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Random Thoughts on White Privilege in the DA


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Mmusi Maimane probably has no challenges from black members of the DA, but it is not inconceivable that the whites who are “ganging up” on him will convince the party’s mimic women and men to rein Maimane in.

The headline news today is of a cabal of white folk in the Democratic Alliance “ganging up” on their leader, Mmusi Maimane. The apparent cause of their disgruntlement is Maimane’s reference to white privilege. We cannot be sure what will happen next. One hopes that Maimane will not blink first. He has the authority, and the power, to drive a stake into the heart of the white privilege that defines the DA.

Let me make a brief declaration… I have great difficulty writing directly about race, racism, on white privilege and black suffering in South Africa in the stark terms of right and wrong, in senses of vengefulness, revisionism, tinged with a self-image of eternal innocence, and of eternal validity of my own ideas. I am just not that smart, nor am I particularly vengeful. This does not make me blind, numb, insensitive, a sellout or ahistorical… (See this for one of the few times I have written explicitly about racism)

And anyway, there are very many people who are much better informed, and who have built careers on telling others what they are, who they are, what they should wear, what they cannot wear, how they should shape their hair or what music they may or may not play…. Unlike many people who are quite comfortably fixed in their identities, I wrestle with the demons of being identified, by others, over the years, as Malay, coloured, black, non-African, amper-baas, Jewish, boesman or hotnot, and in the US as a sand-nigger – because my name is Ismail.

What I will say, now, in the wake of whites “ganging up” on Maimane, is that there is an alarming pattern of a type of mimicry – which was so eloquently described by VS Naipaul, in his novel, The Mimic Men – across South African institutions. While the analogy is inexact (which is typical of analogies) the protagonist in Naipaul’s novel, Ralph Singh, is a reminder, at least in my mind, of the ways in which some black people in South Africa, those who have risen to the top echelons of institutions, are expected to operate within parameters that are acceptable to whites. And when the black person “steps out of line”, so to speak, the “ganging up” starts, and black people are accused of “hating whites” or of being “too radical” or “militant”.

Here, then, enters Naipaul’s mimic women and men, who are, themselves, products and managers of particular socio-economic formations, and have had the boundaries of their institutional purview set by erstwhile colonial or settler colonial masters. Put another way, and drawing (a little) on Naipaul’s mimic women and men, it is permissible for a black person to lead, as long as they do not touch whites on their privilege.

That is when they “gang up” on the black leader, and sometimes use black executives or managers as battering rams against black people who step out of line. These battering rams are not unlike those mimic women and men, their independence and leadership are empty slogans, and not actual experiences, in the sense that they often do no more than imitate, and reflect the lifestyles, values and sensibilities of whites, without any sense of compunction. They thrive on creating dramatic illusions of being in power, and maintaining order. And they are “allowed” to continue as long as they don’t step out of line. Consider how many black executives have been appointed, and given white deputies to keep an eye on them.

As for the mimic women and men who police their (black colleagues), having themselves sought power, and gained office as a reflection of, and a means to give effect to deep social change and transformation, they lack a thoroughgoing knowledge of what any of this means in actual terms. In Naipaul’s conception of the mimic women and men:

Having no gifts to offer, they seldom know what they seek. They might say they seek power. But their definition of power is vague and unreliable [They are] more than a man with a cause, even when this cause is no more than self-advancement [and] driven by some little hurt, some little incompleteness. … seeking to exercise some skill which even … is never as concrete as the skill of the engineer.”

The mimic women and men are never given privileges that upset the white or colonial powers. This is summed up by Naipaul when the protagonist, Singh, representing his now independent country, is despatched to carry out negotiations with the former colonial masters, and is humiliated by one of them, “Lord Stockwell”. Of his experience, with reference to Stockwell, Singh writes:

His manner indicated clearly that our game had gone on long enough and he had other things to do than to assist the public relations of colonial politicians. … I said, “How can I take this message back to my people?” … He said: “You can take back to your people any message you like.” And that was the end.

Throughout the negotiations Stockwell treats Singh like a child and reduces him to inferior status, and ultimately unable to do anything for his own people. How many black managers preside over injustice, and care only to please their white superiors or shareholders or vested interests who hold institutions hostage.

With reference to Maimaine, and to the mimic women and men across South Africa’s political economic landscape, we have to acknowledge that white privilege has the power, and has shaped mimic women and men in ways reminiscent of Carter Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro. Black people are taught, over years of colonial and settler colonial dominance, control, discipline and punishment, just enough to keep them “in their place”. Adding to Woodson’s text in the Miseducation of the Negro, WEB Du Bois wrote that:

… a separate Negro school where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black in the year of salvation 1935, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers, whose sole claim to superiority is ability to kick ‘niggers’ when they are down.”

For these “social climbers”, of the Jim Crow period and slave era in the US, read mimic women and men in post-apartheid South Africa.

Maimane probably has no challenges from black members of the DA, but it is not inconceivable that the whites who are “ganging up” on him will convince the party’s mimic women and men to rein Maimane in. It is one of the tactical manoeuvres applied to shore up white privilege across the political economic landscape of the country.

I’m not sure whether the analogy works seamlessly. The basic points are that white DA members are reportedly “ganging up” on Mmusi Maimane because he spoke about embedded white privilege, and we should probably not be surprised if black DA members are roped in to rein him in for being “too radical” or “too militant”.

As mimic women and men they know just how to stay within the bounds of white sensibilities – to strengthen their own positions. That, anyway, is what I get from the Maimane-white privilege issue, Naipaul’s mimicry and Woodson’s Mis-Education of the Negro. DM


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