Take up the White Man’s burden–
Ye dare not stoop to less–
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples
Shall weigh your gods and you.
Rudyard Kipling’ hymn to US imperialism, The White Man’s Burden
I once kicked a white man’s van during a heated altercation in the street. My mother has an ailment with her legs and therefore struggles to get into my car. So I delayed reversing out of the parking bay the man was waiting for. Out came a string of racist profanities. I got out of the car and swore back at him. He continued to spout vile racist obscenities and in frustration, I kicked his van. He looked slightly startled, muttered another vulgarity and sped off.
“You kicked his car!” my mother exclaimed when I got back in. I know better than to get irritated that that was her major point of concern. She still warns me about spilling food on my clothes while I’m eating so I know better than to expect her to stop policing my behaviour.
My anger was prompted by the man’s disrespect for my mother and me, and the fact that racism was his default reaction when he became frustrated with us. Lots of people get enraged by other motorists’ driving habits and express their frustration by hurling f-bombs. Who among us hasn’t? It is now part of “normal” conduct in our society.
So in a society like ours that generally behaves badly, there is an extensive list of regular obscenities and then there are racist slurs, at which many of us draw the line. For various reasons, including our historical context and the structure of our society, racist attacks are meant to debase and attack the fundamental basis of your being. Whenever I experience it, I feel the responsibility to attack back – sometimes in ways that society (and my mother) might deem improper.
I have been observing public reaction to the incident at a Spur restaurant in Johannesburg where a white man attacked a black woman in front of her children. The restaurant has now released CCTV footage corroborating Lebohang Mabuya’s version of events that the man grabbed her child during the altercation.
Even with the benefit of this information, some people are still trying to argue that there are two sides to this story and that Mabuya “provoked” the man with her foul language. There are concessions that he might be a bully but they refuse to recognise that the basis of the man’s aggressive behaviour towards the woman and her children is the power imbalance. Some people have argued that Mabuya’s conduct was also offensive because she swore in front of her children.
Mabuya has spoken about her ordeal, saying she was not proud of her behaviour and explained the fear that prompted her reaction.
But there are still conversations about what would have been the “decent” way to respond to an act of racism and aggression? What is the socially acceptable way to respond to racism?
In a Facebook post, Democratic Alliance (DA) member of the provincial legislature in KwaZulu-Natal Mbali Ntuli writes about two incidents in her childhood when her father and brother were forced to respond with violence to aggression from white people.
“In both these incidents my parents went to great lengths to explain to my brother and I that violence was not an acceptable way to resolve conflict but that we had to draw quick and clear lines about what we would accept as other people’s behaviour towards us or we would be taken advantage of and bullied. It strikes me that today in SA many black parents probably gave their kids similar lessons,” Ntuli wrote.
Does lashing out at racism and prejudice lead to the further degeneration of our society? Perhaps. Does it perpetuate the culture of intolerance and violence? Of course. So who is responsible for stopping this destructive cycle?
It is intolerable that the bad behaviour of some people who languish in their bubbles of privilege should be other people’s burdens. Black people should not provoke them. Black people should restrain their reactions. Black people should set better examples for their children. And perhaps what I find most difficult to contend with: black people have the responsibility to help white people understand their privilege and correct it.
The debate over Western Cape Premier Helen Zille’s tweets about colonialism has been healthy as it has helped to air the sentiment that some white people hold that black civilisation would be destined to backwardness had history turned out differently. The framing of Zille’s tweet was an admonishment of those of use who think differently: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”
We can deduce from her presentation of the Singapore argument that she wanted us to acknowledge that colonialisation brought us benefits that the island city-state maximised on and we did not. And after her “unreserved apology”, Zille has continued to defend her original position expressed in the tweets, therefore rendering the apology hollow.
The focus has shifted to DA leader Mmusi Maimane, and how he deals with Zille will be a major test of his leadership. Does he end the political career of his predecessor and mentor in order to prove that his party is intolerant of such backward views, and risk alienating some of the DA’s base? Or does he allow her to survive this episode because she is on the way out anyway and risk causing disillusionment amongst his new black voters? Would this prove his critics right, that he is not really in charge of the party?
The fact is that the burden of responsibility for Zille’s bad behaviour falls on Maimane, and places pressure on him that could be destructive for his own political survival. Zille has given no indication that she is prepared to fall on her sword in order to spare Maimane or her party further torment.
Whatever decision Maimane and the DA make will result in collateral damage. And whatever happens, Maimane, like Mabuya, will be the one to have to carry the burden of explaining themselves.
That is the triumph of white privilege. With the national reconciliation project, there was a responsibility on black people to forgive and forget, to move on from a violent, repressive past without reparations and to accept lives of perpetual inequality. Democracy brought many changes to our lives but we remain burdened with the responsibility to deal with racism and prejudice in all their manifestations.