This is a second response to my friend ‘Bob’s anonymous letter, which you can read here. Marlyn Faure is a friend of Alexa who has been wanting me to connect with and meet him, and he felt up to the challenge of responding to Bob as well in his own words and so here they are.
[Meet Marlyn – I am 26 year old coloured male from Cape Town. Currently I am doing my Honours in Sociology at UCT. I love this country and continent and am committed to making a positive contribution to all of its beautiful people. I am also a running enthusiast.]
I have read your email and appreciate that you wanting to engage with the complexities of what it means to be a white South African in a post-Apartheid South Africa. Let me say at the outset that I hear your struggle for finding a place as a white male in this contemporary SA. I have had similar conversations with other white South Africans for research purposes and just with friends in general. That being said, I’d like to respond to your email in three main parts:
1) As I read your email, and I as engage with other white South Africans I really get the sense that is becoming easier for white people to play the victim in contemporary SA. While the first few lines of your email are indicative of your struggles, it also reflects the fact that you feel you feel wrong has been done to you as a white person living a post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately what so many white South Africans don’t understand is that what is required of them is to listen instead of launching into either a denial of the racism that still exists or a defensive polemic about why they are not racist and have actually always been “non-racial”. While your family may have opposed Apartheid (in whatever form), you still benefitted from the system (I’ll say more about this later).
The question you have to ask yourself is have you actually listened to the experiences of what it means to be a black (I use this as a broad inclusive term) South African, both during Apartheid and post-1994? Have you been to the Cape Flats (amidst the gang violence, unemployment, etc as a direct result of Apartheid), to the ‘townships’ and see what it is like to live in these conditions? Have you asked people what is like to be looked at suspiciously simply because you are black? As a coloured male attending UCT, living on the Cape Flats, I often have people asking if I am from SA, and saying things like ‘you can’t be from Mitchells Plain and Hanover Park (read “nothing good can come from there”).
Have you really read about what is actually happening both at an individual level and a structural level to black people? More importantly have you tried to understand what has happened to the majority of this people in this country, not only under Apartheid but the hundreds of years of colonialism preceding that? So before white can talk about belonging, do they understand what it means to belong in country where most people have suffered gravely and that has not been acknowledged in symbolic and material ways? While you may say his silences your story, think about how the stories of the millions of black people have been and continues to be silenced in this country because structures and communities who insist that we should ‘just get over it’ and start talking about our corrupt government.
You asked why must race come up every single time? It must come up because it affects every aspect of our lives, of all of our lives as South Africans. The Apartheid government engineered it this way (for example, there are hundreds upon hundreds of laws to do this, not to mention the brute force which it was imposed).
You see as a white person, race is not important because it has never been something that determines your status (social, economic, political) in life. Unfortunately for black people, it is still something that continues to shape and determine our lives. I will discuss the economics of it in the next bit. But as an example, the Rhodes issue is not simply about the statue, it’s about the fact that UCT (and many other universities) don’t have any full black female professors, and most students are still white, while black students continue to be denied educations because of poor schooling and lack finances which are actually directly related to economic and geographic structuring of Apartheid which still continues to affect SA, especially in Cape Town.
To use another example, this country has more black males than other racial gendered group, yet when looking at male models used in magazines and films, the majority of male models are white (As an aide that is why black actors become important – we don’t ask about white actors because they fill our screens and magazines. Black people are good if they have play a gangster, or poor, ‘ghetto’ black person, or slave). I use these examples because they show how race defines and determines life at a structural and symbolic level, controlling everything from the kind of education and nutrition we get, to what we think is beautiful and acceptable in our culture.
Now obviously this is not your fault as a white South African. But the truth is that you have benefited. I find it interesting that you say “I understand to the best that I can as a white person, white privilege,’ yet most of that paragraph is a defence of that privilege. What you don’t understand about white privilege is that it does not negate white work but says that there are ‘invisible’ factors that has aided you and your family. They are invisible because you don’t have to think about it – it is a mere given. It is everything from growing up in the Suburbs and not having to worry about gang violence, to going to a school where everyone looks like you, to not worrying about finding a job, to the social connections you have, to inheritance of land, money, language, etc. While not all white people are rich and have the same privileges, it has undeniably benefited all white people in this country (again to greater or lesser degree for different people). So yes 20 years into democracy, I as a coloured student who did not live through Apartheid still has to work a hell of a lot harder than white people simply because of where I was to FORCED to live, had to go to school (my nephew was denied access to a former white school because we did not live in the area, this is product of Apartheid geography), the resources I have access and can afford, and so on.
