Opinionista Pam Saxby 21 July 2021

Dear white SA commentariat: Put away your outrage and try to imagine being black and impoverished

Even though we have all been let down badly by our government, suffered at the hands of corruption and widespread incompetence, context is important. This is Africa. And Africa has suffered at the hands of white people. That is a fact.

Pam Saxby

Pam Saxby played a key support role in the National Peace Convention, Codesa and related political transition processes. Working for what recently became Minerals Council SA, Saxby ran the minerals policy negotiation process, represented the industry in Nedlac’s development chamber and reported on economic and labour policy discussions in what is now Business Unity SA. She monitors and reports on public policy for Legalbrief Today.

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

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 32

  • How can the government of South Africa help the poor in the most effective way?
    By land expropriation, discouraging investment both within the nation and from foreign investors?
    By high tax rates encouraging white talent to leave the country?
    By a racially charged atmosphere where political demagogues blame white people, White Monopoly Capital?
    By some new form of economics, depriving industrious people the fruits of their labors?

    Or, by a balanced long term effort to achieve a stable nonracial country by the following:
    An honest and effective government.
    A reasonably well funded and effective educational system, training youth for real careers with market value.
    Encouraging foreign and domestic investment, in words and in deeds.
    Valuing all citizens based on their talents, work ethics, and attitudes to advance prosperity, and therefore creating more government resources to help the poor.
    A realization that white people are not the problem; they are part of the solution.
    That this agenda is long term hard work step by step improvement; and that quick “solutions” are self-defeating.

    I respectfully submit this reasoning, as a white American married to a black woman.

  • It’s hard to know how to respond to this kind of gross generalisation about White attitudes. If outrageous things are done, and I feel outraged, what am I supposed to do? Who decides when I have sufficiently taken context into account? What if there are Black compatriots who share my outrage? Is there not symmetrical generalised obligation on the Black commentariat to account for “White context”? Despite all the qualifications in the piece, it ends up feeling (to me at least) like an attempt to cancel the expression of “White opinion” (already an elusive generalisation) in SA, unless it comes out in a specific way.

  • You are so right. Most white people have no idea of what it’s like to be poor and black in this country. Thank you for the reminder.

  • I am rich and white. I am outraged that our government and civil servants allow growing poverty among Black South Africans. I am outraged that South Africans live in corrugated iron shacks while deprived Palestinians have apartments. I am outraged that 75% of young South Africans have no jobs and no prospects of ever getting one. I agree that I should put aside my rage. It does no good and makes me unhappy.

  • I would enjoy reading Pam Saxby’s further views on exactly what is Africa, and how South Africa “is Africa”, given the 53 countries that comprise this continent.
    I would also enjoy her views on a comparative of how “white people” made Africa suffer versus how “black people” made Africa suffer, and maybe throw in a bit about “Arab and Asian people” on Africa’s East Coast.
    I do not expect such an exercise to be exculpatory for the actions of “white people” of course, but it might provide a better “context”.

  • This perspective is sooo important. Thank you. I regularly feel extremely uncomfortable about the lack of perspective and self-righteousness of white commentary, and see how it just fuels anger and division. It is not enough to simply focus on representing the situation factually and accurately, but it is also required that commentary is a constructive contribution – the latter requires a perspective informed by our context, and is often very poorly done.

  • I am white. I am male. I am over 50. I realise my white priviledge. I am grateful for the opportunities I had.
    The writer of this article seems to assume that all whites “automatically went to university” and “landed the best jobs”. While this may be true of a some white people, it certainly was not the case with all of them.
    My parents were poor. My paternal grandfather was brought up by his grandmother after his mother died at childbirth. He started his farming career & married life with a bed, a small table and a riempie chair. He never bought my grandmother clothes – she made everything she ever wore on a an old Singer sewing machine, baked bread every second day.
    My father farmed with my grandfather after my sister became very sick and they were advised to move to the country. Grandfather never shared anything with dad which forced my mother to take on a teaching job, (she paid for her own studies) and playing the organ in church. At the time they rented a 2-roomed house with no eletricity, the floors of which she made with cow dung and mud; the walls she covered with newspaper. She walked through the veld every second day to fetch milk from my grandparents’ farm with my sister on her back and my other sister walking next to her.
    With a hand saw she cut up her piano crate into shelves.
    My parents cancelled their insurance, medical aid, cashed in their pensions to send us to university.
    We inherited nothing from my parents who worked very hard to give us what they did.

    • Very well put. I am also “rich”, white and a 57-year-old female. My parents, younger brother and I landed in SA in May 1969 from Slovakia with 2 suitcases. And not a word of English or Afrikaans. It took my father, a professional architect, about 6 weeks to find a job at Public Works in Pretoria. My mother, who only had Matric, took whatever she could get. My point here is that we started with zero, but due to my father’s qualification and skin colour, they got a foothold that they could, through hard work and saving, build onto. At school, we always worked hard to get good marks, because there wasn’t money for university. I had to apply for a bursary. Sure, the pool of applications was much, much smaller, but if I had not been successful, I would have had to apply to UNISA and try to find work at the Post Office or as a cashier or something. As a bursar, you had to pass each year, the funds were not automatically guaranteed. After graduation, you had to work for that company for the same amount of years (which I did) or else repay the money that they invested in you – a huge amount for anyone just starting to work. Because we are white, we were given the opportunity to go to an average school and get a good education, while not needing to worry about the next meal or shelter for that night. It is such opportunities that, if they could be presented to everyone, would be grabbed with both hands and made into a better future.

