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The unbearable whiteness of being: Learning how to transcend the burden of ethnic and other obsessions


Charles Villa-Vicencio is professor emeritus at the University of Cape Town and a former visiting professor in conflict resolution at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. He was Research Director for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The umbilical cord of whiteness in South Africa is a diverse, ill-defined, and entangled reality, which is re-membered, re-interpreted, re-created and re-fashioned on a regular basis. But it doesn’t have to be like this – South Africans have the opportunity to create a new future where ideological forms of whiteness will one day be no more than a bad memory.

Self-indulgent excess and racism aside, there are whites who live with a masked psycho-ethical burden about being white in one of the most unequal countries in the world. This is partly moderated by the emergence of a black middle class, plus a black elite, which tempts moneyed people (black and white) to argue that the strongest and fittest should be encouraged to realise an unrestricted “good life” which will trickle down to the 35%-plus unemployed South Africans. 

The umbilical cord of whiteness in South Africa is a diverse, ill-defined, and entangled reality, which is re-membered, re-interpreted, re-created and re-fashioned on a regular basis. Certain mzungus cling to imagined narratives of their ancestral roots.

These include those who celebrate a bona fide Boer identity, tracing and adhering to memories of Dutch, Huguenot and related migrations. At the core of English-speaking South Africa are the chronicles of the 1820 British settlers in the Eastern Cape, who rationalise the theft of land from indigenous Xhosa tribes in that province.

Other Europeans, some being judged to be whiter than others, slipped into the social construct of whiteness. My paternal Spanish ancestor, who fought against King Ferdinand VII, was of “dark complexion”, boarded a ship to Cape Town after the Battle of Waterloo and married into an anti-colonial “white” Afrikaner family. South African whites have always been a hybrid tribe, essentially committed to resisting a black African majority.

We live in a situation where the ANC government looks over its shoulder at popularist support for the EFF, while an increasing number of whites and other minorities support a non-racial, gender-inclusive, democratic society – for obvious reasons. The DA protects its white centre, and the EFF rages against white, coloured and Indian identity. 

Existing parties, the ANC included, would do well to remember history. 

It suggests that the failure to deliver food, water, shelter, healthcare and jobs has resulted in the demise of most transient political complots. The struggle for basic material needs can only be achieved where race, class and gender find a basis for equal human dignity and respect. The key ingredient required for this to happen is a new connect between material and aspirational hope.  

And now?

We live in tough times: a third-plus wave of Covid-19, social uprisings and threatened insurrection at home, economic and political upheavals abroad and global warming. The perfect storm.

We sometimes kid ourselves that we are growing beyond our colonial and apartheid selves. Some are. We concede the necessity for economic growth, job creation, land redistribution and educational reform. We recognise the need for a form of black economic empowerment, including the inevitability of an influential political elite, while shuddering at the realisation that the majority of the underclasses are ill-equipped to earn a decent living.

Politically sober South Africans, black and white, theoretically accept the need for the upward mobility of the masses while clinging to the hallmarks of privilege, and while creating opportunities for themselves should things go wrong for them. Concerned about the future of their children and grandchildren, the privileged classes understandably seek to protect them from future challenges.

South African and global debate demands a new way of dealing with race and racism. Despite intellectual debate on the social construction of race, the reality is that race is a birthmark of South African identity. Nostalgia, naked racism, indifference, self-deception and a measure of white guilt persists among those who lapse into the “new” South Africa, together with those who rage into the 21st century, plus those who grasp the opportunity to expand their privilege.


The late Stephen Covey, an inspirational writer on human resources, wrote 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (in 1989), which has stood the test of time. Adapted to current South African habits and anxiety, Covey’s suggestions are worth pondering. These include:

