Defend Truth


The unbearable lightness of being white in South Africa


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Structural and institutional racism is alive and well in all aspects of our society. Until white South Africans accept this reality instead of constantly telling us, ‘why must you always raise apartheid’, we won’t move on from the apartheid argument.

I have just concluded a most wonderful one-month holiday over the December and January period. Cape Town, then Knysna, the Storms River Mouth and finally the Addo Elephant National Park outside Port Elizabeth. The family and I set course for Cape Town, where we rented a house in Muizenberg and also stayed at some friends’ flat in St James; it was most enjoyable. Except, two things struck me this holiday:

  1. Whites share a particular narrative that they are now at the receiving end of racism in SA and hence;

  2. Whites are becoming more emboldened and arrogant in SA, and the question must be asked as to why now?

Upon arriving in Muizenberg and receiving the keys to our lovely rented house, we were warned of the increase of petty crime in the area, robberies specifically, and that the perpetrators were the young ones from the Lavender Hill township, not far from our location.

This is a Cape Flats suburb mainly occupied by so-called “coloureds”, a very poor neighbourhood where gangs and drugs abound. It saddened me to know that little has been done in these communities to attempt to uplift them over the last few decades. The Democratic Alliance government, it seems, does not know how to fight inequality and poverty. After all, it has been almost nine years since the party won the right to govern the Western Cape province and still we observe such utter poverty and resignation on the faces of communities such as Lavender Hill. So the narrative that whites are on the receiving end of racism, really?

Now what hits me smack in the face every year over the last 20 years of visiting Cape Town and Knysna is how white it has remained. The restaurants along the main road stretching from Muizenberg to Simon’s Town remain lily white. What I mean by this is I am frequently the only black person in the place bar my kids, naturally, except of course for the waiters. Whether I’m at Knead at Surfers’ Corner or the Annex in Kalk Bay. Needless to say, the Atlantic seaboard is equally non-integrated, meaning, it too is not non-racial. Camps Bay, Clifton, Bantry Bay and Sea Point hospitality venues are white.

And I get it that black South Africans have not yet made it economically to be able to enjoy these pleasures, but what is most disturbing for me is that none of the white people can see that there is a problem. They’d rather believe crap like Cape Town has been voted the best tourist destination and city in the world for the umpteenth time, according to the Guardian newspaper in the UK.

What a joke, for white people to actually believe this. The most unequal city in the world, YES! The most drug-infested city in SA, YES! The most criminal gangs in SA, YES! The apartheid spatial morphology has not changed in that city for the past 24 years. The influx in the numbers of white South Africans wanting to work or retire there bears testimony to this fact.

Cape Town is for whites. When I asked my son whether he enjoyed living in Cape Town or Johannesburg the most, his answer was rather telling. Johannesburg, Pappa, he insisted. Why, I inquired? Because in Joburg I can see black people driving Ferraris and Porsches. By implication, he cannot and won’t see this in Cape Town.

What it means to me is that the economic upliftment of black people out of their current poverty class is simply not a priority for the DA government in the Western Cape. In short, the DA is not interested in the fundamental transformation of our society, which must be the economic emancipation of the black majority of South Africans. This is so that we all can live a better life, socially and economically. Which will go a far way in ensuring racial harmony and be the death knell to our overt class contradictions.

Where are your black friends whom you can invite to join you all at these restaurants? Where are your black colleagues from your workplace or golf club, where? Where are your children’s black friends whom they can surf and catch that wave with, where? Where is your daughter’s black boyfriend or your boy’s black girlfriend, where? Something is fundamentally wrong, guys.

Clifton’s 4th Beach is yet another example of the race polarisation happening in our beautiful country. I could not agree more with the author of the open letter on 7 January 2018, Nigel Branken, when he stated that there is a hierarchy of what needs protecting for most white people engaged in this conversation and it is revealing:

  1. White feelings… do not disrupt white feelings at all cost.

  2. White privilege… protect white spaces and white lifestyles at all cost.

  3. White children… don’t show them anything traumatic, like where their food comes from. (This is in reference to the outrage of the sheep slaughtering at the beach.)

Naturally, when I engaged on some of these issues while being in Knysna with the extended family, a question was asked by a family member: When am I going to be able to wake up one day and not be white?

The straightforward answer would be when blacks no longer suffer exclusions…

  • exclusion from public spaces;

  • exclusion from the economy;

  • exclusion from educational opportunities;

  • exclusion from a dignified shelter, health care, security;

  • exclusion from… (we could go on and on and on).

The “miracle” transition that South Africa experienced was extraordinary in the sense that an oppressed population, having suffered the brutality of an inhuman system of apartheid-colonialism since 1652, felt not the slightest need for revenge, wide-scale violence or the expulsion of their white compatriots.

In a context where the transition itself was marked by a level of violence against black communities not seen in the heyday of apartheid rule, this does in fact border on the miraculous. And yet we are now witnessing a racialisation of South African politics that is extremely dangerous and threatens to take us down a route of racial antagonism, the end of which we are not able to predict.

Needless to say, history is replete with examples of miraculous transitions gone horribly wrong. It is about time that South Africans are liberated from their exceptionalism — the idea that we are really different to all those other places where the potential for fundamental transformation was swept away by the discourse of race, ethnicity, and tribe.

The narrative that whites are at the receiving end of racism is surely misplaced and misguided, to say the least. White privilege is still so entrenched in our South African society that it is laughable to even entertain such a suggestion. Even with the latest BBBEE regulations and affirmative action employment rules, the most successful employed persons in corporate South Africa remain white males, contrary to popular myths. The narrative is also untrue because in reality, all that is beginning to happen is that black South Africans are beginning to demand their fair share.

And dare I say if you whites are going to continue pretending that all is well in SA, I’m not sure when you will wake up from this slumber? When do black South Africans begin to take land forcefully like in Zimbabwe? White farmers there knew all along that the land question and injustice were bound to come to the fore politically and yet they did nothing about redress. They did nothing in the form of creative thinking and models to prevent the eventuality. Am I to believe that our white compatriots are equally stupid? We won’t give, but you blacks must take before we realise and acknowledge that there is a problem here.

As to the second issue of becoming more emboldened and arrogant to the extent that you want to challenge constitutionally enshrined rights around the land in the courts. Want to force the government in this direction or that direction. You actually think because some of you are actively training for a fight, instilling into young white kids the fear of the black man, you will come out tops when it’s all said and done?

These institutions you defer to only hold our democracy for as long as the majority allows them to hold; good people, wake up. I am not advocating violence or chaos but simply stating the reality which is that whites can no longer afford to pretend all is well in Mzansi. Sipping their strawberry daiquiris and dining at their expensive restaurants. More concerned with beachgoers staying a bit late than the killings in our Cape Flats suburbs due to crime and drugs.

A spirit of giving and redress is needed, people.

As Nigel concludes in his piece:

Let whiteness and white supremacy be shown for what they are — laid bare and shown to be indefensible. May the hypocrisy of white liberalism also be exposed!”

Structural and institutional racism is alive and well in all aspects of our society and until such time that white South Africans accept this reality instead of constantly telling us, why must you always raise apartheid, when will we move on from the apartheid argument? Well, if the subtle racism and white privilege continues on our beaches, in our workplaces, in the economy and society, I shudder to think. DM


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