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19 April 2014 06:45 (South Africa)
Opinionista Justin McCarthy

Moaning Myrtle and Mrs Woolworths: Why white English speaking South Africans are failing our country

  • Justin McCarthy
When I first came to South Africa, I thought racism belonged to white Afrikaners of a certain ilk. How disappointing, then, to find that the selective blindness plaguing the country is not only frighteningly widespread, but that even a new generation of white people feels as entitled as ever.

I’ve followed the furore in a frappuccino over the Woolworths boycott with a great deal of interest these past few weeks. When the “story” broke I admit I was quite dismissive and thought it would be over by the time I’d finished my double espresso. I was wrong. Not to inflate the issue with any greater import than it deserves, but it got under my skin and irritated me like a mozzie in my ear. In fact, I find the entire matter not only distasteful but quite alarming. It’s actually revealed an issue of much greater proportion than I imagined – and one of critical national importance.

I’m not given to generalisations. They’re often concocted from a narrow base of opinionated observation and therefore dangerous. However, I am making an exception here, and using several, which (in my defence) are based on many years of broad-based observation. So when I refer to white English-speaking South Africans, for instance, I refer to them as a collective – which is, by definition, a generalisation, and therefore unfair. I admit upfront that my accusations are far from universal.

In my teens, my primary association with Apartheid was not blacks or coloureds or Indians (we were separated then) but the white Afrikaner male. I was a buitelander to them (being an Irish import), and I was here in their land of milk and honey by their good grace. When I turned 16 they insisted I join their army. I politely declined. They did everything in their considerable power to force me into conscription, including amending a law to close a loophole on dodging buitelanders. They bullied and intimidated me and threatened me with all manner of foul impositions, so that my lasting impression of the Afrikaner was that of a myopic, insecure bully, empowered to enforce doctrine and dogma by the authority of their illegitimate State. Their leader, the serpentine, lip-licking, finger-wagging Groot Krokodil who spat threatening warnings about black people and communists and the devil from my parents’ television set, personified everything that was grotesquely distasteful about this tribe of denialists. I evolved into adulthood with a deep distaste for anyone who belonged to this tribe, a view that was compounded by the police intolerance and brutality I witnessed first-hand at demonstrations on Wits campus. Their iron-rigid dogma, unshakable intolerance and viciously violent enforcement of their will awoke in me the horrors of Apartheid and the hotbed of student activism that fizzed comparatively peacefully around the fringes of the township violence so prevalent throughout the eighties. Even at a liberal institution like Wits University, I had to sign my name and student number to access the special library reading room where one could consume the filth penned by the likes of Marx and Engels, under constant suspicion that Craig Williamson was taking note of my silent revolutionary intentions. 

My prejudice was hard to shake, and every now and then I get an unpleasant reminder like a surge of indigestion that elements of this benighted tribe remain. Like when I read Dan Roodt’s rant about Woolworths and his “War Against Racism”, or when I learned of the trade union organisation Solidarity’s call for a boycott in which they take an appallingly poor dig at Woolworths’ proposition (“making a differentiation” [sic]). However, this should not be unexpected, as a vocal number of Calvinistic Afrikaners are rather disgruntled by their loss of absolute authority. It sits uncomfortably with aspects of their superior being belief system. Yet many, many are not. Many get on with life and work an honest day and pray to their god and demand no more than what is enshrined in our Constitution. They have skills and application and they possess a can-do attitude. They make a number of aspects of our economy productive and efficient. They pay their taxes and help their neighbours and are generally cheerful and conscientious citizens who understand that as possessors of knowledge and skill, they have a responsibility to deliver on their contribution to making this country stable and prosperous.

What struck me about the calls to boycott Woolworths was the reaction of middle-class English speaking white South Africa. In as much as a cry of racism is expected from diehard enclaves of the Afrikaner resistance, I didn't expect the outpourings of bile from this bunch that I thought understood the dynamics, if for no other reason than they are the beneficiaries of the finest education South Africa has to offer. The weight and volume of derogatory comments, misinformed myopism and out-and-out racism shocked me. PRAAG, the pro-Afrikaner organisation of which Dan Roodt is some sort of high priest, has managed a whole 1,500 petition signatories in their WAR on Woolworths. That’s pretty feeble. My 13-year-old son has half that many BBM contacts. Dan the Man also has 2,665 Twitter followers. Solidaritiet doesn’t disclose the number of signatories to their anti-Woolworths campaign, but they do have 12,500 Facebook fans collected over the three years they’ve had the profile (the trade union itself was founded in 1902). They also have 2,880 Twitter followers. It’s probably safe to assume that the majority of their members support their cause either actively or passively. These are the guys claiming to be behind the temporary suspension of Woolworths’ Facebook wall. Assuming a high duplication of Facebook and Twitter fans/followers, neither organisation has a particularly impressive following in the numbers game.