  • “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 here lies the problem: the very vast majority of the time any malfeasance by the ANC isn’t addressed, no one is held accountable.
    I just keep on remembering motion of no confidence after motion of no confidence being rejected collectively by the ANC…

  • Capital does not care about privilege or the lived experiences of anyone. When you invest money you look for a return otherwise you are destined to be one of the poor. South Africa has provided a poor investment proposition for more than a decade and offshore investment has been a much better proposition. Recent events will accelerate this trend. South Africa has about 36500 dollar millionaires (0.06% of the population) a number will now leave.

    Rich people seek value-creating investments. That is why they are rich. Very few will invest in value-destroying businesses or communities in the name of empathy.

    Endorsing value destructive behaviour in the name of empathy just serves to facilitate further value destruction and more poverty. Energy should be focussed on building and the creation of value and value destruction needs to be condemned, not justified. In the name of empathy perhaps you should consider donating 95% of your income to the poor and become one of them.

  • The whites I know are deeply concerned about inequality and deprivation and are searching for a way that they can contribute to a positive a way ahead. Exclusion of whites from so many key decision-making areas makes it very difficult. This article makes no contribution towards achieving a just society

  • If “this letter is not about the whys and wherefores of anti-EFF sentiment” why does the author devote the first third of this letter to EFF-related stuff? A more coherent argument for her views, rather than sweeping generalisations, would be more appropriate. It’s worth pointing out that Botswana is an African country in the “African context” that has been able to build a peaceful, successful, capitalist, democratic state without the sort of rampant corruption, neglect and incompetence that we see in SA under ANC rule.

    • Botswana has 3 million people. Only. It has two major exports, viz. diamonds and beef, thus a positive trade balance, and the diamond trade is semi-privatised via Debswana. And a now-struggling tourism sector. Chalk n cheese.
      It has endured little land expropriation; no race-based Christian National vs “Bantu” educational system; and has a very functional but bureaucratic state system.

  • I realise the author’s intentions are good, but really, this view is shockingly racist. The author appears to think that accountability and the rule of law are for developed countries; it’s ‘arrogant’ for (white) commentators to demand the same for South Africa. I’ve been ticked off in the same way for criticising the government for its failure to provide basic services (water, electricity), i.e. ‘poor black people have it much worse, so shut up’. Insofar as it lets the ANC off the hook for its many failures, this attitude – widespread across the South African commentariat – is a significant contributor to the suffering of the very people it claims to speak for.

  • A naive and embarrassingly poor generalisation about white South Africans and their ability to understand poverty and the African context. Articles like these further cement the view that there are still far too many apologists for the corruption and race-politics of the ANC than there are opponents to it.

  • So, just because Shivambu understands poverty, he is acknowledged as the expert and harbinger of what is to come?
    Your piece falls embarrassingly short of a lot of realities and the continued focus on “White vs Black” is becoming tiresome.
    What last week showed us is that MOST South Africans want the same thing..That is to work, to place our children in a better position than where we started and to have peace. They stood for that and pushed back on the very same “hungry” population that arrived in vehicles, with a traffic jam of close to 3km and expensive SUV’s and other items.
    The generalisation of what happened to White people is as bad as the generalisation of Black folk.
    A lot of white people have worked extremely hard to get somewhere, they have had to sacrifice many things and have taken many risks to earn what is theirs, as have black folk, Indian folk and coloured folk.
    Stop making it about race and make a suggestion that could actually help South Africans find a commonality and forge a future. Think a little further than you nose please.

  • Poverty is a problem entrenched in the African continent and not unique to South Africa. And it has been so for a very long time. Why?

  • Oh. My ancestors allegedly committed atrocities that neither myself nor any of my extended family know about. An uncle of mine, (the late Judge President Gert Coetzee) carried out extensive research into our ancestry, having unfettered access to official and unofficial records. Nowhere in that history is there any record nor suggestion of unlawful behaviour towards the indigenous people of SA.
    But according to Saxby, I should be filled with remorse and self loathing. Further, that irregardless of my ancestors clean slates, I should be more accepting of the behaviours of those who loot, rob and destroy infrastructure and pvt property in 2021.

    In fact, what I do think, is that Saxby is the missing Esidimeni patient.

    Very disappointed that DM publishes such tripe.

  • I look forward to referring to the Honourable Shivambu by his prison number once his role in the looting of VBS Bank is fully accounted for.

  • Pam, I agree that generally white South Africans don’t or can’t understand. Perhaps the point many were trying to make is that the recent events compounded the situation for South Africans who are black and poor. This is the fallout – and the frustration. The black small business owners who lost everything and do not have the safety net of privilege or wealth to rebuild. I understand the history of structural racism and its corrosive effects over centuries. But I can’t help my outrage; that it has come to this for those who put their trust in leaders with feet of clay when they needed, hoped for and deserved so much more as equal citizens of this country. It’s that outrage that galvanises action; to support civil society, to support investigative journalism, to collectively put shoulders to the wheel, to rebuild. Without that, we are left with nothing but white apathy.

  • Hear, hear!
    The pushback will come of course, and it will revolve around, 1. look at Africa; 2. But I worked hard; 3. we are outraged; 4. poor people just need to work harder instead of looting.

    Exactly why we need you, Pam, to be saying this. Exactly why. People need to listen more than be outraged on the pages of DM, as if no one else feels these things. Thank you for saying this. It’s more important now than ever.

    Of course, we know the last thing they’ll do is listen to understand.

  • This is such a pathetic attempt to deflect attention from the fact that it is the ANC who took a country with the strongest economy in Africa into a near basket case which makes even Zimbabwe nervous. Whatever your agenda is, it is clearly not working.

  • DM168 COVID-19

    South Africa’s Generation V: Vaccinating for love, actually

    By Estelle Ellis, Vincent Cruywagen, Julia Evans and Lungi Langa

    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.