We Need to Talk About Chris

Just so that nobody misunderstands me, I am going to preface these thoughts by stating that I am nobody’s settler. I regard myself as 100% authentically African. I was born here, my parents were born here; I have known no other home. Nor am I ashamed of my whiteness. Nobody should be ashamed of the way they were born. There are aspects of my heritage I celebrate, just as there are aspects of it I cannot. That is as it should be. No culture is perfect. What is to follow is not born out of “white guilt”, but out of a desire to see dignity and pride restored in the land I love.


One further disclaimer: I will be using the pronoun “we” rather than the divisive and polarising “they”. It is a deliberate choice that identifies me as a South African, rather than merely a member of a particular racial group. Call it my minor rebellion against the detestable habit South Africans have of thinking of ourselves in terms of an “us” and a “them”.


For the benefit of international readers, I need to contextualise this post by explaining that it is a response to the furore surrounding real estate agent Penny Sparrow’s social media comment, which went viral, referring to black people on Durban’s beaches: “These monkeys that are allowed to be released on New Year’s eve and New Year’s day on to public beaches towns etc obviously have no education what so ever so to allow them loose is inviting huge dirt and troubles and discomfort to others”. Hot in the wake of that, Standard Bank economist Chris Hart found himself in hot water for the following tweet: “More than 25 years after Apartheid ended, the victims are increasing along with a sense of entitlement and hatred towards minorities…”


This post is very much aimed at white South Africans, but I trust that my international readers will be astute enough to glean some principles from it that are applicable to their own social contexts. Racism, after all, is hardly unique to South Africa.


The thing that frustrates me most about discussions about race is that invariably the most bigoted and ignorant people find ways to have the loudest voices. The comments section for every article about these incidents seems to have been hijacked by idiots. I shouldn’t be surprised – in life it is very difficult to get the mouth and the brain to operate at the same time. Still, I feel that somebody white needs to say this.


It baffles me that so many white people seem incapable of discerning why Chris Hart’s statement is problematic. Khaya Sithole said it better than I could (https://www.facebook.com/khaya.sithole/posts/10153801579252103?fref=nf&pnref=story) but I will try explain it anyway. Apartheid did not end 25 years ago. The country did not miraculously transform when Nelson Mandela walked out of his prison cell. What happened that day was the first step in a transformative process that needs to be continued today. The legislative end of Apartheid was 25 years ago, but Apartheid was (and indeed is) about more than merely repressive laws. It is about assumptions of superiority that allow people like Penny Sparrow to believe that it is okay to post a comment referring to black people as monkeys in the public domain. It is about a refusal on the part of many white people to become cognisant enough of our privilege to do any meaningful work towards reconciliation.

We want Mr Mandela to have been a saviour. We are happy to credit him with uniting a nation because it absolves us of the responsibility of having to get our hands dirty and continue the work he started. I do not believe that we should put Mr Mandela on a pedestal. Not because he is undeserving – far from it – but because it perpetuates a hugely problematic paradigm. By putting him on a pedestal we have made him solely responsible for bringing peace to our nation. We have effectively washed our hands of the whole thing. He did not complete the work. He began it and passed on the baton. If we ignore that, we imperil ourselves.


Imagine two siblings. Over a period of time, one has been bullying the other severely. He has beaten him, locked him in the cupboard, claimed his bedroom and stolen all of his possessions. He has called him hurtful names. An adult comes along and tells both parties to shake hands and stop fighting. He decrees that the bullying must end. If you have ever been in a fight with another child, you will know that it does not end there. The two siblings will not miraculously become friends because they were told to. The effects of years of abuse are not undone simply because the abuse is no longer permitted. One of the siblings is still wounded and broken and angry. His toys are still missing. His opportunities missed. His self-worth in tatters. The other sibling is still an arrogant schmuck. If there is ever to be a healthy relationship between the two, it is going to take a remarkable effort from both parties. One brother will have to humble himself and make substantial compensatory gestures. He will have to respect the woundedness of his brother, and respect the fact that it will be a long time before any sort of trust can be re-established. The other will need – for his own sake – to find ways to deconstruct problematic perceptions of himself and reconstruct his own identity: years of abuse will invariably have resulted in a problematic sense of self. He will need to find ways to forgive.


