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Making sense of Whiteness: A conversation whose time has come

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Wandile Ngcaweni is a research intern at Mistra and honours student at Unisa. Njabulo Zwane is a research intern at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and is finishing his honours degree at the University of Witwatersrand History Department.

Our reality is that is we are still stuck debating ways to systematically overcome racism and prejudice while white people are largely still perpetrators.

Thinking, debating or writing about race and racism is a complex and challenging exercise in contemporary South Africa. Where once we had common ideals on structures we wanted to do away with as a black and progressive white collective speaking in a united voice, the environment is now polarised even among blacks on issues of race and identity.

South Africans are confronted with the reality of what optimists on one hand believe to be a reversal of progress achieved in 1994 while on the other, pessimists dismiss our reality as disillusionment.

In 2018, 24 years after the advent of democracy, it is evident that the reconciliation project that resulted in notions of a “rainbow nation” of the mid to late ’90s has failed. The fact that issues of race and racism can occupy so much space and currency in national discourse is indeed indicative of disillusionment and a reversal of any progress achieved by Nelson Mandela’s social contract of reconciliation.

If Mandela is understood as merely the face of the broader Congress leadership collective, then we can better account for that collective’s failure to treat racism with the urgency it deserves. Our reality is that is we are still stuck debating ways to systematically overcome racism and prejudice while white people are largely still perpetrators. Linked to this is a failure by civil society and citizens in general to hold those who occupy political office accountable for their lack of political will in championing redress and justice.

Research conducted under the auspices of the Indlulamithi South Africa National Scenarios 2030 reveals that the lack of political will around issues of race continues to create resentment and mistrust between and across races.

The coloured community believe they are being unfairly represented in debates of land reform where they believe they, as descendants of the Khoisan, should be the rightful owners of South Africa. Debates on this issue are latent with issues of race identity, culture and politics post 1994. Another example of mistrust is when we saw students dismiss or question white allegiance during the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests.

A more overt example of resentment we have recently seen is by organisations such as Black First Land First in how they have been calling out double standards in the political economy of South Africa, where black politicians are labelled corrupt by a largely white-owned media, but which neglect to do the same when white leaders in the private sector engage in unethical financial behaviour, for example, Steinhoff. Failure, incompetence and lawlessness of white leaders in the private sector hardly faces public criticism, shaming and almost never faces the full might of the law.

In short, the Indlulamithi research found that South Africans, with the exception of the relatively few on the left of the political spectrum, refrain from honest conversations about race because they do not want to upset the “rainbow nation” status quo. But as the incidents above suggest, there are pockets of events where resentment and mistrust are pronounced and play out in society.

An honest debate on all of these nuanced developments on race and whiteness in South Africa was thus pursued by the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection in partnership with the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung South Africa and the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences. As partners, the organisations hosted a round table in November 2015, which aimed to tackle some of these contentious ideas around race — more specifically the level at which whiteness stands for “humanness”, while blackness remains the marker for the less-than.

The outcome of the round table was a book titled Whiteness, Afrikaans, Afrikaners: Addressing Post-Apartheid Legacies, Privileges and Burdens, launched on 30 August 2018 at a most relevant location to have critical reflection and debate on issues of race — the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The publication aimed to interrogate the currency placed on “whiteness” in South Africa; explore the place of Afrikaans within the discourse of whiteness, while discussing the different identities associated with the language of Afrikaans, and the privileges that come with being white.

The publication touches on the large number of Afrikaners, more specifically white Afrikaans speaking South Africans and their commitment to apartheid nationalist ideas, especially organisations such as Solidarity and AfriForum that are identified as pushing separatist agendas that seek to reject redress and reconciliation plans by calling them reverse racism.

The book offers provocative intellectual debate by allowing space for people from different points on the political spectrum to engage with one another’s reflections and imaginations of South Africa. Dirk Hermann, Ernst Roets and Mary Burton find space to engage with Xhati Payi, Christi van der Westhuizen, Mathatha Tsedu and a number of other authors in the 13-essay book which boast a plurality of social, economic and political views on whiteness.

The book does tend to over-emphasise the role of Afrikaans-speaking whites, neglecting the English-speaking whites who have enjoyed a considerable amount of historical revisionism with regards to their place in colonial apartheid society.

This is due to the prominence of the figure of the Afrikaner male in how “we” conceive of “our oppressor”, which, as Melisa Steyn notes in the book, has afforded English-speaking whites a space to construct a discourse of innocence regarding their place in pre-1994 South Africa.

In many ways, the book’s singular focus on white Afrikaners and Afrikaans obscures the place of British colonial conquerors and English-speakers in the colonising and segregationist mission. Another thing absent in the publication is the voice of black Afrikaans speakers, who are actually the largest group of speakers of the language.

Whiteness, Afrikaans, Afrikaners: Addressing Post-Apartheid Legacies, Privileges and Burdens is a publication whose time has come. Understanding the fragile construct of whiteness is important if we are to succeed in dismantling the resurgence of racial discrimination. DM

Wandile Ngcaweni is a research intern at Mistra and honours student at Unisa. Njabulo Zwane is a research intern at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) and is finishing his honours degree at the University of Witwatersrand History Department.

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