
The fact that Vice said this (in considerably more words) in the 2010 Fall edition of The Journal of Social Philosophy is extraordinary given the subsequent intensity of, mostly angry, public reaction to this sentiment.
Vice’s problems began when her now notorious article, “How Do I Live in This Strange Place?” was discussed by journalist and philosopher Eusebius McKaiser on 1 July 2011 in the Mail & Guardian.
While McKaiser agreed with the article’s broader sentiment that “white South Africans should feel shame and regret for the past and for the fact that their whiteness still benefits them unjustly”, he disagreed with her decision to withdraw from the public political sphere. And such a proposed withdrawal has been the main issue that has seen South Africans of all races, including myself, quite furious with Vice.
I believe there is merit in all South Africans taking some time to meditate on what apartheid did to us, and indeed, articulating a mature post-apartheid political consciousness remains one of our most urgent tasks. So she should be commended to some degree for beginning to tackle this. However, her missive is predicated on several problematic sections, of which the following is the most dangerous, and with which I will mainly engage with here:
“So, recognizing their damaging presence, whites would try, in a significantly different way to the normal workings of whiteliness, to make themselves invisible and unheard, concentrating rather on those damaged selves … One would live as quietly and decently as possible, refraining from airing one’s view on the political situation in the public realm, realizing that it is not one’s place to offer diagnoses and analyses, that blacks must be left to remake the country in their own way. Whites have too long had influence and a public voice; now they should in humility step back from expressing their thoughts or managing others.”
For me, this disconcerting passage far exceeds a humble philosophical exile, and in a country still wounded by separate development, it sounds eerily familiar. Furthermore, if white privilege during apartheid succeeded with the state machinery at the behest of its engineers, and the (mainly) complicit silence of white voters towards its victims, what ends of moral justice would be served if whites should remain silent once more?
Censoring whites thus, not only robs blacks of agency in articulating a political consciousness which they can sufficiently defend without being so mollycoddled, but it means whites too will forever remain politically infantilised by not confronting blacks on the same platform. If whites were to set the perimeters of the agenda thus, they would maintain a superior political and social personhood overindulged as an unbearable burden of privilege, much as Vice’s has been. Despite itself, the dissemination of Vice’s ideas has mainly succeeded in bringing white prerogatives to the very centre of South African political debate once more. And even more problematically, it has therefore framed the black person as political subject to a whitely centre.
I also forcefully object to the narrow taxonomy of white people made normative in this debate. The choice, in post-apartheid South Africa, seems to be between rugby watching, boisterous whites with a ridiculous sense of entitlement or liberals. And in determining collective responsibility prior to 1994, we are offered only Broederbond Nazi-sympathisers; the silently complicit with the violent machinery of apartheid; or liberals. However, what about the white people who actively participated in the liberation struggle, which salient fact is merely glossed over by Vice as being a mere “opposition”?
It is gross misjudgement and historical inaccuracy to relegate white radicals as the meddling, misguided white liberals highlighted by Biko. Those white radicals who acted on their burden of privilege instead of undergoing a neutered silent suffering of inward flagellation as Vice would have it. Are they allowed to confront whiteness publicly? And here, it seems poignant to highlight that the very Biko whom neo-black conscious intellectuals these days quote with aplomb (especially in response to Vice) would have been recorded as having died of a hunger strike instead of at the hands of the apartheid state, had Helen Zille not persevered with her investigative reportage of his death. The South-African born filmmaker Eric Abrahams warned in The Guardian that South Africa is in danger of repeating the mistakes of the past by forgetting all its heroes in “airbrushing non-black anti-apartheid campaigners, such as Helen Suzman, out of its history”.
However, we can massage the philosophical and moral problem of apartheid and its hangover as much as we like, but it is also undeniably a class struggle that is aggravated by racial division. Am I, as a mixed-race South African of considerable privilege in relation to most black South Africans (even while less so in comparison to wholly white South Africans) allowed to feel guilt and shame? Or might I participate in a debate, which has been too simplistically framed by Vice? Amongst other things, you can dismiss neither the complicit “coloured problem” of racial advantage and relative oppression that also served to keep white superiority during apartheid proper intact as unrelated. Nor the complex indigenous political and legal systems that served to enable not only white rule, but also clan supremacy and patriarchy. The South African racial landscape is tangled and complex, apportioning shame and guilt is not so straightforward.
Until the perfunctory manner in which the TRC was handled with its “general apology” is directly addressed at the state level – beyond the enrichment of a few black oligarchs with links to the ANC aristocracy in the face of the spectacular failure of the poor – this debate remains, for now, intractable. And this is another issue that Vice confronts much too superficially, eviscerated as she is by her shame.
The responses to Vice by some white South Africans attest to a sentiment that younger white South Africans feel they cannot be held to ransom for a system they did not create, older South Africans feel they have apologised enough, and cannot be held to eternal guilt and shame for being born white or into privilege, or even rather objectionably, do not see the need to contemplate if any shame should be or should have been felt by them whatsoever. And the latter is indeed a problem: some whites claimed to be or are still wholly ignorant of the extent to which blacks have suffered under apartheid and their lack of awareness, a wilful blindness to history is what is inexcusable, and requires urgent redress.
Nonetheless, apartheid is in the past, and we must move forwards, yet the aporia lies in the fact that we can only move forwards once we have made a satisfactorily pluralistic monument to the past. And if reconciliation is to take place, I believe it must be pluralistic.
Desné Masie is a journalist and academic. She is a former senior editor for the Financial Mail in South Africa, and is currently studying towards a PhD in finance at the University of Edinburgh Business School.