I realise that the analogy is far from a comprehensive representation of race relations in South Africa, but it useful for understanding the position we find ourselves in now. When Mr Mandela was released and the Apartheid laws abolished, it did not make everything right. If there is to be any real reconcilation, there is still much to be done by the people of the country.


When we (remember my disclaimer) tear down the statues that represent colonial oppression or rename streets that carry painful reminders of a hurtful past, the acts cannot be construed as vandalistic or self-indulgent. Frankly, UCT should have had the sensitivity to take the statue of Rhodes down themselves, without being asked.


When students march against the fee structures at universities, it is not because they are lazy and unprepared to work. It is because racism has been institutionalised to such an extent that white students, who come from largely privileged backgrounds, still have greater ease of access to the opportunities that going to university affords than black students, who still struggle to escape from the economic aftermath of the Apartheid laws. And I know some will argue this point, saying that not all white pupils are privileged, and we all know somebody white who didn’t get into a medical degree because they were the wrong colour, but the facts say otherwise. While a headcount of students enrolled in South African universities will reveal that roughly 90% of students are black, which is as it should be, the statistics will also show that about 58% of white children will go to university, while only 12% of black children will. You’re delusional if you cannot see that this figure speaks directly to privilege: white parents can largely afford university fees, while black parents largely cannot.


When students speak out against language policies that continue to disadvantage the majority of the people in this country, we are not being racist or unreasonable. We are beginning the vital process of empowering ourselves. We are recognising that our own languages have value, that it is ludicrous for schooling to be conducted primarily in English and Afrikaans when those are not the mother-tongues of the vast majority of our population. And sure, you could argue that English is an international language and the language of teaching and learning at most academic institutions. But the truth is that most of our children will never leave our borders. Only 16% will ever attend a university. Most will find jobs here and interact only with local people. The argument that English is a necessity at school level is really a refusal to change systems that advantage white people.


That is why comments like Chris Hart’s are construed as racist. Unfortunately, he is not alone. Far too many white people see policies like BBBEE as racist, rather than a necessary attempt to redress the imbalance. In essence, what people like Chris Hart (who represents the bully) are saying to the sibling who was the victim, is: “The bullying has ended. Stop whining and go back to your cupboard. I don’t want to hear about how unfair the status quo is or about how difficult the bullying was for you. Get over it”. Every time we write off protestors as criminals, each time we protest that we “worked for what we have, so we don’t want to hear about white privilege”, each time we comment condescendingly about how “they” behave in social settings – like ululating and talking loudly – we do exactly what Penny Sparrow and Chris Hart did.


The problem is that we want reconciliation but we don’t want to have to work for it. We refuse to give up the comforts of our (relative) prosperity, of a culture that feels familiar, of systems that advantage us, of our resentments, our hurts. A world founded on love and respect is simply too hard to take.


What is needed is for white people to display some sort of real understanding of the fact that our comparative privilege has been unfairly gained. Somehow we need to develop genuine empathy with those who still live with the emotional and socio-economic baggage of Apartheid. It is not enough to say “Apartheid is over, move on”. Perhaps if we had displayed the requisite humility and compassion and removed the offensive statues first, or started initiatives to train underprivileged sportsmen instead of moaning about quotas, or – something everybody can do – learn an African language, then maybe students wouldn’t need to march to be heard. Maybe as white people we need to be considering the possibility that the messy protests that disturb us so much are only necessary because we are too arrogant to listen and too self-absorbed to empathise.


If reconciliation is something we genuinely wish to pursue – and it ought to be, given that we all desire to call this land our home – then sometime soon we are all going to have to find the courage to embrace humility as a default position instead of assigning blame; to seek social justice and healing over comfort; to accept that all worthwhile things always require personal sacrifice. Maybe then we can pick up Mr Mandela’s baton, which we so carelessly dropped, and begin the arduous run again.

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