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