Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 6 February 2013

AWDs: Weapons of Misguided Frustration

My return from US has made blindingly clear that there’s nothing that can cure a bad case of rose-tinted nostalgia like Angry White Dudes who, despite having a pretty good deal going in the new South Africa, continue to vent their rage by bullying black men and women.

I have been back in South Africa for less than two weeks. I spent six months at Yale University last year, enjoying many things about the East Coast of America, but desperately missing home. It was hard to watch Marikana unfold from a distance. And as the pre-Mangaung speculation heated up, I imagined friends and family spending long evenings around the braai, arguing about what would happen in the leadership race.

By the time we got onto the plane, headed for home, the spectre of Newtown – a 20-minute drive from where we were living with our two kids, who were the same ages as many of the children killed by Adam Lanza – loomed large.

America feeds her young a diet of video games and social alienation, she raises angry men, shows them all she has to offer and then traps them in ghettoes.  She nurtures rage in suburban white boys; teaches them the world is theirs and then locks them into a world far smaller than they had imagined. Departing JFK, I felt like we had just escaped something as we made our ascent. We were happy to be flying into the predictability of crime and violence in South Africa.

But in the past few weeks, I will admit that in my nostalgia for South Africa, I edited out some of the details. I forgot about the contours of the violence that we live with every day, contours that follow the lines of race and racism that trace our history and map our present. I forgot, in particular, about South Africa’s angry white male problem.

Angry White Dudes (AWDs) in South Africa are everywhere in daily life. We all know an Angry White Dude. We see him in the bank, losing it because the queue is too long. We see him blasting a taxi driver as though the hooter is a lifeline pumping oxygen directly through his palm. We see him nose-to-nose with some other Angry White Dude in a bar on Friday night, and we give him wide berth. 

Yet, despite the high-profile murders of black people and women by angry white men over the years, the national narrative on crime and violence remains  dominated by the idea that the criminals are black and the victims are white or middle class. Poor black people get deployed as crime victims when the violence acted upon them is political, or when it suits an argument. But the reality is that we simply don’t speak consistently and honestly about the unacknowledged epidemic of violence gripping our country. Seldom do we speak about what we are going to do about the AWDs. 

This crisis doesn’t make headlines because it is obscured by the other headlines which pathologise black men as criminals and black families as dysfunctional.   Type the words “South Africa violence against black people” into Google. You get pages and pages of hits about the war on white people in South Africa. We simply don’t have a language that talks about whiteness and violence in a rational manner.

I am not suggesting an either-or type of discussion. It would be ridiculous to pretend as though there are no angry black men. It would be mad to deny that there are no black men and women who are criminals. But to pretend as though there are no dysfunctions in white communities, would be equally ridiculous. It is essential that we recognise that the primary way in which white men express their rage is, at an interpersonal level, by bullying black people and women.

If we continue to pretend that violence among whites is somehow less severe than black violence (whatever those categories mean), we may find ourselves mourning the loss of school children, or worshippers or movie-goers who have died en masse at the hands of an AWD. Or, we simply may miss opportunity after opportunity, born out this crisis of angry male whiteness, to address a social problem that requires as much attention as any other.

How many more Muhammad Fayaaz Kazi’s have to die before we recognise that we have a problem? How many more times should a Bees Roux kill a black cop and walk away with a fine, before we recognise that there is a serious problem?

If we begin to talk more honestly about crime and violence and where they reside – in the actions primarily of men, black and white – then we stand a good chance of moving beyond ineffectual campaigns imploring us to stop violence against women. 

If we began to talk about AWDs and the problems they are causing across the country, we might be able to point out a few things that would help them in their journey towards healing. The first would be to recognise that not all white dudes are angry. In fact, some of my best friends are non-angry WDs. And, basically, they are just dudes, earning money, going out to restaurants, studying, starting businesses, travelling, and living a pretty good life. They get angry sometimes, just like everyone else, but in general they are clear that they have a pretty good deal going in the new South Africa (for confirmation of this, see census figures indicating that white households earn six times more than African ones).

And here is where the misguided anger problem comes in. Instead of being mad at the white dudes who never skipped a beat (the ones who are really rich and therefore completely above the law), they are mad at the blacks and the women and the non-angry regular white guys. Instead of figuring out how to build alliances with people who are really like them in economic terms (that is, middle and working class people of all races), they are busy aligning themselves with people who look like them and talk like them, but with whom they have very little in common.

Until we get real and move past the usual stereotypes about violence and race, Angry White Dudes will continue to explode at blacks and women, instead of raging against the machine. Here’s to hoping we will begin to recognise the real enemy, before the body count gets higher. DM 

Sisonke is a maverick which is why she’s an Opinionista.  When not being a non-conformist and rebel (see definition of maverick), she works with Sonke Gender Justice Network to prove that real men have friends who are feminists.  When she isn’t doing that, she writes about Really Important Social Issues (gender, race, poverty) and is invited to speak at Meetings that Will Save the World because she is a Young Global Leader. 


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