26/02/2018 13:49 SAST | Updated 05/03/2018 12:31 SAST

Photographs Ask White South Africans What It Means To Be White

A new photo series explores the "histories, privileges and reflections" of white South Africans.

A photographic project by two South African creatives exploring the "histories, privileges and reflections" of other white South Africans is hoping to flip the conversation around and get white people looking at themselves from a different angle.

The Un/Settled project sees photographer Sydelle Willow-Smith and writer Olivia Walton go into big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, small towns like Klerksdorp, and even some "white-only" enclaves like Orania, to ask white people what it is like to be white in South Africa at this time in history.

"The project is about getting back to basics about what white South Africans see themselves as, and their history, and the sense of displacement in a country where historically we've been at the top of quite a bloody pile," Walton tells HuffPost.

Sydelle Willow-Smith
Photographs Ask White South Africans What It Means To Be

Kingsley Holgate:

"It was hugely presumptuous of Livingstone and Stanley – and King Leopold in particular – for them to use the idea of a primitive people with no class or no culture that needed to be 'saved' from themselves. It's just so ridiculous. We're still suffering from that in Africa – that idea of it being a dark continent is still being very prevalent. Yet already the Chinese and the Asians are seeing it far from a dark continent. They are seeing it as a continent of opportunity – while other Western powers still think of a dark continent, slavery, colonisation and everything. It started with those early missionaries and explorers. It started with slavery. That stigma is still attached to Africa."


Their investigation moves from young, post-democratic, "rainbow nation" types, to white people who were politically engaged during apartheid, much older white South Africans, and white people who migrated to the country from other continents.

What emerges is a series of 30 interviews conducted over three years, each one offering differing perspectives on the state of whiteness in South Africa, and an at-times dystopian view of what the future could hold for the white race in the country.

"I don't think it's up to people of colour to explain whiteness to white people anymore," Willow-Smith says of her project.

"White people are really being made to feel their place at the moment, and it's destabilising, which is powerful. But we are trying to look beyond the politics and find how we can move into a society where these divisions don't do so much harm."

Sydelle Willow-Smith


"​I am 19. I was born in 1998. My mom was always pretty good with, I mean not great, but she was always sort of the one who was like: 'Its the end of apartheid now, people live together now', rainbow nation kind of thing. She was good at teaching us how everything works. But I was pretty blind to it. I went to super-white-privileged little hang outs. All of my parents' friends were white, all of my friends were white. It wasn't really a thing. I had domestic workers. That was really the only blackness I had around me. Thats just the way it was. My great-great-grandad on my dad's side, he was sent here after suffering some injuries after the war. He was set up with his family, I guess pretty nicely. You know, just 'come to one of the colonies and start anew'. I remember I went to a private Christian girls school – there were two black teachers. I remember I was always one of the early kids. There were a couple of other black girls who were also early – because they would carpool together. The Zulu teacher came in – there was only one for the whole school. She started talking about it. In the beginning of FMF, people were trying to decipher whether it was a race thing. She just came in, saying after apartheid they just left so many threads, and they have started to unwind and people have started to get mad. Thats when I started to think about all this stuff. It was pretty eye-opening".


The Un/Settled team are looking for new contributions from young people born after 1994 for the next leg of the project, which they hope to exhibit in public spaces to avoid what they describe as the "silo effect" of social media.

Have a look at some more of their portraits below, and reach out on Instagram to get involved.

Sydelle Willow-Smith

Mary Weir:

"I was born in Glasgow in 1935. I started out as an apprentice, as an architectural draftslady because I can draw, and that's where I met my husband. He was in mining. We came here in 1964. I didn't want to come; I had been boycotting South African oranges before that. I wanted to go to Canada. We moved with our three babies just after the Sharpeville massacre. I found that it was very hard to find someone who had voted for the National Party. If nobody voted for them how the hell did they get in? I was involved in the Progressive Party; Helen Suzman's party. She was like a lone wolf in the wilderness . She stood for justice . I never thought of leaving. I was driven by this fact of if we could just get these gangsters out, we would be okay. Human beings are the worst of the species. Animals don't kill each other for nothing. The sins of the father will be passed on to the second and the third generation. I used to think that is a curse – then I thought, you know, it's not. It's just stating a fact. That is what happens. I believe everything has to be paid for, one way or another. People who say they never had a choice, they did and they knew what was going on. I've felt at home here since I arrived. Yet as I get closer to the end of my life, I dream of a little cottage in Scotland – I would give my left leg for one. I guess it's like salmon swimming upstream, returning from where one came".

Sydelle Willow-Smith


"I myself have done nothing to contribute towards that oppression, yet I benefit completely from it – that is something that really messes with me. Also that there are people in the same world as me, young white people who are so angry about the fact that people are now becoming more woke. The only way you can grapple with it and manoeuvre it, especially as a young person – I know my opinion is going to change 100 times by the time I settle on something... but you have to embrace the wrongs of the past and try and be as respectful as possible to the disgruntlement and anger. If someone is angry with me for being white, I never contest it. It never gets on my nerves, because I completely get it. I personally don't understand how after apartheid ended there wasn't a full civil unrest. I have formed the opinion that it should have been a lot more aggressive in terms of the taking back of land, the taking back of authority, the taking back of power and taking back of businesses ... the fact that FW De Klerk got a Nobel Prize makes me think about the whole rainbow nation thing is just a fabricated story."

Sydelle Willow-Smith

Carel Boschoff:

"I come from a family of voortrekkers. I consider myself South African, but it is still a question of what exactly South Africa means. Land means belonging. It is an existential question – it is such a given. It is very much that idea of a fish swimming in water without the concept of water. Human beings are mobile, especially Afrikaners. Even the urbanised Afrikaner middle class has a definite belonging to the land. When an Afrikaner guy gets rich, he buys a farm. Whenever it is abstracted to something as simple as 'giving the land back', what does giving the land back mean? Which exact land?"

Sydelle Willow-Smith


"Umlungu means the foam on top of the waves of the sea. I understand why they call us that. That's where we came from. We came out of the sea on boats – our forefathers. Shaka actually said the whites are going to come over the sea and take your country. It's a fact. It happened. I have been in the military for twenty years. I've been to places. Now all of a sudden I have long hair. I didn't do anything wrong. I don't regret being there. Personally it has nothing to do with apartheid. We did what we had to do. Those days you were forced to go to do your national service and I enjoyed it, I really did. I joined permanent force; I enjoyed my life. Twenty years and I resigned. I am not sorry that I resigned – I had a good time. I don't think there are ghosts. I just believe that for some people it is hard to forget. To put the past behind them. The youngsters today, I mean it's 21 years already since the end of apartheid. They shouldn't be upset with us. It's understandable, but 21 years later if you couldn't improve yourself, there's nobody stopping you from improving yourself anymore. You can't say it's apartheid stopping you from improving. You can go to school. You can go to university. You can work. You can do whatever we did in that time, if you want to put it that way".

Sydelle Willow-Smith


"I just think white people, white South Africans, are the luckiest nation, community, whatever you want to call it, in the world. For all intents and purposes we all should have been macheted a long time ago, and the fact that we're still around, still living with the comforts that we have and the advantages that we have, really goes to say a lot for the black population. We really should be very thankful towards them. They have been very tolerant of us. It really irritates me when white people say things like 'we need to get over race issues and we need to move on'. Especially when people complain about BEE. You're still at so much of an advantage being born as a white person in South Africa than you are being born as a black person. I think it's very important that white people start acknowledging their privilege, because it's undeniable."