  • The necessity to be proactive and imaginative in recrafting the interdependence of bona fide others, across the barriers of race, ethnicity and gender, drawing together people with different centres of interest and persuasion. This win-win situation does not drop from heaven on a good Monday morning. It needs to emerge from within stereotypical enemy-centred, ownership-centred and self-centred win-lose situations;
  • A need for individual and collective understanding of the complexities and ambitions of others. It has been said that “you can only do one thing at a time, if that thing is listening”! This demands the obligation to go beyond passivity. Active listening involves more than passivity. It requires evaluation, probing, interpreting, tone and body-language, as well as sharing one’s own understanding of identity. This requires more than the high ideals of “forgiveness”, “reconciliation” and “memory and forgetting” as exemplified in the TRC process. It requires the hard edge of respect for adversaries, human tolerance, co-existence, citizenship, political debate and democratic practice. This involves the inevitability of a bit of grumpiness and resentment, as well as compromise and deep listening. We are edging to the point; and
  • We need to begin with an end goal in mind, while looking for more than grinding, puritanical self-denial by both whites and others. Bracketing out instant reward, the journey needs to settle for consequential development, restrained fulfilment and realistic happiness, based on communal, economic and personal survival. This involves the recognition that an “us versus them” paradigm obliterates the potential for a future that transcends greed, domination, and the resort to violence.

The question is whether ideological forms of whiteness will one day be no more than a bad memory – a covert Zillean justification of colonialism, or the contested pursuit of a new identity. South Africans have the opportunity to create a new future, although, to quote Karl Marx, we do “not make a future under circumstances of our choosing”. 

The history of our past weighs on us like a nightmare. The way beyond this nightmare is to learn what is involved in being part of a diverse collective that transcends ethnic and other obsessions.

That journey for all South Africans has only just begun. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    The harsh reality is that, right or wrong, the proven way to improve the lot of the poor is to incentivise those that can, to grow the economy. That they get wealthier is not the issue, the pot gets bigger and in a capable state the essentials of life can be delivered. This allows for inter generational improvement of living standards and prospects. Whilst this process unfolds, the state along with the massive philanthropic community in SA (funded by the haves) must support the poor in a practical and dignified way.
    Complex, social engineering projects never work as they attempt to modify basic human behaviour.
    Oh that we had courageous leaders who understood the basics!!

  • Andre Steyn says:

    A clear and useful philosophical framework spoilt by an unjustified Zillean barb.

  • Paul Zille says:

    ‘The struggle for basic material needs’ can only be achieved by an accountable and capable state, freed from the perversion of cadre deployment and related quotas, and 100% focused on creating a conducive environment for private investment, growth and jobs. It is also the only basis for sustainable ‘transformation’. The obsession with racial demographics (and the academic etc. contortions that accompany it) are a charter and a smokescreen for the enrichment of a the new ‘black’ elite. At the expense of a vast and growing army of poor ‘black’ outsiders. You have to hand it to the stewards of the NDR. They have been successful beyond their wildest dreams in spinning their story in the face of all the glaring evidence and, twenty five years into its implementation with all its disastrous consequences, maintaining so much of the media and the academy in their thrall.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    There are plenty of people who follow those rules but individuals can’t change the mass psychology of the country. In addition the serious racist stirring comes from politicians and as long as it is useful vote catcher and/or distraction nothing will convince them to change their tactics, even if and when there is growth in the economy. One only needs to look at US where political and ideological groups use race to maintain or create power basis.

  • Colleen Dardagan says:

    The minute he mentioned Stephen Covey I switched off.

  • Patricia Oliver says:

    “….an ‘us versus them’ paradigm obliterates the potential for a future that transcends greed, domination, and the resort to violence…” Let’s start with self-awareness, and notice when we ourselves use this destructive, violent paradigm. Or is it only ‘others’ who do that….?

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      It’s a bit hard to have a proper conversation when it starts with sentences like: “South African whites have always been a hybrid tribe, essentially committed to resisting a black African majority.”

  • District Six says:

    In an article about whiteness, it took only 38 minutes and 2 comments for someone to throw in “cadre-deployment”. Gotta love SA.

  • Hans Wendt says:

    Oh these whimsical Snowflake apologists.
    BEE policies are based on how the ANC and black people see and define a person who is not Black, certainly hasn’t done much for inter racial relations, so maybe one should start with their hangups to use Race as a qualification criteria,.
    If my whiteness and race offends you then the problem lies with you.
    This hammering on always having to blame the Whites as racists, reads like ideological opportunism, entrenching victimhood, to score brownie points and a comfortable excuse for ethnic scapegoating

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