Voices

Do whites have a role in a democratic SA?

2015-11-08 15:00
Do whites, Afrikaans and Afrikaners have a role in a democratic SA. On Thursday, research institute Mistra held a round table discussion on whiteness. 

Titled Whites, Afrikaans, Afrikaners: Addressing Post-Apartheid Legacies, Privileges and Burdens, the debate included politicians, academics and Afrikaner representatives exploring and interrogating what defined whiteness and what it means to be an Afrikaner with some complaining about feeling rejected in their own country despite acknowledging the mistakes of the past

Yasmeen Rubidge takes the floor during the question-and-answer session at the round table discussion on whiteness, Afrikaans and Afrikaners, which was held at the Women’s Gaol in Constitution Hill
PHOTO: Felix Dlangamandla 

My understanding of the stated objectives is that this round table discussion is an attempt to untangle the web of mystification surrounding the foundations of “whiteness”.

In this respect, let me be so bold as to offer a few thoughts on these underlying causes.

Firstly, one may contend that whiteness is a global phenomenon that traces its privileged position to the 18th-century industrial revolution from which has evolved modernity.

More than any other epoch in history, the dawn of industrialism disproportionately empowered Europeans in comparison with the rest of the world.

The advent of the Middle Passage, or the transatlantic slave trade – during which black Africans were turned into chattel slavery in the service of the emerging capitalist needs from the 16th to the 19th centuries, provided for and was based on notions of not only racial purity but supremacy.

Correspondingly, with the ascendant narrative of whiteness against the background of European modernisation, history was revised and many non-Western cultures were consciously debased and devalued.

In consequence, the central ontological narrative of human history was Europeanised.

And therefore, to advance a more inclusive narrative, all conscious efforts have to be made to decentre whiteness through the creation of spaces for marginalised narratives, all of which have an equally justifiable claim to the centre of historical consciousness.

Secondly, related to the centredness of whiteness is the reality that whiteness has, over time, commandeered the position of the “normal” and “normative”.

On the contrary, non-Europeans have not only been “othered” but also defined in reference to “white” as a norm.

Richard Dyer in his classic 1997 book, White, is apposite when he says: “As long as race is something only applied to non-white people, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they function as a human norm.

“Other people are raced; we are not. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that – they can only speak for their race.”

Thirdly, the question that arises in dislodging whiteness from its perch of normativity is what it should be replaced with.

The narratives of others should be elevated to the same position of privilege as the dominant Western canons with which modern history is familiar.

A closer look into human history shows that the pool of human knowledge has incrementally benefited from all humanity across the ages, with each ethnic or racial group having had its turn at one historical period or another.

Ancient China, India and Africa have each made notable contributions to the march of progress since antiquity, a fact that is not faithfully reflected in school curriculums.

Instead, the Western canon of the so-called dead white men like Plato, Newton, Kant, Marx and Wittgenstein, rule the roost.

Non-Western figures such as al-Khwarizmi, who mathematised science, and the Chinese polymath scholar Shen Kuo, as well as the African Imhotep, the first recorded genius of antiquity – and many more languish on the margins of history.

This is a reason I wish to commend the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Dr Ihron Rensburg, who has undertaken to “establish inclusive traditions‚ with particular reference to Africa”.

“I believe this effort will incorporate key themes in African history‚ great African philosophers of the 19th and 20th centuries‚ important anticolonial struggles of the 20th century‚ the state of the postcolony — progress and retrogression‚ and critical citizenship in the 21st century,” he said.

Fourthly, these initiatives – partly aimed at removing whiteness from its unfairly privileged historical standing – also call for recognising that whiteness comes with access to power invariably expressed through the economic apparatus that enables it to include and exclude.

This power mechanism wielded by the ideology of whiteness was emphasised recently by the pronouncements of a prominent white human rights lawyer.

He tried to defend his decision for only briefing and working with white lawyers, since, in his opinion, only white lawyers had the cognitive capabilities to close and win cases.

Fifthly, acknowledging whiteness as a social and historical construct, like blackness, is an urgent reminder for all progressive forces to keep up the intellectual fight to reconstruct our world in line with nonracial principles.

This is an edited version of the address given by former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe at the Mistra ‘Whiteness’ round table on Thursday

Hein Willemse writes.....
A hidden history

This contribution concentrates on the varied histories of the Afrikaans language, more particularly selected aspects of the “black history” of Afrikaans. Today more than 60% of Afrikaans speakers are black (in the generic sense of the word).

Afrikaans history is a multifaceted one to which many South Africans of every hue have contributed.

Sociopolitical history often casts Afrikaans as the language of racists, oppressors and unreconstructed nationalists.

But it also bears the imprint of a fierce tradition of anti-imperialism, anticolonialism, of an all-embracing humanism and anti-apartheid activism.

The advancement of Afrikaans in the 20th century, mostly under the aegis of Afrikaner nationalism, meant that the other constituent histories and stories of the language and its speakers were neglected or suppressed.

One of the undoubted successes of Afrikaner nationalist hegemony was the creation of the myth that they, and only they, spoke for those identified as “Afrikaners”, and that their world view was the only significant expression of being Afrikaans-speaking.

Not only did nationalist functionaries and culture brokers suppress oppositional and alternative thought in the Afrikaner community, they also minimised the role and place of black Afrikaans speakers in the broader community.

In all of this, language historians, nationalist politicians, the media and school curriculums have chosen to tell one story, and it was this story that non-Afrikaans speakers have accepted as the only story.

Rather than viewing Afrikaans through a single lens, it is acknowledged today as an amalgam of a variety of expressions, speakers and histories.

Increasingly, black speakers are demanding the “restandardisation” of their language, the recognition of regional varieties and the collection and acknowledgement of their linguistic and cultural expressions.

Willemse is professor of literature in the department of Afrikaans at the University of Pretoria and editor in chief of the multilingual African literary journal Tydskrif vir Letterkunde (letterkunde.up.ac.za)

This is a summary of his submission at the round table discussion

Christi van der Westhuizen writes...
White power today

Democracy has been good to white people in South Africa, especially economically speaking, judging by their increased wealth.

White Afrikaans-speaking people flourish financially, as their increased presence on the JSE shows.

White poverty, historically an Afrikaner phenomenon, remains a mere sliver of overall poverty.

But what are white Afrikaners doing with their new-found prosperity? Fortunately, the picture is varied.

The most clearly identifiable Afrikaner nationalists, the former rulers of the National Party, have merged with the ruling African nationalists.

Organised Afrikaner-nationalist remnants to the far right, the so-called verkramptes (ultraconservatives), refocus their efforts on reactivating the hierarchies and inequalities that historically constructed the project that produced, maintained and refurbished apartheid.

Simultaneously, these remnants avail themselves of the reconnection of South Africa into global circuits of knowledge to draw on neoliberalism, neoracism, neosexism and the postmodern “return to the local” to legitimise and reupholster a neo-Afrikaner nationalism. These developments are called enclave nationalism.

In an unexpected manoeuvre, we see the convergence of verligtes (enlightened) and verkramptes. Verligtes harvest the fruit of neoliberal access and affluence, but increasingly turn towards the verkramptes’ vision of enclave nationalism for identity succour.

In contrast, my research also shows white Afrikaner individuals who reject attempts to interpellate them into neo-Afrikaner nationalism.

Instead, they reinvent their senses of self and agency drawing on complex mixtures of democratic and feminist egalitarianism and Afrikaner nationalist iconography like the volksmoeder (mother of the nation).

Van der Westhuizen is professor at the Centre for Sexualities, Aids and Gender at the University of Pretoria

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