I’ve just about had it with being told to “get over apartheid”. It is a deeply dishonest assertion to make. And honesty is a vital step in this scary and confusing journey we’ve taken together as South Africans.
Last week I was invited by Yfm to attend a dinner. It was part of a “Generation Y” series of discussions that aims to reawaken the spirit of the youth in confronting our own problems. The keynote speaker at this particular discussion was Nkosinathi Biko, son of struggle stalwart Steve Biko.
As I sat there in the ballroom at the swish Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, surrounded by accomplished, well-read and well-spoken young South Africans, it hit me that the majority of young South Africans weren’t represented in the room. Take a South African between the ages of 18 and 24: chances are he or she is unemployed, unemployable with little or no chance of getting ahead in life.
Yet there we were, tweeting on our Blackberrys, mocking each other’s Model-C accents, brushing our car keys away to make room for the cabernet sauvignon that was being passed around. We were talking about the problems facing young South Africans and we weren’t hearing from those who are hardest hit by poverty, poor education, unemployment and crime. What right did we have to speak for them?
Why are more than 50% of young people in South Africa unemployed? Whose fault is that?
Here’s an outrageous idea – it is apartheid’s fault. That is the reason why apartheid was such a horrible thing. It not only disenfranchised the majority of South Africans based on their skin colour, it did its damndest to make sure they would forever be poor and uneducated. Its effects will remain with us for decades, perhaps even centuries.
Apartheid’s victims should remain angry as long as its effects are with us.
A mistake that is always made (and will no doubt be repeated in the comments below this column) is that whenever it is said that black anger at apartheid should not subside, we mean that blacks should be angry at apartheid beneficiaries. No. Blacks should be angry at apartheid because trying to come to terms with it in any other way will blunt the eagerness of our response to it. Our solutions in 2011 will not be as vigorous or thorough as they should be. (Here’s another outrageous idea – could this partly explain why our government fannies about with its responses to the poverty problem; they’re not angry enough?)
If we stop being outraged by apartheid, we take the foot off the accelerator. We will begin to excuse it and finally tolerate it.
As I said in my blurb, the one instance when I get mad at those who benefited from apartheid is when they tried to prescribe to its victims how they should deal with its legacy emotionally. There have been a series of enlightening articles sparked off by a paper written by Samantha Vice, entitled “How do I live in this strange place?” Vice attempts to grapple with the issue of being white – and therefore a beneficiary of apartheid – in the new South Africa. She concludes that regret, shame and a withdrawal from the public space is the correct response. Political commentator Eusebius McKaiser countered that assertion, saying that whites needed to engage with their apparently problematic whiteness publicly. The response to Vice and McKaiser by Pierre de Vos is also a must-read.
What astonished me most about this conversation was the attitude of some commentators. They blatantly refused to accept that being white under the previous regime meant you were a beneficiary of apartheid. While I understand why many white people would have difficulty adopting Vice’s position about their skin colour, I can’t fathom how any white person could deny the dynamics of apartheid.
I now understand a little how so many white people can shamelessly say that blacks should get over apartheid. After all, if whites didn’t benefit from it, what’s the big deal? That’s the problem, though. Don’t look at me, or the sort of young, black South Africans who tweet from dinner at the Hyatt. Think of the destitute young South African in Diepsloot. Should she get over apartheid when it put her there in the first place?
And when we sit in a room to grapple with these issues, the people it really affects aren’t there. White South Africans look at Sipho Hlongwane and think apartheid died 17 years ago. They forget that I’m an outlier.
Dear white person, whenever you’re tempted to want to tell blacks how they should feel about apartheid, think of that poor youth in the township or rural area. See if your words sit as comfortably then as they do now.
Until the political freedom and the right to be fully recognised as human beings in their own country begins to have material, economic results, black people must remain angry. Anything else would mean selling out our children’s futures. It is as simple as that. DM
Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.
"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." ~ Salvador Dalí