Your recent Opinionista, Berenice Paulse, asks: What do we tell our children when they ask about white privilege? Her answer is that “we have hardly begun to scratch the surface when it comes to levelling the playing field for most South Africans”. She volunteers that she earns a “comfortable salary” and lives in a “middle class suburb in Cape Town”.
Housing and the free movement of the homeless are central to three recent events that have attracted a fair amount of disquiet.
The first of these events took place in Cape Town, but not in a middle-class suburb familiar to Paulse. The incident took place in Mitchells Plain, a still largely coloured suburb captured by poverty which keep its residents imprisoned. Nonetheless, seeking transformation from homelessness, a number of desperate people built shacks on empty land and took to the streets to protest the municipality’s failure to provide basic services; a protest that resulted in one death and disturbed the neighbouring area. However, the transformation that enabled Paulse to move into what she describes as a “formerly white” suburb has not occurred in working class areas. And because “race” and racial identities are more alive in constitutionally non-racial South Africa than in the dying days of apartheid, the disturbance very quickly became open race conflict between the established coloured neighbourhood and the homeless Africans who had occupied the empty land and were seeking a more level playing field.
This racialised conflict by people at the bottom of our class-divided society brings us to the second of the three events. A similar event to Mitchells Plain occurred in Protea Glen, Soweto. Here, however, the concern was not that the conflict was between Coloureds and Africans. With the conflict being amongst Africans, the concern was rather that the conflict would be seen as “black on black violence”. Another difference between Mitchells Plain and Protea Glen is that the established Black home owners took proactive steps to prevent some of the Black homeless in Soweto from occupying empty land, as their attempt at levelling the playing field. The established home owners readily explained why they would not allow the land invasion: they feared the invasion would not only threaten the market value of their homes but would lead to increased crime. (Reasons which, when white people are the property owners, are seen as nothing more than white racism.) Above all, the homeowners defended their actions on the basis that the land invasion was illegal.
The question of legality brings us to the last of the three events. Nearly half of Gauteng citizens want the return of influx control, the hated apartheid measure that controlled who could legally live in urban areas. A recent survey showed that black and coloured Gauteng residents were the most opposed to more people migrating to the province. No less significant is the finding that 41% of those opposed to the influx of other South Africans were themselves migrants attracted to Gauteng by hopes of transformation. The survey, by the Gauteng Regional Observatory, is part of the Observatory’s Quality of Life Survey, which is conducted every two years. The Observatory is a partnership between the University of Johannesburg, Wits University, the Gauteng Provincial government and the South African Local Government Association (Salga).
These are just three events from the first week in May 2018.
Berenice Paulse doesn’t allude to them or the issues behind them. Even more noteworthy, given her concern about levelling the playing field for most South Africans and the fact that she is a university graduate, is that most South Africans remain decidedly disadvantaged by an elitist education system that condemns most people to the gross inequalities of most public schools. And, then, of course, there is the reality of an untransformed public health system that punishes the 74% of South Africans who can’t afford private health.
(None of these omissions are surprising, for Paulse’s target is “white privilege”, which, presumably, gets in the way of her own further advancements. I say ‘presumably’ because her entire article consists of anecdotes of white prejudice personally experienced by her son or herself. The reality of these racist experiences is not in doubt. But to implicitly condemn all South Africans she identifies as white – while abrogating to herself the right to self-identification: a black feminist, in her case – is blatant racism, even though it is fast becoming standard, every day practice.)
Some of the contradictions and challenges highlighted by these three events bear further elaboration. These include:
The extent to which the poor successfully divide themselves, without any outside support or manipulations by the state or the rich.
The abject failure by the Left to counter the hegemony of the racialised identities of the people we, the Left, describe as the working class. These now self-selected, deeply internalised identities were originally manufactured and legally decreed and enforced by apartheid.
The difficulties inherent in a racialised understanding of land ownership in which “whites” stole all the land. Some coloured and black people are now not only home owners but are more than ready to protect their ownership and, indeed, the value of that ownership. Land expropriation that ignores these realities does so at its peril.
The conflict between the new and the old, between the established elite and the new elite. In some circumstances, the elite – somewhat unexpectedly – includes especially the poor of an area or province. This happens when the poor are part of the privileged by virtue of being part of the established residents who feel threatened by would-be migrants.
BEE and affirmative action are the struggles of the new elite to displace – or at least be accommodated by – the old elite. This being South Africa, this intra-class struggle – common worldwide – is racialised, so that the protective struggles of the establish capitalist class, including all the long established professionals, is seen as still further examples of white racism. This isn’t to say – let it be emphasised – that there is no white racism. What it does underscore is that the colour-coding of the already privileged whites is an essential precondition for the accelerated transformation of the new black privileged.
“Levelling the playing field” is a powerful – though opportunistic – battle cry by the black elite. For some, it might even vaguely include the black working class and the poor in general. However, the guaranteed outcry at the mere mention of increased taxes to finance such necessities as housing, education and health befitting of a rich country in 2018, let alone a country whose Constitution guarantees dignity to all, suffices to expose the class content of the call for a level playing field.
The critical question therefore remains: Transformation for whom? DM