Posted on April 7, 2017

Dear Black People, Forgive Us as We March for White Privilege

Marius Oosthuizen, IOL, April 7, 2017

Some blacks are angry that South African whites, indifferent about their plight, are planning to march for the removal of President Jacob Zuma.

As a friend of mine said, “Before I shut down South Africa… for those who want to preserve wealth and privilege, disguised as legitimate concerns… I need answers to the following; currency manipulation by the banks, jobs for whites, indifference to poverty, etc. etc.” From over there in the townships our #SaveSA marches look a little elitist and far too pale. “Where were the whites when we were protesting for water and shelter and service delivery?” he asks.

My brother, you are right. We were nowhere.

Max Du Preez is irritating but he is right

This week Max wrote on Twitter, “Imagine what could have been if we white South Africans were as outraged at apartheid, torture & death squads as we are at Zuma right now”. This is an irritating question to ask the white middle class who have “moved on” from apartheid and now agree that the system was evil. How dare Max question white apathy now that we have all buried the hatchet? It’s irritating, but Max is right. Whites were not outraged at apartheid – they were the beneficiaries of the system. Sure, there were the Helen Suzmans and the Derek Hanekoms and the Beyers Naudes, but they were few and far between. Whites baked bread in their neatly trimmed suburban bubbles while the townships burned and black bodies bore the brunt of an oppressive police state. There is no excuse.

Fast forward to 2017 and these same white people continue to enjoy benefits that accrued to them from historic injustice. Their children stand on their shoulders and enjoy higher education rates, higher employment rates and higher nutrition levels than that of black children. This is the “legacy” that we have discussed so often that it is at risk of becoming a cliché. It also happens to be the thorn in the side of our black compatriots.

Martin Luther King Jr. foresaw, that, ”In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Black people remember our silence, and it obviously hurts. Sadly, that pain sometimes surfaces as an irrational anger that says, “How dare you protest now?” It becomes a blinding resentment that says, “you are willing to fight for your privilege but you are not willing to work or sacrifice for justice!”

Whites are angry at President Zuma

As exasperating as it might be for many black South Africans, most white South Africans have put apartheid behind them and are looking to the future, with self-interest. We are a materialist nation. We borrow, we spend, we brag and we post selfies with our BMWs and our Bentleys.

For every black South African who dreams of driving their new imported car into their old township, as a symbol of affluence, there is a white person who dreams of a bigger house, in a better suburb. These aspirational citizens want the country to work, for them, and in an impersonal way, for “the masses”. Confronted with poverty, they say, “I pay my taxes”. The truth is, they mostly do. Confronted with inequality, they say, “education is the solution”. The truth is, it is. But they also understand that corruption, mismanagement of public funds and crony capitalism will hurt the poor more than it hurts them. These white people are angry with President Jacob Zuma.

The corrupt record of many in the ANC and the clouds of abuse of power that have surrounded the president, has shattered their Madiba-inspired honeymoon. To these whites, the Rainbow Nation was more than a promise or a goal, it was a new beginning. To suggest that they are now somehow guilty of perpetuating our societal challenges is to pull away their comfort blanket.

Even more complicated, is the relationship, of young whites who grew up after 1994, with the idea of “collective guilt”. How can they be guilty of the evils of a system they did not create, did not participate in and did not vote for? Some have even voted for the ANC. What these whites miss of course is that the Rainbow Nation dream required collective responsibility, not merely in the form of tax transfers via the state, but in every walk of life.

Confronted with the failure to fix the country, they blame the ANC and more recently, blame the president. Rightly so, the ANC is now a weakening party fraught with factionalism, corruption, nepotism and tribalism.

Colour doesn’t matter, democracy does

To my angry friends, we whites look like ignorant brats fighting over our many toys. Unfortunately, this view is misinformed.

As difficult as it is for South Africans to leave “race” behind, our country has reached a moment in time where our enemies cannot be neatly identified in terms such as race-relations. Sure, racism is rife, but our new enemies are socio-economic evils such as endemic drug addiction, teen pregnancies, state failure and economic stagnation. Even if every white racist woke up a changed person tomorrow, our nation would still reel under societal breakdown and deprivation.

To fix these systemic problems requires that the environment is stable, rule-based and fair. This is why democracy matters. The most affluent and prosperous nations have become so during times of great stability, when productive citizens were able to lay one stone upon another and forge ahead in innovation and creativity. You simply cannot queue your way to progress as you do to collect a social grant.

So, dear black people, forgive us as we march for privileges that you don’t yet have. We are also marching for our institutions, for the rule of law and for your future.

Learn from history and don’t be fooled by black nationalism

The Afrikaner nationalists cooked up a muti of culture, patriotism and religion to provide the rationale for exploitation and oppression. It was a successful system, if you measure the progress of white boers from their days as “Bywooners”, poor stragglers seeking a living in the shadow of colonial masters, to their unveiling of the Voortrekker Monument in 1949. By the 1980s they had amassed wealth, power and pride. Too much pride. But their rise was off the backs of millions of black workers, oiling the wheels of progress with black sweat. Their whitewashed supremacist facade was a thin veneer that masked deep and tragic injustice for millions. The same Afrikaner heroes who led the white flock to the height of their power, would turn out to be dehumanising monsters, no different to history’s worst examples of inhuman oppression through torture, imprisonment and arbitrary exclusion.

Black nationalists are at risk of giving birth to their own apartheid, conceived out of their rage and greed. Another of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great insights was that, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Just as the Afrikaner remade himself after the image of his colonial oppressor, once he had shrugged off the Union Jack, rolled back the 1822 decree by the British, that English was the only language to be used in the schools, churches and government, so the black nationalists are charming the cobra of hate and supremacy. The venom of their anger convinces them that Jacob Zuma is an imperfect hero, their very own PW Botha, one of their own.

What they fail to see is that we cannot equalise our society through another round of criminality. If we undermine the rule of law now, our society will never recover. When Madiba gave us the dream of “reconciliation”, he actually gave us something far more valuable. He gave us a framework within which we can build peacefully and fairly towards the future we desire. Along with the genius of Albie Sachs, Kader Asmal, Frene Ginwala and many others, he gave us a constitutional democracy. This is what we are now at risk of losing. We are at risk of losing the table at which all South Africans are meant to come and sup.

So, my black brother and sister, instead of ridiculing our belated anger, come teach us how to march. Teach us how to have solidarity. Teach us how to be South Africans. Thank you for bringing us a democratic South Africa through your patient endurance and your forgiving spirit. Now help us save it.