The rainbow nation myth grew out of the initial novelty of blacks and whites being able to move in proximity to each other. To simply be around each other was fresh – attend events, be in the same office, walk the same pavements, go to the beach. We’d never been able to do that before. But there has been a failure to convert that proximity into genuine interaction as people and to transform society so we can relate as true equals. I remain convinced that it has been a failure on the part of white people to integrate into what is ultimately a country of African people.
In the fraught contemporary media environment, it can be intimidating to try to say anything of political relevance. Especially when you know you’re on the wrong side of history, and that your perspective and value system is tainted by your privileged upbringing in a racist, white supremacist system.
This is the cross that most white South Africans have to bear, and of course it compares not at all with the real oppression suffered by black South Africans under the ongoing system of racist, capitalist exploitation. As whites we cannot possibly understand how oppression, exploitation, psychological and physical degradation, mental and physical slavery, systematised brutality…. We cannot understand how that feels because we have not experienced it. We have not lived under a system geared to keeping us in poverty, depriving us of education and opportunities for advancement and that beats us into submission when we try to resist.
“Who feels it knows it,” as the Rasta proverb holds, and we have not felt it, so we cannot know it.
Likewise, a man cannot know the oppression of women, the able-bodied cannot know the struggles of the differently abled. Those with a binary, hetero sexual identity cannot know the experience of LGBTI people. But these people are all fighting to liberate themselves from a system built and geared to marginalising, silencing, exploiting and oppressing them. There is a rising anger and a refusal to be silent any longer.
Also the veneer of specialness that has somehow attended the person of whites as we go about our life of privilege, that has worn through. The spell has been broken. Though we still live a life of relative ease and luxury, our countrymen now see us as no better than them. The emperor of class superiority indeed wears no clothes, and those nudes are all over the internet.
There are fewer smiles at the supermarket checkout, less long-suffering tolerance of our oblivious, ingrained racism, less amazed jubilation when we show glimpses of our basic humanity. These days, white people are being called out right and left by black people who have had enough of our shit. However, it is easy for white people to miss even these signs, or to dismiss them. To say a Twitter/Facebook outcry over routine racist posts has somehow been orchestrated. To say pointing out the bigotry of white perspectives is somehow racism of its own type. It is not.
The days of the rainbow nation euphoria are long behind us. White reparations did not happen. We just carried on as before, and eventually, the black community, as one, went, “Wait a second!”
Was that it? Were we really not going to do anything to right the wrongs of centuries of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, capital accumulation? Well, actually, we were hoping not to have to do anything about that. We were kinda hoping our black compatriots would be satisfied with some government positions, access to the tender honeypot and Bryan Habana. It has been one of my great fears that sooner or later black people will give up on whites. I sense that happening today. Because when you get nothing from your neighbour, when he or she simply takes from you, uses you and fails to acknowledge your humanity… sooner or later you do the same to them.
The rainbow nation myth grew out of the initial novelty of blacks and whites being able to move in proximity to each other. To simply be around each other was fresh – attend events, be in the same office, walk the same pavements, go to the beach. We’d never been able to do that before. But there has been a failure to convert that proximity into genuine interaction as people and to transform society so we can relate as true equals. I remain convinced that it has been a failure on the part of white people to integrate into what is ultimately a country of African people. Because truly trying to integrate and understand will make it obvious how much transformation and de-colonising still needs to be done. In our minds and in society.
A recent Facebook post of mine drew much froth when I suggested white people should try to fit in, in what is a black people’s country. Critics seemed to feel that in a non-racial country blacks and whites should both make an effort and that we each have a right to our own way of life in our own separate communities. Some said insisting people should fit in was a type of fascism. Some said I should fuck off. (In caps, nogaal, but I’ll spare you that). I still think us whites should try to fit in. We never will completely, but we can integrate a lot better than we have so far. And in trying to understand – again something we will never fully do – we get closer to the worldview of the people who make up the bulk of our country. And obviously it is their values, needs and opinions that should drive the management of our government and our economy. In a country of the poor, the needs and interests of the poor should be primary. The needs of the rich should not even be relevant.
This is obviously contested terrain, and just about every private or public policy proposal these days is punted as being in the interests of the poor. My contention is that, for now, white interests will only be relevant where they serve the interests of the poor and the marginalised.
For example, you can have a white sports administrator. But what is the point of him if he does not drive transformation? Likewise, the point of white capital should be to facilitate the masses sharing in the riches of the country. Otherwise what is its role? To further enrich a small group of global-elite shareholders and financiers? The white equivalent of being woke is knowing enough to know you know nothing. To know you should shut the fuck up and listen. One tries, but every now and then your slip shows. Inevitably, my views are tainted by my culture. But perhaps what I am suggesting is that white people try to change our culture. It has been a culture of entitlement, superiority, condescension and pride. If we can strive to live as Africans, for Africans, perhaps our actions will follow suit and we can be useful and positively relevant. DM
Hagen Engler is a writer, journalist, poet and blogger at hagenshouse.com. He rose from small-town obscurity in Port Elizabeth to attain big-city anonymity in Johannesburg. En route he edited men's magazine FHM, where he admired bikinis, lit his farts and streaked around Randburg professionally. Today he types furtively in a darkened room, trying to look busy and avoid nappy duty.
The air quality from pollution on a cruise ship can at times be worse than the world's worst cities.