Conversely, an English speaking blogger and self-styled “internet marketing” expert by the name of Justin Harrison has 34,600 Facebook fans and 68,900 Twitter followers, although he maintains he doesn’t like Twitter and is going to close his account – which two weeks later he still hasn’t gotten around to doing. He has, since he went public with his protest over Woolworths, protected his Twitter account under the pretext that he couldn’t take the hate. His blog, http://www.justinharrison.com/,has a significant following, although it has been down for some days with a redirect to his Facebook page, leading me to suspect him of attempting to control the buzz. Perhaps his views on EE were having an effect on his business interests. Now, Mr Harrison has courted quite a bit of controversy since his call to boycott. 2OceansVibe, a streaming radio station and website that appears to be developing a bit of a CSI bent, did an exposé of sorts on Harrison’s social media following after some industry folk asked “who?” when his numbers were bandied about. His website has subsequently undergone unscheduled maintenance for the past 10 days, lending more credence to my suspicions.

Controversy, bought followers and credibility questions aside, what Harrison did achieve was to be the first to spot the Woolworths recruitment ad and create a fuss (according to him at least). His various blog posts, Facebook posts and tweets ranted about the gross unfairness, unconstitutionality and immorality of Employment Equity. He fed the trolls and they feasted. By comparison, the News24 comments feed was relatively tame. Now that takes some doing. 

Immersing myself in this swamp emanating from the bile ducts of the internet, I discovered a whole boil of racism festering and seemingly lanced by the Woolworths recruitment ad. The majority of the whining came from English speaking whites, possibly because they make up a disproportionate percentage of Woolworths’ customer base, or possibly because they’re just as racist as their Calvinistic broeders. What they almost universally displayed was a distinct misunderstanding of the difference between BBBEE and EE (which are related, not equated) and a complete insensitivity to what Ferial Haffajee in her fabulous article The Woolworths boycott brigade eloquently termed “intergenerational privileges”. The dramatic irony of their invoking Constitutional rights they had barely anything to do with coupled with a blind miscomprehension of just how fundamental redress is to their survival, forged from the vantage point of their soapbox of inherited privilege, is so ironic as to be worthy of a Shakespearean three-part drama. 

Here’s the reality, white South Africa, whether or not you like it, agree with it, are guilted into submission or just plain accept it as part of living in this magnificent country: unless we address the grotesque imbalance of access to the corridors of wealth creation, this country will fail and it won’t by any stretch be just the government’s fault. It will be just as much your own. This country is magnificent while you have access to education, jobs, skills and the means to make a good living. It’s not if you don’t and are forced to live off government grants and have no real prospects of improvement. That plain sucks. It sucks emotional energy and replaces it with anger and resentment that feed the monsters like Julius Malema who use it for the advancement of their personal agenda. Malema is a dangerous character, not because of who he is, but because of the support he can mobilise. When you have no voice and no representation, you’ll take Julius over nothing. Silence Julius, and another thousand will fill his place. Look at the history of civilisation, and every time the inequality gap has reached a tipping point. You have to be blinded by dogma not to get it.

If you are a white product of the new South Africa (in the sense that you were born after 1990 or so) then open your mind and read our history. You cannot dismiss Apartheid as the “sins of our fathers”.  As hard as that may be to swallow, it’s a fact, and as much as you may feel a victim of history, be bloody thankful you weren’t born black in 1960. You have been born to a position of privilege, so quit moaning about a small element of job reservation and use that privilege to your own advantage. Learn some more skills, work that much harder, or go to the big school of entrepreneurism and take the hard road.

If you’re a white parent of the produce of the new South Africa*, then instead of griping along with them, you have a responsibility to instil a healthy respect for their good fortune. Sacrifice some of your non-essential privileges and invest more in them so that they can pay that forward by earning a good living and in turn create opportunity for others less fortunate. Teach them that their skills and access to resources isn’t a god-given right, but a very lucky place to find oneself, for which they should show their gratitude by applying themselves to ways and means of improving the competitiveness of our economy though job creation, skills transfer, entrepreneurism and good old fashioned hard work. No middle-class South African, irrespective of colour, aspires to work as a cashier at Woolworths, but too many have no choice. Millions more don’t even have the opportunity and never will. Think about that before you post a gripe on Woolworths’ Facebook wall for your kids to read and emulate. DM

*Disclosure: Before you throw the “you-don’t-understand-parenting” thing at me, I am a white parent of three children between the ages of 11 and 16.

  • Justin McCarthy
justin McCarthy

Justin is Irish born and raised in Africa. As a consequence you can take him out of the bush but you can’t extract the animal. He studied Anthropology and English at Wits, toured the world, and owned and operated two restaurants before committing to the deceptive allure of advertising.

An adman at heart, he’s never shy of an opinion or to throw it about with gusto. This extends beyond marketing and advertising to equally noisy and everyman opinion-steeped topics like politics and rugby. His commitment to freedom of expression is matched only by his enthusiasm for good food and wine.


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