White SA: Racist or in recovery? Part II: Post-publication Answers to Objections

By Jordan Pickering

After posting this article on the News24 public forum, it was clear that many had missed the point. There were several responses that merely confirmed that the long-overdue introspection for which I was calling is both necessary and unlikely to happen. But there were many that pointed out a need for clarification and further discussion too. Most fell into one of the following categories.

1. “Speak for yourself; I’m not a racist and I never have been.”

Many took exception to being labelled a racist, effectively pointing out that I am guilty of a ‘false dichotomy’, which is true. There may well be some Apartheid-era South Africans who stood in the rain and didn’t get wet. I suspect, however, that this number is vanishingly small.

My main observation was that Apartheid propaganda was pervasive, and the structure of society itself normalised differences in value across the races. One does not have to be consciously prejudicial or hate-fuelled to be a racist. Warped ideas about what is normal are deeply ingrained in the psyche of SA, and motivate our deep feelings and attitudes. Without unearthing and eradicating the racism in our inner wiring, it will continue to express itself sub-consciously in our behaviour.

2. “Why should I feel guilty or take blame for stuff my grandparents did?”

Many who responded to the article took the view that they should be held accountable for their actions and their actions alone. In this view, feeling guilty about Apartheid is foolish, seeing as none of us is to blame for a system that we inherited.

In response is this, I would point out that feeling guilty is irrelevant. You can feel bad about what our parents and grandparents did or you can feel like it has nothing to do with you. How you feel makes no difference. The guilt that whites bear is (for want of a better word) judicial—in other words, there was a crime committed, and white South Africa in general is responsible for it.

It is an established fact that black South Africans were dispossessed and exploited for the benefit of the white minority. And it is not merely the architects of Apartheid who are to blame. The police, the army, the church, the judicial system, the media—all of our institutions had to work together to keep it in place, and all did. Even if your family was a small, somewhat-unwilling cog in that machine, it was a role that they quietly played and benefited from.

Whether directly or indirectly, the overwhelming majority of whites experience a high standard of living because of social or economic benefits handed to us by Apartheid. Conversely, black South Africans suffered the loss of property, break-down of family, lack of opportunity, poor education, and so on, in order to keep them in servitude and to support white privilege. Most still experience crippling poverty and social problems as a direct result.

We may not bear individual responsibility for the crimes of Apartheid, but we should at least acknowledge that they were crimes and that we were the beneficiaries of that crime. The crime may not be your fault, but it does not mean that you are devoid of responsibility for it. You may not have had the idea for Apartheid, but the effects of that crime are still in your hands and it is still hurting those who were disenfranchised. To proclaim your innocence while still experiencing the benefits of the crime is a little perverse.

In any case, the social burden of past crimes is only part of the issue—government is redressing that imbalance as best they can (in spite of whites crying that it is ‘reverse racism’ to do so). The point of the article was primarily that we must own those things for which we do bear responsibility—our own current racist ways of perceiving social order. As race relations in our country seem lately to be regressing, we need regular reminders to avoid re-adopting attitudes that I’d hoped were 30 years out of date.

3. “We should be judged by our actions, not our thoughts.”

A large part of my argument was that racism is deeply coded into our ways of thinking and seeing. Some protested that racism is not a thought-crime; it is interpersonal—it is something that you do.

The trouble with this argument is that bad thinking motivates bad behaviour. There is little or no behaviour that doesn’t first begin as a thought. If we genuinely agree that racist behaviour is a bad thing, then why would there be any objection to uprooting it at the source?

Victims of racist systems—here and in the US most especially—point out that prejudice is often just a view about what is normal or who is trustworthy. It need not be more insidious or hate-fuelled than that, but it is not for that reason any more excusable. For example, the subconscious belief that black people are less able or less trustworthy—Apartheid favourites—will necessarily affect who one employs or picks for one’s sports team.

Unless we discover these attitudes in ourselves, their influence will go unchecked, and we won’t even recognise our own behaviour as racist.

4. “Apartheid is in the past; the quicker we move on the better.”

If Apartheid were merely a disagreement between equal factions, we could indeed expect that both parties should be able to move on. It has, of course, been nearly a quarter-century since Apartheid officially ended.

The problem is that it was not such a disagreement. There were not equal gains and losses for each party, and there was no equal blame to be shared. We have massive social problems that are still obviously a direct result of Apartheid and which will be with us for generations to come. It is simply not possible for us collectively to see the pain and chaos that lies in its aftermath and to say, ‘I’m fine with it. It’s over now.’

But the point is this: what gives any white South African the right to ask anyone to move on? We were the perpetrators, not the victims. We were the perpetrators of a system that told its victims where they could stand, where they could eat, what they could say in public, how high they could rise socially. Now we also want to tell these same victims how they’re allowed to feel about it after the fact and for how long?

5. “What could whites do to make amends (even if we wanted to)?”

The big question when it comes to taking responsibility for Apartheid is what form our contrition should take. Black South Africa is fairly unanimous that whites have not taken responsibility for Apartheid and don’t appear apologetic, and yet no one (I think) was hoping that whites would spend the next few decades going on about how guilty they feel for what happened. A reasonable expectation, however, is that white South Africa would adopt an appropriate attitude in public discourse, and that we would help reverse social problems where we are able.

Here are some positive responses that we could make:

  1. As argued in the article, we have a responsibility to end our own racism—not to excuse it—and to be ruthless in weeding it out. Hopefully, among other things, we will avoid passing it on to our children.
  2. Whites should be slower to defend white interests or to oppose programmes that overtly try to redress past imbalances—such as BEE or land redistribution. Of course this does not mean uncritical support of every aspect of these programmes, but working to make these initiatives as successful as possible would be a better approach than complaining how unfair they are to whites.
  3. While there is no way of fixing what has been done, there are several things that each of us could do practically to help reverse the damage that our families did. Imagine what a difference we could make if every white South African did, say, ten hours of community service a month? And if we really cared about advancing the interests of those that we collectively wronged?

We could give time and resources to tutoring those who need help with their schooling; those with expertise could offer adult-education classes; those who have a role in employing others could make more jobs available (or raise wages) even if it means less profit or a lower salary personally; those who have some disposable income could fund sporting equipment or library resources at schools, or contribute to bursary funds at tertiary level.

It is far from true that there is nothing we can do about the past. It is true that we can’t do anything without cost to ourselves, but given what has been taken, it is the least we can do to give a little back.

PS. We use the term ‘black’ broadly in reference to all groups disadvantaged by Apartheid.