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Confessions of a white South African on Youth Day in 2021

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Louise Rapley, a former French teacher, is a freelance writer and editor who has worked in the educational publishing industry for more than 15 years. She lives in Cape Town.

My comfortable home, the area in which I live, the car I hop into without even thinking about it, the Zoom Pilates session I participated in last night, the tasty and nutritious food I eat, my access to excellent healthcare when I need it, the green belt I’ll walk in this evening, even my ability to write like this… I take them all for granted, but in one way or another they are all the product of apartheid, the demon child born of white privilege.

We’ve all seen it 100 times or more: Sam Nzima’s iconic photo of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying the dying 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, shot by police while attending a peaceful protest in Soweto against the use of Afrikaans as the medium of teaching.

Where was I on 16 June 1976 when this was happening? My nine-year-old self was living a (by comparison) blissful life in the suburbs of Pretoria, completely oblivious to what was going on. (It may be hard for readers who had very different experiences from me or those who are younger than me to believe this, but as a child growing up in white South Africa at that time, before the invention of the internet, I had absolutely no idea of what was going on. The only “news” that was broadcast was what the government wanted people to believe; my first awareness of the realities came when I started studying at Wits.)

Life seemed hard to me, though; my family had emigrated from Cape Town to the UK in 1973, and then returned to South Africa after nine months when it became obvious to my English father that things just weren’t going to work out there for the family. I’d been shaken up and tossed around at a very young age and settling back into South African life – in Pretoria no less – was tough. But it was very far from the life of relentless poverty and systematic violence and oppression depicted in that photo.

So I grew up during what I’m dubbing the golden age (for whites) of apartheid. I attended excellent government schools, for which my parents paid virtually nothing. (The statistics of government expenditure on education by race at that time make for chilling reading.) In matric, I decided that I wanted to become a French teacher. My parents couldn’t afford university fees, but luckily for me, the Transvaal Education Department (TED) offered bursaries to white education students. That bursary covered my tuition fees as well as most of my accommodation and living costs for the four years of my studies. In exchange, I had to work as a teacher for TED for four years. That was certainly no hardship: after four years of free university education, I was guaranteed a teaching post. And with that post came a secure career path, a government pension and a very good medical scheme. I was set up for a life of middle-class comfort.

I like the point made by Kevin Leathem. He’s the deputy principal of Jeppe Boys’ High, whose speech on white privilege to the school was popular on Facebook a couple of years ago. Leathem explained that whites get defensive when they hear the word ‘privilege’ because they assume that it means “wealth”, and so when they hear people talking about “white privilege”, they feel that the difficulties of their lives and the challenges they face are being ignored, and respond by saying something like: “I’ve worked hard to get where I am!”

Instead, Leathem says, “privilege simply refers to a right, advantage or immunity that only a particular person or group gets to enjoy”. So that top-class education that has opened doors for me was a privilege… and yet the privilege of my life is so entrenched in me that I’m often not even aware of it, and for many years took that education for granted. Would the woman of about my age, dressed in orange overalls and waving a red flag to warn motorists of roadworks, who I drove past on the highway yesterday, have been doing that job today if she’d had the advantages that I did? And what can she offer her children? How is it possible for their lives to be significantly different from hers?

Some time ago, one of my Facebook friends posted a meme that made me think. It showed the innocent faces of two very young little girls, one white and one Japanese. The strapline started under the face of the white child, “asking her to apologise for slavery”, and continued under the face of the Japanese child, “is like asking her to apologise for Pearl Harbor”.

On the face of it, this makes sense. Of course neither of these little girls is to blame for an historical event that happened years before she was born. A night of it sitting in my brain while I slept allowed the perspective that had niggled at me when I read it to surface. In the same way, I’m not to blame for apartheid. However, having benefited from it enormously throughout my life, I believe I’m responsible for doing what I can to make up for what was taken from others so that a life of privilege could be bestowed on me.

I’m also responsible for undertaking the lifelong process of uncovering the subtle racist rationalisations that have unconsciously coloured the way I’ve thought all my life and letting go of them.

White privilege says: “South African people of colour, I know that apartheid was unjust and terrible, and I’m really sorry that you suffered so much. But that’s all in the past, so let’s move on now and get on with our lives.”

And I admit, to my great shame, that I have sometimes silently subscribed to that view. But this morning, I see how impossible that is. As I survey the comforts of my middle-class life, I acknowledge that it’s the advantages that I experienced thanks to (I cringe as I type those words) apartheid that have given them to me. Primarily, that first-class education that I received at virtually no cost to my family has given me the freedom to earn well doing what I’m good at and enjoy.

