In South Africa we’ve had many opportunities to deal with racism. Nearly all of them have been missed. But we have another chance now, with the surfacing of the controversy about the Curro School. Will we take it?
Something should be set out upfront: the problem at work here needs to be defined differently.
For the sake of the initial argument, we should abandon the term racism in discussing what happened at Curro.
Whenever that word is used, we end up confounded and distracted. When a black person is violated, and it is called a racist incident, somehow the blame is reversed and we end up discussing the racism of black people and their capacity to be racist. The word itself has been hijacked.
So distorted are the issues involved that we have come to hear people talk about ‘black racism’.
And to be fair, perhaps there is such a thing in modern-day South Africa.
Where, at some point, you heard of a racist incident, you imagined that the perpetrator was white, and the victim was black, these days it is not so. These days, we have to specify that it is white or black racism.
And the problem here is that because we are all capable of all human behaviour, and that discussed and distilled enough, you could accuse the victim a given crime of being the perpetrator. So here we must try to find ways in to separate and limit the terms of the problem instead of getting caught up in its various forms and hues.
So here we shall call what we saw at Curro an expression of the white problem. We are not dealing with racism, but the white problem.
Here, we find a group of white people who insist that associating with black people could be harmful to them. That it could be harmful to their culture and limit their development and advancement. That’s the problem they have.
We find this problem everywhere, and it has been so through history.
Interestingly, the opposite is true of blacks.
Black people believe that their association with white people is beneficial, and perhaps even necessary for their development and advancement. This is also evident in some aspects of the Curro debate.
In the white problem, and their perception of black people, their desire to separate comes to the fore. It is evident even in the opposition to transformation and redress. While many say whites oppose these imperatives because they are threatened by blacks, or they want to hold on to white privilege, it should not be called racism. It should be called the white problem. In the white problem, there is an acute sense and belief that black people represent a threat to their progress and development.
Because we wish to address the issue of historically created black underdevelopment in favour of white development, we also seek to hold back bright white young men.
But in the response, we are also facing the black problem.
In this regard, black people believe that association with white people, or access to whiteness, is good for our development and progress.
Why have black parents found themselves caught up in this problem? How did it occur that black people found themselves in a school that facilitated growth of the white problem?
One of the most twisted and deleterious acts of Apartheid was to deny black schools the resources necessary to provide the best education to black children.
So black public or government schools were decidedly inferior to white government schools.
As the fences of Apartheid between black education and white education collapsed, blacks took their children to the white schools.
These are decisions no one could fault.
Soon, white people were moving their children to private schools, so that we now find that schools that were in white areas, teaching white children, are now entirely black.
Some nightclubs use crowd selection to allow in a limited amount of blacks. This, it is claimed, is to keep the white patrons from a permanent exodus. Once a place is too black, managers and owners believe, then white people stop coming.
So it is also argued that the Curro School was facing the same challenge.
The black problem is that we want to go to “white restaurants”. No decision about going to or building black restaurants or excellent black private schools. But of course, to speak of black schools and white schools and the creation of these represents a long-term social problem of separation. Or does it?
Ironically, there was a time when blacks refused to have white superiority imposed on them. The 1976 youth uprising was a clear statement that black people refused to accept that their road to prosperity was through ascending to some aspect of whiteness – represented by Afrikaans as a medium of education, and thus knowledge and expression.
Now, English and Afrikaans are widely accepted as mediums of instruction, and black children learn their home language as an extra-mural activity.
Who will fix this problem and how?
Who is being harmed by the separation or segregation practiced at Curro?
Are the white kids harmed? How? Because they do not benefit from the gains embedded in diversity? Are the black kids suffering the same harm as a result?
There’s no suggestion that the black kids get inferior teaching or denied access to the full resources of the school. There’s not even a suggestion that the white teachers are paying less attention to black kids. Anyway, they could do this even if they were teaching in integrated classrooms.
So what’s the harm?
We shouldn’t pretend that the harm is not delivered because of the black problem.
Precisely because of the black problem, we believe association with white people, or access to whiteness is good for our development and progress.
When white people left public schools to start or to strengthen private schools, black people followed them. They didn’t build other schools of equal or better quality.
The black problem leads us to the white problem. We now feel harm not because we are not getting the good education we said we were pursuing. We are speaking against the harm that arises because of the black problem. We are being denied white association and the white gaze.
Now, it is worth saying that segregation has been discussed and outlawed. I wouldn’t be so brave as to attempt a justification of it or any of its variations. But in opposing the policies at the Curro School, and in seeking remedy, it is entirely possible that we cause ourselves further harm. It is possible that we reinforce white superiority and our subscription to it.
Some white parents at Curro are complaining and opposing this policy because, like black parents, they believe that segregation is wrong.
The important point here is that segregation, and the thought processes leading to it, must be acknowledged as harmful to both black and white children. It should be understood as clearly as opposition shown to e-tolls. It is a problem and harmful to everyone.
But on the side of blacks, the indignant reaction arises from the notion that this is an assault on black people. How that is the case is not immediately evident, apart from the fact that we too deserve to be in the spaces that white people occupy. They must have us!
It should be troubling to us that we have agreed to the notion that where the white man is, it is good, and we too must be found there.
If the Equality Court or the Human Rights Commission finds in favour of those blacks who feel that this policy is racist and inflicts harm on blacks, it will not be a victory. It will be a humiliation. We would have won the right to impose on ourselves a notion of the goodness of whiteness. And in that way, the nefarious white hegemony would have won. Again.
The separation of white people – separating themselves from black people – is not a statement about black people at all. It cannot be. But the insistence of blacks on being mixed with white people is a definite statement from black people, on our character and self-regard.
It is important to conclude with two points. The first should go without saying, but let it be said anyway. Not all white people are afflicted with the white problem, as evidenced by the parents who have opposed separation at Curro.
The other point is that we are not on a slippery slope to Apartheid separation. We all have freedom of association. If whites want to associate with blacks, there is no law that prevents that, and the opposite is true. However, it happens that whites may not want to associate with blacks as we have seen. If blacks are to fight that, they must be clear in the ways in which it harms them.
Many of us, including myself, hope for a world in which we all live together, united in diversity, enjoying the fruits and gains of diversity, as friends and compatriots who gain from each other. DM
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few best selling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and advisor to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.
"Look for lessons about haunting when there are thousands of ghosts; when entire societies become haunted by terrible deeds that are systematically occurring and are simultaneously denied by every public organ of governance and communication." ~ Avery Gordon