The lens of our national discourse is always primed to zoom in on unruly black protest. When incidents of regrettable vandalism or violence occur alongside black protest movements, our receptiveness to their concerns hardens. The response from universities and police — ominous private security deployments, police arrests, rubber bullets and tear gas — is as depressingly predictable as it is heavy-handed. Tellingly, we do not talk about white violence, nor does it receive a similar response. White violence in defence of white privilege is predictable and normal; nonviolence is for blacks only. It is time we had a critical conversation about white violence.
I call it the Invictus Myth: pretending South Africa, the so-called Rainbow Nation, has overcome white supremacy when it has not.
This myth is best illustrated by the pretence that South Africa’s racial and class divisions are progressively dismantled by sporting events. Famously, the movie Invictus told us that Madiba’s inspired support of the Springboks during the 1995 Rugby World Cup — despite their status as a symbol of apartheid in the eyes of many black South Africans — bound black and white together in a national unity and brotherhood which transcended our deep divisions and previous lack of common understanding.
Versions of this wishful, misguided, truth-obscuring thinking were trotted out for the 2010 World Cup, and whenever rugby matches are held in Soweto.
Well, if sporting events are powerful sites of symbolism which reveal essential truths about our nation, what does it mean when they go bad? What does it mean when white rugby players and fans mercilessly beat black student protesters that they outnumber 50 to one? Proponents of the Invictus Myth would prefer not to tell you, but I will.
In racialised societies such as ours, when social tensions between whites and blacks approach boiling point, a clear and depressing sequence of events is inevitable. White people know exactly what to do. They deal violently with blacks at the immediate site of resistance, as white students and supporters did at the infamous University of the Free State (UFS) rugby game. Then, armed to the teeth, they put on a show of force, to convey the clear message that they will not hesitate to kill black people if their privilege is threatened.
This is what they were doing, when, as the Daily Maverick’s Greg Nicolson reported, and in a disturbing echo of an earlier era, white adults — either relatives of UFS students or just fellow defenders of white supremacy — were seen armed with guns and equipped with bulletproof vests (preparing for battle?) while patrolling the streets of the university and surrounds. The SAPS, the police service of a democratically elected government in a majority-black country, appears to have been concerned only with hunting down black student leaders, and suppressing any sign of political protest by black students.
What this episode illustrates is what black South Africans have always known. Racism and white supremacy are alive and well. The 1994 compromise rests on blacks not disrupting white privilege. In fact it is better not to acknowledge it at all, lest we be accused of living in the past.
Black students tried to disrupt a rugby game to get UFS Vice-Chancellor Jonathan Jansen’s attention, because they felt he was not devoting appropriate attention to their issues, which include among others de facto segregation of certain dorms, a language policy which privileges Afrikaans — the mother tongue of only a minority of students — cultural symbols and practices which reinforce white Afrikaner male dominance in the university’s cultural life, the use of reconciliation in such a way which protects whiteness from genuine scrutiny, and forces concessions from black students and workers.
For this they were beaten savagely to and on the ground, and sent running if they were lucky enough to escape violence by the white mob.
Three important points follow.
White rage (at what?) is ever-present
If you’ve ever been driving while black in South Africa, you are familiar with the following. You mildly offend a white driver. You may have made a small mistake which, while a transgression, did not come close to causing an accident. Or you may have, as I have done, not let someone merge into your lane, when you could have. For this, you were surprised to find that said white driver’s face is contorted with rage, and he or she is shouting obscenities at you, with usually a middle finger thrown in.
Maybe white drivers do this to each other. That is one explanation for this behaviour. Without the benefit of a research study on the matter, what I take away from these incidents is that there is a section of white society carrying around an inner rage against black people, especially those that trespass against their privilege, and they are looking for a moment to let it out.
These moments are not easy to come by, however. You can’t exactly explode at a black person in the workplace, on the street, or on campus, where they might explode back, or where there may be witnesses, or where you may otherwise be held accountable. Although sometimes you might explode at an errant black person anyway. But driving in your car, where you can safely get away, provides the perfect opportunity to tell a black person what you really think of them. which seems to be an irresistible opportunity for many. As is a melee at a rugby game, where it’s highly unlikely anyone will be able to isolate you and hold you accountable.
Nonviolence is for blacks only
White people love to laud black people for their restraint and nonviolence in the face of intolerable oppression and indignity. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and (post-MK/prison) Madiba enjoy a sort of universal approval among whites which exists in stark contrast to white sentiment about black leaders who advocated white violence be met with black violence.
So it is a pity that nonviolence is not embraced by all white people, and that there is relatively little condemnation from whites in the public sphere. Militarised white supremacist populations like ours are very clear on maintaining the means and will to defend themselves. The reports on UFS remind us that some sections of the white population are armed to the teeth, and retain the willingness to defend white privilege with force. We blacks, by contrast, conditioned to practice nonviolence and forgiveness in the face of violence, humiliation and outrage, wait to be beaten, run over or shot and then go and lay a case in court. In short, when white students at UFS — the Reitz Four — pee in food and trick our unsuspecting mothers and fathers into eating it, Prof Jansen tells us to forgive the white students, for they know not what they do. When black students momentarily stop a rugby game to protest, the white community from which the Reitz Four were borne gleefully beat the daylights out of them, reconciliation and humanity be damned.
Do we need to fear white vigilantism?
What this event showed is that when white privilege is threatened, a significant section of white people close ranks and do whatever is necessary to defend it. Including viciously assaulting blacks. We saw this at UFS, University of Pretoria and last year in Elsenburg. White students and community members seemed willing to back up their disagreement with black protesters with physical violence.
Sisonke Msimang has insightfully pointed out that many white South Africans, despite their enormous social and economic power and privileges, see themselves as victims. This may explain the propensity of some whites to lash out violently at black student protesters and individually in other situations. As discourse and action to highlight and ultimately dismantle unfair white privilege and institutional racism continues to gather momentum, we must be much more honest about calling out and condemning white vigilantism when it presents itself.
In debates about race, a view has emerged from and gained resonance with black activists and intellectuals that the most helpful role progressive white brothers and sisters in the new South Africa can play is to engage others in their community and hold them accountable where necessary. We will rely on them to be far more vocal and honest about white violence both in white spaces where there are no blacks in the room, and more important, from a nation-building perspective, in public debates wherever they take place. DM
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Mandla Lionel Isaacs is a public servant and former management consultant. A self-described Africanist intellectual, he is interested in politics and African renaissance. He completed a BA in Political Science at Howard University in Washington DC, and is an MA International Relations student at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is a former Pan-African Universities Debating Champion. He blogs at overstand.co.za, and tweets @lionofjozi
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