My comfortable home, the area in which I live, the car I hop into without even thinking about it, the Zoom Pilates session that I participated in last night, the tasty and nutritious food I eat, my access to excellent healthcare when I need it, the green belt I’ll walk in this evening, even my ability to write like this… I take them all for granted, but in one way or another, they are all the product of apartheid, the demon child born of white privilege.

And so, naïve as it may seem, this is my acknowledgement that I have indeed benefited greatly from apartheid. I am deeply sorry for the suffering that millions of my fellow countrymen have endured to give me those benefits. I’m aware that my peers who were not given the same opportunities and privileges still feel the impact of that lack every day.

And I commit myself to continuing to live an examined life in which I accept, not the blame for the wrongs of the past, but a sense of responsibility and accountability for them.

Just for a moment, I forget about Covid-19, State Capture and corruption, all the issues with which I cloud my thinking and defend my heart from having to feel the true horror of the impact of apartheid, and I feel my culpability. I stop using the injustices of the present to justify or rationalise away or excuse that culpability. I drop the thoughts that start, “Yes, but…” and, “What about…?”

I contemplate the gifts bestowed on me by apartheid and feel the pain of those who paid the price for my good fortune. And I weep.

Life coach Gavin Nascimento says “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot unlearn the many lies that they have been conditioned to believe”.

I’m not to blame for believing the lies that were fed to me as a child; I am, however, to blame if I continue believing them today. DM

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All Comments 29

  • You were very lucky, many weren’t and aren’t, white, black, coloured all included. But I don’t think self flaggelating yourself about the inequalities and trying to excuse priveledge some live with is the answer. As the saying goes, with great power/priveledge, comes great responsibility. I don’t think your responsibility is to write apologetic articles, but rather to help out in a thousand different ways that you can.

  • There is apartheid in the U.K. it’s called “the class system” The UK government is basically and old Etonian boys club. I grew up in Scotland in the ’50 and never entertained the idea of a University Education even though it’s free to those who qualify. Had paper round at 15 started on the mines at 17. Please don’t give me your SA white angst. Your state education was probably worse than mine. Do you expect Europeans to come thousands of miles to Africa for the benefit of the locals? Or live in mud and straw dwellings? We are not all David Livingstone.

    • I have to agree with you Mr McGill. My ancestors arrived 300 yrs ago with nothing but determination and a dream of a good life in the sun. It’s a dream that many can and do have – but actions speak loader than words and dreams…to live the dream takes hard work, tenacity and a fight against all odds. Freedom does not mean getting all things in life for FREE..it means being free to choose the life you want, your morality, your ethics, and your future. South Africans now have the freedom to choose the life they want – now they have to strive for it. Just like my ancestors.

  • Oh for goodness sakes.
    Stop eating your tasty and nutritious food , donate your car to the guy on the corner, switch off your internet, skip your Zoom Pilates class, give up your “life coach”, open the doors of your comfortable home in the affluent area you live in to the needy (as long as they’re not white), stop walking the Constantia green belts in protest of all the injustice in the country etc. etc.
    Do whatever assuages your white guilt and makes you feel emancipated – but I’m just not interested.

    This article belongs in an Oprah magazine. Not on DM – time to rethink my subscription I can see.

    • As much as I disagree with the self flaggelating nature of the article (as indicated above), if you threaten to cancel subscriptions because you don’t agree with ideas that don’t fit with yours, you are going exactly against the point of free speech and open discussion that, I would argue, places like the mail and guardian and the DM foster. Just a thought.

  • Apartheid was a crime, lest get that straight. However the real privilege enjoyed by the children of European emigrants, to various countries from the 1700’s on, was that of generations of innovation, a culture of learning and hard work.
    Subjugation of the local populace was not a precondition for this to be the case.
    Having voted against the NP and actively contributed positively to the lives of my fellow South Africans, I do not feel in any way responsible for Apartheid.
    We need to look forward together as South Africans, for the politics of division will destroy hope for the poor.

  • The derogatory or dismissive comments on this article are an unsurprising sign of how much denial there still is among (apartheid-category) white South Africans. Far from being self-flagellating or a product of ‘white angst’, Louise Rapley’s piece is a sober itemising of uncomfortable insights leading to an equally sober commitment to make the best possible use of our privileges for the common good. This is a liberating realisation.

    • We should all take her article to heart. It is not instead of doing whatever we can to improve things but to be truly honest.

