Unlike post-war Germany, there was no “ground zero” for white South Africans. An elderly and kind Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in captivity in his own country, smiled, waved and told us we were all essentially good; forgiven our trespasses. We were all to be embraced as part of the new “rainbow nation”.
This he also requested of the black majority – for the trespasses were not against him alone. And this big ask was granted. We called a “truce” and negotiated a settlement – political and economic. And for the bulk of privileged white South Africans who had grown up and had accumulated wealth and property during the Apartheid era, it was life and business as usual. The “new South Africa” looked and felt very much like the old. Unlike post-war Germans, we had not lost anything. In fact we gained. We gained freedom, international acceptance, a constitution that guaranteed our “minority” rights. Hell, we were even lauded for agreeing to negotiate (there is that Nobel Peace Prize FW was awarded).
We kept our wealth, our privilege, our advantages. Only difference now, of course, is that we could not expect to be treated any differently. We could no longer rely on affirmative action for jobs in government or the private sector (well, that is still open to debate). We would have to compete from the same starting blocks as everyone else but that wasn’t really a concern – we already had a major advantage; in our heads (our education) and in our back pockets (our access to finance).
Of course there was the hastily convened Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a travelling road show of misery and grief where the black majority came forward to speak of what we all already knew. Then there were some perpetrators – officials both minor and major – the cogs in the Apartheid machine, who helped to make the system work, who enforced its laws, its ideologies, its madness and who testified and applied for amnesty. While the hearings were broadcast live on radio and TV, few white South Africans “tuned in” to absorb the enormity and extent of it or reflect on what this meant for our own lives going forward. “It wasn’t us!” “We didn’t know!” “But black people also did terrible things!”
Without the need to confront, on a national level, our levels of complicity, our institutionalised advantage, years of relentless propaganda that we were superior to others, dispelling the lie that our fabulous lives of abundance were all of our own making – many white South Africans welcomed and entered the “new South Africa” in a state of emotional and moral paralysis.
Of course there were (and still are) white South Africans who engaged and who continue to do so. But these are not those who have been making headlines in Cape Town.
There have been at least four attacks on black people in the suburbs: the raging white swimming coach who assaulted a black woman because he assumed she was a “prostitute”, a Boss model who pissed on the head of a black taxi driver from the balcony of Tiger Tiger, that nocturnal watering hole for the white entitled youth of the genteel Southern Suburbs. The dentist who beat a Malawian gardener with a sjambok, that symbol of Apartheid oppression.
Three of the five young white men who have been arrested for allegedly racially insulting and assaulting Delia Adonis, a 52-year-old mother of six, outside Tiger Tiger entered the physical world in post-Apartheid South Africa.
They are “born frees”, the children of parents who grew up in that other place that mercifully no longer exists. A quick journey through their Facebook profiles reveals them to be “average” white South African boys. They come from good homes, two of them went to the exclusive Selbourne College in the Eastern Cape, one of them is a student at UCT.
They dress in the uniforms of white wealth and privilege – beanies, skinny jeans, checked shirts. The girls they hang out with are largely blonde. Their uniforms are preposterously tiny mini-skirts and high heels. Their photo galleries are filled with nights of alcoholic fun and high jinks in and around the city that is theirs for the taking.
They all have a few black friends, no doubt a minority they must have encountered during their schooling or while completing their tertiary education. These are black friends who are middle class, “just like us”, so these boys have probably never had to engage with difference, with the past and where they fit in.
Last year a documentary mini-series, “Our Mothers, Our Fathers”, was screened in Germany. The series, which sought to explore the effects of the war on a generation who survived it as well as their children, resulted in widespread discussion and introspection in that country.
After the screening Der Spiegel interviewed psychoanalyst Harmut Radebolt about his struggle with living with the memories and trauma of growing up in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.
A memorable quote from this interview and which applies to white South Africa is Radebolt’s statement that “coming to terms with one’s own history doesn’t mean that one is automatically exonerated.”
The fact that some white born free children might find themselves acting out the unresolved anger and rage of their parents is a matter worth exploring. What is it their parents are telling them about the past? How do they explain their own lives, their own histories?
How do they explain Nelson Mandela, the project of nation building, of transformation and where they, as white South Africans fit, in?
There are those who argue that these young men are just aresholes regardless of their skin colour and that we should not, once again, reduce this attack to “race” or the “past”.
I beg to differ. Viciously assaulting a black (or as the media have labelled her, “coloured”) woman old enough to be their mother is a far more serious matter than simple foolish adolescent hooliganism. The lack of respect and decency speaks to much deeper and more troubling unresolved issues.
We do our white children a terrible disservice when we do not educate them about the world they live in and how it came to be. We do not exist in an historical void. Avoiding this disables them. They will never experience the freedom of digesting the past and finding a clear and comfortable path into the future along with fellow South Africans.
My suggestion for punishment in future for these young white racists is to be sentenced to a year of cleaning up the porta loos our fellow residents in informal settlements have been forced to use. They should be transported to informal settlements, early in the morning, as the working class rises to go to work serving the rest of us coffee, cleaning our homes, cliping our hedges. Perhaps a close-up encounter might prompt an inward journey of self-discovery, respect and humility. DM
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The Hindenburg had a smoking room.