2) You are quite clear that the real problems SA faces are the serious problems with government corruption, Jacob Zuma, and so on. You have also spoken about as a white businessman you struggle in Cape Town. At the outset I am always amazed that any critique from the middle classes (and dare I say it the white middle classes in particular) will almost always be about ANC, corruption and Jacob Zuma.
Now let me make this clear: these are huge problems in our country, corruption is rife, Jacob Zuma is not exactly doing a sterling job as president, yes, yes, yes. We must continue to act and speak out against it. What I don’t hear however, is that majority of black people are still poor, that black labour is still being exploited by mostly white owned business on farms, in white homes (domestic workers, gardeners and so on), security companies, that inequality has in fact grown in this country, that the wealthy get away with corruption and continue to live in their mansions in Sandton and Constantia, that the majority of black people actually have NOT benefited from BEE (yes that’s true) and that white people on average still find jobs much quicker than black people. This is not my opinion, this what the research shows about the realities of contemporary South Africa. So while white people (and other groups) criticise the government (and they deserved to be criticised), the question is what is your role as the group who has benefited and continues to benefit from past and current structures which are in fact so very clearly racialised?
In terms of your experiences as a business person, I cannot refute your experience. What I can say though is that I can list endless examples of how people I know have been discriminated against in the job market, in terms of actual employment and wages. In fact, white people in this country still earn higher their black counter-parts in the SAME position. These are generalisations yes but this what the facts suggests about what is happening as a whole. While there definitely has been increase in black middle class and a rise in black management, it is still whites who owns (in terms of shares) the businesses and wealth. There are other factors that play into this like religion as you note, but race is still a huge factor.
3) Much of our history as a country and a continent has been elided and misrepresented. While I am glad for you to defend your history, what you must understand is that there are multiple versions of that history. We are so quick to talk about SA is like now, but we really don’t like talking about why it is the way it is? Yes corruption is a problem, but what about the many white families who stole land from people during colonialism and Apartheid (remember the group-areas act). My family ‘lost’ land and still lives on the Cape Flats because of it.
What about the history of slavery for example, where wine farms and entire cities were built off of the backs of my people so that white people can and continues to benefit? What about the mine workers and their black bodies which continues to be exploited, while extract minerals from the land to bring wealth to the wealthy elite? What about our colonial history where this continent was carved up and land and resources and people were stolen for the benefit of the West (and this exploitation continues to happen)? As you point the West has done awful things but it cannot be refuted by saying that all nations did bad things. Unfortunately that logic does not hold. This is merely scapegoating the issue (similarly with your reference to Shaka). I am not even getting into how Western-controlled organisations like the World Bank and IMF has and continues to impose draconian rules which has resulted the even worse conditions for so many countries and people on this continent in.
You note that the West (which according to your argument seems to include white South African people) are needed when ‘your’ resources but are then told they must leave Africa. What is often
not understood is that the West simply assumes that they must be Africa’s benefactor. In this this logic Africa is always in need of their white saviours. What is often spoken about is why Africa ‘needs the help’ in the first and why is the West in position to help us? Yes Rhodes help ‘develop’ technology and infrastructure, but where did he get the resources to do it in the first place? Where did they get the resources from in the first place? And when help is ‘given’, you can be sure that the West will always get more then put in – this how colonialism and neo-colonialism works. When we angrily call for the West to leave, perhaps it is because we are tired of being exploited for centuries.
We have not begun to understand how our past has shaped and will continue to shape our present. Until we all make it our responsibility to understand how have been affected, we cannot move forward. Yes this is hard for white people and no we don’t want you to apologise (that’s paternalistic and patronising). What you can do is acknowledge it and listen. And maybe in that you will also realise just your own humanity has also been damaged and through that finding healing.
While my tone may harsh, these are realities of SA. Yes we all on a journey but this country that we live requires us all to face the truth with boldness and courage, only then can be begin to look each other in the eyes as fellow South Africans and human beings