Dear white South African journalists, commentators and politicians:
On Friday, EFF deputy president Floyd Shivambu (who, incidentally, would probably prefer us to use his traditional name, Nyiko) issued a warning. He did so during a meeting of the National Assembly ad hoc committee preparing legislation to amend section 25 of the Constitution. As everyone knows, the purpose of the exercise is to explicitly provide for expropriation with nil compensation for land reform purposes in certain circumstances. Which is not what this letter is about.
As has been widely reported in media coverage of the DA’s statement on Shivambu’s remarks, he warned that what happened last week will “look like a picnic” if the ANC continues to ignore EFF proposals for land reform. The threat was unfortunate, but it was underpinned by three unpalatable facts. Most South Africans are poor; most poor South Africans are black; and many poor black South Africans are angry. Shivambu and his party are not popular in white South African circles.
But this letter is not about the whys and wherefores of anti-EFF sentiment. This letter is about white South African attitudes. And the way last week’s events brought them into sharp focus.
More likely than not, most white politicians, commentators and journalists in this country come from upper working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds, were automatically sent to university and automatically landed good jobs. That’s not to say they didn’t work hard to earn them.
But those backgrounds breed certain attitudes, especially in South Africa. This came through loud and clear during a great deal of the media coverage on last week’s events and the statements made by ANC detractors in particular.
What sparked the ongoing unrest, who organised it and the opportunists in fancy cars who took advantage of it are serious issues that will probably be addressed in the fullness of time. But widespread poverty, South Africa’s deeply disturbing Gini coefficient and the frustration about empty promises made pre-1994 are driving the agenda at grassroots level, in South Africa’s black townships. What sparks unrest on the scale witnessed last week is really neither here nor there. Anything could.
Shivambu knows all about poverty. Read his biography. And many ANC leaders come from similar backgrounds. How many white South African journalists, commentators and politicians have experienced that kind of poverty?
Yes, we have all been let down badly by our government. Yes, the corruption is appalling. Yes, there is widespread incompetence. But context is important. This is Africa. And Africa has suffered at the hands of white people. That is a fact.
We need to stop wearing blinkers when reporting and pronouncing on the failures of government, EFF threats, looting, arson and so-called “black-on-black” violence. We need to stop judging from the privileged position of our ivory towers, our suburban utopia, our relative privilege (even if we did work hard to earn it).
At best our outrage comes across as naïve. At worst, arrogant and ignorant. Everything happening in this troubled country needs to be seen and reported in context. And in South Africa, context is uncomfortable. DM
Female-named hurricanes kill more people on average than male hurricanes. This is due to people not being as intimidated by the former as the latter.
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