I am aware that the tragic past and present suffering inflicted on people who are not of my race might make it seem narcissistic and tone deaf to ask this question. Were I to ask it of black friends and colleagues, the answer would be a definitive yes, of course. But I am not so sure, because I have never asked this question until a few weeks ago, and so I ask it here.
Are we still welcome here?
A short time before the recent student protests I was invited to the JHB Art Fair. As we were leaving, a guest arrived in a head-to-toe outfit that was covered in the words “Fuck White People”. People clustered around her as devotees to a prophet. The guest basked in the attention. I thought – it is an abstract political statement, I should not take it personally. And then I went home and thought little more of it.
But then the recent university protests arrived and a slow normalisation of this language took hold. A young white woman of my acquaintance arrives in class to find “Kill Whites” written on the whiteboard. This is not the first time. She now wants to leave the university she attends, despondent and bewildered.
A crowd of belligerent Fallists enter a lecture hall and point at the white students – “We have no reason to co-exist peacefully with you, ever”. Another young white, left-wing student in a politics class tries to make a point in an interactive session and is told, “Shut up, you white bitch, your view is irrelevant.” And so she changes her major, which she loved.
These are small matters perhaps, when juxtaposed against apartheid or structural and longitudinal poverty or lack of access to this or that. But still, the reaction from others to such utterances is thunderous in its silence. Is anyone concerned about this? Or does it just become a background sibilance against the great cacophony of more important battles?
I am also acutely aware that the very articulation of such a question feeds directly into the narrative that that whites like me understand nothing of black pain, for whom such questions are to be treated with utter contempt. And yet I am moved to ask it, against the advice of friends.
There was, of course, a time in our not too distant past when anti-white sentiment would have been not only expected, but justified. After several lifetimes and all manner of cruelties, no one would have been the slightest bit surprised had it all ended in mayhem of violence and payback. But there were broad-shouldered men and women who thought carefully and unemotionally about this, and decided that the sweetness of revenge would not be as wise or long-lived as a negotiated agreement. And so it was done, paperwork signed, backs slapped, the future rendered in the colours of promise.
And I felt welcome enough to return from another country I had called home for nearly two decades.
My daily lived experience, for the most part, seems far removed from the vicious racism of some of the Fallists, or even the oft-repeated anti-white lashings of the EFF, and even occasionally by the ANC as they try to seduce those voters who would approve of the sentiment. But as I move through my day there is rarely ever a hint of tension with the many people of different cultures that cross my path in every way conceivable – social, business, service and serendipity. Is this a mirage?
Perhaps my antenna for trouble is overdeveloped – for thousands of years my tribe has warily looked to see when the welcome mat will be pulled up. And then we leave as fast as possible. And it has not escaped my attention that Mcebo Dlamini, along with his vile anti-white racism, is not only too happy to spice it up with dollops of vitriolic anti-semitism and archaic but still dangerous tropes about world domination. And now, in jail, seen as a leader and model for thousands of students.
And then there is the matter of the flotsam and jetsam of social media and the comments sections of blogs and news sites, long a safe place for white racists. There has been, of late, a clear and sharp change in content, and a change in correspondents. There is a great deal of “Fuck White People, Kill White People”. Spewed, agreed with, retweeted and shared. The white racists are still there, of course, but now well-matched by their counterparts on the other side of the line.
So, if not for me, who does not have the energy to start again elsewhere, then at least for my children – are we still welcome here? Or will the harsh spotlight of history forever damn us?
Can anyone tell me, are we still welcome here? DM
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Award-winning and multi-shortlisted novelist Steven Boykey Sidley has meandered through careers as an animator, chief technology officer for a Fortune 500 company, jazz musician, software developer, video game designer, private equity investor and high technology entrepreneur. He currently lives in Johannesburg with his wife and two children. Free Association is his fourth and latest novel.
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