I attended elite former model-c ("white") schools throughout my educational career. It has been one of the greatest blessings and at the same time, one of the greatest curses. On the one hand, I have been shielded from significant barriers which often restrict the black South African child from rising above their circumstances. On the other hand, I have been exposed to the excesses of white privilege and the ignorance afforded by it, but having never been co-opted to be a part of this inner circle. The kind of privilege perfected over more than a century at a traditional boy's high school, where I spent five years as a boarder. This left me confused for most of my adolescent life, particularly because the realities I encountered back home were often in stark contrast to the borrowed privilege I experienced during the school term.
"What happened to you? You were so cool back in high school. Why are you so angry now?"
I suspect I am not the only 30-year-old black person who's had these statements directed at him. Fast forward a decade with some change and I have developed a better understanding of the predicament which boggled my mind all those years back. The revelations of 2016 have forced me to think deeper and reflect more honestly to myself about the country we live in. From Penny Sparrow (A KwaZulu-Natal realtor who described black people as "monkeys", in an apparent reaction to litter behind at the beach after New Year's celebrations), to the latest incidents involving Springbok flanker Siya Kolisi's interracial marriage to his wife, Rachel Kolisi. For the most part, the following series of questions occupy the mind of the regular black person in South Africa in this regard:
1. Is a significant percent of the white South African population racist?
2. If so, can they be cured of this disease?
3. If not, how do we then move forward?
Not racist, just conveniently ignorant
I am of the firm belief that white South Africans can generally be grouped into three categories in this regard: Those who get it ("the woke"), the racist and the ignorant. Most South Africans fall into the latter category. This is an unfortunate situation because the voices of the woke are not loud enough to drown out those who are racist. We need the ignorant!
The reason why most white South Africans are ignorant is quite simple - they can afford to be. In life, it can be a real hassle to involve yourself in matters that do not affect you. Especially those that require a great deal of personal sacrifice on your behalf. This is precisely why apartheid lasted as long as it did, even though today you'd be hard-pressed to find a supporter of the regime. It is simply not enough to recognise that something is wrong. One has to do something about it or run the risk of history ultimately finding you guilty of being complicit.
Racism is learnt and can be unlearnt
Jane Elliot, a renowned anti-racism activist and educator on the subject of racism, believes racism is learnt and can therefore be unlearnt. It is fact an extreme form of bigotry to think that one person is superior or inferior to another based on the level of pigmentation in their skin. It is as random as choosing another physical feature (eye colour for example) over which one has no control, and basing one's assessment of the person on it.
The left needs to walk the talk. Liberal white South Africans, with their inherited advantage of less melanin coupled with a high degree of rational thought, should be leading this fight.
In South Africa, racism is systemic and pervasive. It is woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. It would be strange to see a white woman performing domestic helper duties or a white man as a gardener. It is equally surprising when a black person is the leader of a large privately owned organisation. The day to day interactions with these artificially formed realities reinforce the notions of superiority and inferiority, even if subconsciously. Furthermore, the mainstream media is quick to dispense catchy headlines of government corruption and private sector bravado, without realising that they subconsciously give failure a black face and success a white one. Given this context, it is no surprise that black South Africans continue to have an inherent suspicion of their white counterparts.
Liberal views are in the majority in South Africa. If you had to poll the country on the key liberal values of central intervention in alleviating social ills, pursuing less inequality and the protection civil liberties, you'll likely find an overwhelming majority in support. So why is racism still such a persistent scourge? The long and short of it is self-interest.
Brexit earlier in the year and the recent Trump victory have exposed the failures of liberal messaging throughout the world. This message seemed to ignore that people are first and foremost creatures of self-interest. Instead of appealing to rationality, it is rather how you frame "self" that is of utmost importance. History has for ages framed people according to their race. The apartheid government, in a bid to oppress the majority of people in the country, further framed them into ethnic groups. These ideas have persisted far beyond the tenures of their champions, simply because they have been entrenched into the psyche of individuals. It is now effectively how we see ourselves.
In order to overcome this ingrained mental condition, the left needs to walk the talk. Liberal white South Africans, with their inherited advantage of less melanin coupled with a high degree of rational thought, should be leading this fight. At social gatherings, social media and in out-and-out public spaces, white South African liberals should be at the forefront of enlightening racists of the higher level self-interest inherent in being human first and South African second. It is a fair bit to ask, I know, since the benefit of the good deed can pale in comparison to the risk of alienation. For what it's worth, if you don't get that braai invite next time, you're welcome to join us at the shisa nyama. Assuming you do risk it, rest assured that as a white person, what you say holds more gravitas with the racist than what any black person says. You have the ear of the racist; thus your responsibility escalates beyond the responsibility of those who are most affected by him. The aim should not be to shame him but to understand him better and guide him to the point self-enlightenment.
It is only by drawing nearer that we can ultimately change the groundless perceptions of those who see others as less human. As the logic goes, if I do not know you, how can I trust you? And if I can't trust you, how can we build together? My peers have become increasingly disillusioned with Nelson Mandela's dream of a rainbow nation. A dream which white South African liberals seem ever too keen to embrace in thought, but seldom in action. In my view, we have no other choice but to make project South Africa work. I often liken our country's psyche to that of an abuse victim. White South African liberals will be quick to point out that the abuse has stopped. As arguable as this may be, for the most part, I agree. But the post-trauma counselling and rehabilitation is yet to begin in earnest. So let's start having the conversation.