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.
South Africa is not a strange place, it’s a crazy place. It has a White minority which largely still controls the wealth of the country (and with it access to opportunities) and yet insists that it was oblivious (or even duped) on how that wealth was accumulated. Having a constructive debate with people who are so disconnected is difficult as the first question one needs to ask is “so how many moons circle year planet?”
As a white African, I am torn between my silence, which is something many other “liberal” whites have been doing since 1994, and replying, which of course would run counter to the appeal made by Vice.
Clearly, here you have my reply: consider, then the number of silent, agent-less voices of those with their heads in the sand, their quiet and complicit presence with no voice.
Yes, here starts my reply, race is an issue in South Africa, and the glossing, airbrushing and attempts at a simplified answer are causing more damage to a cohesive, or diverse, but tolerant society, which many of us fought for, and are now unsure these are shared sentiments from our fellow South Africans.
Yes, I believe in facing the issues. I am “white”. I am African. I was hoping these two things would not be mutually exclusive. Maybe, realistically, (due to Apartheid) not for my generation, but what about for my children, born after Aparthied, named with African names? Is there a place for a white African who is now, like Democracy in our country, a teenager? Is there a space for such a person?
I want to see whiteness in its complexity. My “white” friends who are actually from families who were “mixed” race, yet passes for white. I can count two in my small circle of friends. My “white” friends who are, yes, like me, previously advantaged… now married to people who are not white. And their children who play with mine in the park, and at school, what does your simplistic analysis on race say about these mixed and brown and shaded people, old and young. Ironically, one “white” business associate is struggling for a BEE certificate, due to her sole propriertership, despite her “coloured” husband and mixed children – two “white” from her first relationship, two “mixed” as they define themselves.
When I taught, in my first job after university, in a “township” college of education in the 1990’s, I was used to the rhetoric of “drive the whites into the sea”. I listened, and shared history, and engaged with these sentiments, and moved towards a space for finding our similarities. That was during those turbulent election times, and I was accepting of the backlash, the anger, and welcomed the start of a dialogue. Yes, it was directed at me, and I did not take it personally. Even when I was held hostage at the college when pregnant, I knew it was part of a process of healing for us all. And yes, that dialogue began with me listening, and making space for others to speak, to vent, to rant if needed. I was told to “go back where I came from”. “Where should I go?” I asked, and listed my mixed background of Dutch, Scottish and so on. I dont even speak my ancestors language anymore. I identify as African, just a pale one.
Here we are, fifteen years later. Are we considering a continued silence for the pale Africans among us? Is these any space for the dialogue we opened up then, or is the space growing smaller and smaller? If my children, whatever their shade, will never be black enough, African enough, have I naively stayed, when the intention was to narrow the space ever smaller, and more silent, for the children I named and raised to be African, to never be considered as part of a future here?
A well considered, thoughtful piece of writing. Masie opens up a “space” for micro-narratives rather than self righteously closing down the debate with an all-encompassing pronouncement of undifferentiated culpability. Our well-loved, verwoerdian constructs of race are still so conveniently and cruelly pervasive twenty years after apartheid ended, we are still immersed in those fictions. For Mr Masopha’s benefit, let me be clear: of course i am a guilty mukiwa. Guilt by association, by default, by circumstance, by happenstance, by genetic chance, by vulgar privilege, by skin colour. Sins of omission and commission … Although I was in my mid twenties when that vicious system collapsed yet I am all too aware that I didn’t singlehandedly bring down the regime or jump into bed with the Stasi-trained revolutionaries. and here I recall a biblical text: ” we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” which – much to his chagrin – applies to Mr Masopha too. But what are the “guilty” to do? Leave – every last nasty whitey? To Perth perhaps? To Holland? Or flagellate themselves perhaps, and surrender to the self-appointed guardians of virtue – jacobins with their guillotine made ready for white necks? Masie, in a more intelligent and measured response than my own (which is, after all, self-evidently the ramblings of a guilty man) recognizes that to continue – or even to commence – a programme of shaming and shunning and humiliation of those we deem to be transgressors is not only flawed but dangerous. The ancient urge to humiliate and silence the old foe after ww1 lead directly to Hitler. Similarly the Balkans and Rwanda all illustrate how perilous is the way of tightening the screws on those we choose to loathe. I have no answers. I think Macie has written something of huge importance. As for me, well Mr Masopha I’m off to the confessional again. I could tell you how with the advantage of a stiff British passport I joined protests outside South Africa House in London, or how time after time even as an insolent young man I came to the defence of fellow human beings being abused by petty apartheid laws on beaches and buses, but when the meta narrative has found you guilty, well, that’s that. The show trials of Stalin, the with trials of Salem, the fraudulent justice metered out by the Inquisition… all show how futile it is to defend oneself against the ancient desire for vengeance and humiliation. But I am not bitter. I am guilty.