    • Indeed John Cartwright, there has been absolutely no indepth societal engagement especially among White South Africans [Have we actually ‘visualised’ who these are instead of the simple Boer – Briton analogy?] with the inter-generational responsibilities or accountablity for the centuries of systemic dehumanisation of all that was “non-European”; of the “free burgher” raids on the settlements of the Khoe for the rape & enslavement of their women and children; of the countless “Border Wars” where the ‘oh so squeeky clean’ 1820 English settlers agitated for military expeditions and scorched earth policies against the isiXhosa? Apartheid was but a fascist continuation of that which had gone before. I add my thanks to Louise Rapley for penning a thought-provoking, self-examining perspective on white privilege. Behind much of the denialism expressed here and in similar circumstances lies guilt and self-hatred. Guilt because of the (self-)knowledge that the acquired privilege was based on racism which could only be “maintained” through terror and the overriding dehumanisation of the Other. Guilt because of the wilful participation in (and being a recipient of) the “spoils of white privilege” … even if you did not vote for the Nats!

  • I hardly ever comment but this piece resonates completely with me, a 65 year old white man. I just wish all white South Africans of all ages would read it. The white privilege so eloquently described is passed on to our children and even grandchildren because of the base we were given thanks to apartheid.

    • Sadly most of them ( kids and grandkids) have had to relocate to the UK Australia, NZ, Canada and the USA to survive! This is price of apartheid! I think the debt has been paid …thank you very much!
      The fact that 20% of the population is paying 80% of the tax income is also thanks to apartheid. Sadly when this 20% is no longer around…no one will have anything and we can all stop feeling so guilty!

  • Much of what we experience is a result of decisions we make and decisions made by our parents, our grandparents and those before them. Growing up as a “privileged” white child in the 1960’s, we struggled financially. But we turned up for work each day. We went to school each day (using public transport to get to public schools paid for by the state – as they are today). We obeyed the authorities and respected the law. We planned our families. It’s too easy to blame apartheid for every problem in South Africa to try and assuage “guilt”.

    A measure of responsibility needs to be accepted by communities where a woman must first have his child before a man will marry her. Or where disobeying simple laws like littering or traffic rules is tolerated. Where cutting down infrastructure for scrap or to harvest copper wire is tolerated. Where illegal electricity connections are tolerated. Where occupying land illegally is tolerated. Where being a “gangsta” is admired more than earning an honest living.

    Apartheid must certainly never be allowed to happen again, but looking to it or to any of the other oppressions in our past (Brit over Boer / Tribe over Tribe / Tribe over Khoi) to justify the failures of our current society diverts our attention from the misdeeds we currently perform and have the power to fix.

    • Well said T Mac. So many of the basic assumptions, the premisses from which the arguments are constructed are so flawed and illogical. Yes, the “white” tribe of Africa certainly has tended to look after its own, as have the other tribes to a greater or lesser extent. Being born in Liberia or Ethiopia one might also have been either privileged or not depending on family connections and tribal identity rather than something so crude as the alleged black/white divide. Every ethnicity tends to look after its own and if you are part of the group on top, hey, guess what, life will be easier for you. The genocide in Rwanda was racial, one ethnic group slaughtering another, but because both are lumped together as “black” that gets lost. Tutsis had privilege at one time. Life has always been lopsided and actually always will be – this brave argument simply makes it easier for the currently privileged to justify doing unjust things to the previously privileged – or those who look a bit like them. A culture of taking responsibility for one’s children goes a long way to helping those children make a difference. People like Herman Mashaba prove that “black” people could do well under apartheid, oftentimes a whole lot better than they could do in the so-called “free” countries run by dictators and oligarchies like most of this benighted continent.

    • By T Mac’s logic of collective responsibility, we must all then be personally responsible for the corruption that afflicts us as a nation.

      Suggesting that whole communities endorse and facilitate the misdeeds of criminal minorities is pretty racist.

  • We all need to find a way to deal with this topic, and I applaud this young lady for being able to quantify and put it into words. As long as others are not demonized or criticized for finding their own way. It is possible to resist and disagree with CRT and still add to the solution of a equal South Africa.

  • Thank You Louise. If your article has helped at least one other person to see white privilege through the lens you’ve provided, then it has helped those of us who have chosen the promotion of justice and equity as our life’s work. The taken-for-granted “unearned” privileges, as well as the inability to see the “unearned” barriers that continue to manifest, remains one of our biggest challenges in nation-building. With insight comes responsibility, so as the late Maya Angelou said : when you know better, then do better.

  • I’ll refrain from commenting until I’ve seen Black Privilege actually doing something to earn their keep and for the common good.