How whites can reconcile

2012-07-01 10:00
Alistair McKay
Many excellent pieces of introspection and reflection have been written recently, and it’s about time.

We haven’t done enough introspection in South Africa, especially among white people.

We are a nation emerging from a mass tragedy – much like the Germans after World War II – and yet too few white South Africans have ever questioned their complicity in the atrocities, or how we can play a part in rebuilding our country.

Too many have just coasted along since 1994 and expected the country to just “move on”, without realising how much we have to work on ourselves to build a new nation.

I did not grow up feeling white.

I don’t come from a particularly racialised home, nor were my parents political.

My family all voted Progressive and my aunt was arrested once or twice for protesting against apartheid at Wits.

But they were by no means a revolutionary family.

As soon as I could piece together what had happened in South Africa (I was 10 in 1994) I became truly disgusted by white South Africa.

I was angry that older white people I knew had not been more active in opposing it, and I wanted no part of white society – and to this day, prickle with irritation if white people assume I share some sort of solidarity with them.

Luckily for me, it was the Golden Age of Mandela and South Africa was bursting with excitement.

Throughout my teenage years and early 20s, the Rainbow Nation was fully real to me.

I felt like “my culture” was a composite of the previously disparate cultures of SA – and “my people” were South Africans.

It has only recently become clear to me just how much of my self-esteem derived from being accepted by black people.

I needed that acceptance to give me a sense of belonging, to legitimise my identity as a proud citizen of a non-racial new South Africa.

But recently, I feel that acceptance being withdrawn. South Africa, more and more, wants to define me as “white”.

Here is why: not enough white South Africans have put in the work required. Not enough white people have genuinely committed themselves to this new nation of ours or grasped just how different it needs to be.

Too many seem to think change has already happened; that the political transition is over, so can’t everyone just get on with things?

They feel the pressure is off when in fact the pressure is only now starting to build.

Here’s the thing white people need to understand: apartheid was that bad.

It was a ruthless, evil, cold and dehumanising system of structural oppression, deprivation and violence.

People were tortured, people lost their homes, people’s salaries were at near starvation levels and they were subjected to an education system designed to enslave them.

Apartheid desensitised white South Africans to human suffering and filled most of them with an unthinking sense of superiority and fear.

The result is the bizarre situation in which many white people are enormously privileged while feeling marginalised and put upon.

I saw this comment on reconciliation in South Africa from a white guy the other day: “Why are we still talking about this? Haven’t we done enough?”

No, we haven’t.

We haven’t all become fluent in the indigenous languages of our home country.

Some judge a black South African’s intelligence purely on his or her English, and completely overlook the humbling and impressive multilingualism of so many black South Africans.

We haven’t yet learnt to listen to differing points of view before trying to ram what we think down people’s throats. But we demand to be listened to ourselves.

Most of us don’t yet even notice, let alone feel uncomfortable, when there are only white people in a boardroom or in an advert or in a restaurant.

But I know many who would leave a club if it were “too black”.

Think of how many people rant about affirmative action without considering just how many opportunities they had before they got to that job interview.

As children, they almost certainly had more books at home, never went hungry and attended better schools.

South Africa is angry at the moment and many are giving up on reconciliation.

The real work of building a new South Africa is less in the grand, national government programmes and more in the hundreds of interactions and tiny decisions we make each day.

The real work is in becoming aware.