“In this country, when I start my sentence with ‘I am a proud white Afrikaner woman…’ I am in trouble.”

These are the words of Sunette Bridges, an artist and self-proclaimed human rights activist, during the live recording of the eNCA’s The Big Debate episode on racism. Although I have my own reservations about what Sunette stands for, her statement stayed with me.

I remembered her words as I was asking South Africans about their anticipation of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address. The obvious reluctance by white people to discuss politics with me was jarring. Every white person I asked about the president’s address refused to be recorded or to have their picture taken. Some were willing to speak to me, but only if I guaranteed them anonymity.

This was not the first time I found myself in such a situation; while covering election day earlier this year, young white South Africans who were voting at Wits University needed more persuading than those of other races.

The same thing happened last week, when I asked people about their thoughts on Julius Malema’s proposal that white people should learn an African language.

“White people will speak in private about delicate issues but aren’t comfortable in public,” a young white man told me.

This is not an attempt to create some false sense of victimhood for white South Africans; it is an attempt to bring to the table a conversation that needs to take place in this country, one that we all seem to be afraid to bring up. Not every question is about race.

The manner in which discussions about “delicate issues” take place in our country is strange. There seem to be no grey areas when it comes to our opinions on political issues; you are either for or against something.

There is a fear that you will be labelled a racist if you disagree with the president’s position on something, or that you will be seen as an EFF supporter if you agree with some of Julius Malema’s views.

There seems to be no space to be critical of a political party or politician and still support them in the same breath.

Our inability to be fluid in our discussions about these matters contributes to the racial tensions that we sometimes find ourselves in as a country. This issue is not a light one, and it would take more than a few reluctant white people to unpack. But space must be made to do just that.

We need to create a space where white people feel free to engage in dialogue about politics without the fear of being labelled as racist. Such a space will only exist when we stop seeing and talking about politics from a race perspective. Beyond white people and their fears;  we need to deracialise our political views. Politics is broader than just race; there are other issues that supersede it (such as gender and class). Seeing people’s views only through a racial lens limits the quality of the debates that we engage in as South Africans.

6 Comments
  1. Justin says

    That’s not my personal experience but it troubles me that the educated youth aren’t willing to engage openly. What are they afraid of and why? Deracialising politics is critical, as is deracialising just about everything else in SA, but how are we to achieve this when university students are reluctant to speak their free minds?
    Perhaps that’s an experience specific to Wits. Any other campuses covered?

  2. Thomas says

    You obviously don’t follow stuff on twitter or Facebook. White people (Afrikaner and not) are very vocal these platforms and have no issue calling any person of colour racist for wanting land restitution or agreeing with Malema’s call for every citizen of South Africa to learn an African language or whatever they find an inconvenience. I’m a person of colour, not black African per se but I find it embarrassing that white people are so blatantly racist, making comments such as, “what’s African culture? Raping children?” when Malema makes a fairly tame comment like we should all learn about African cultures. I mean, come on, white people, you’ve pillaged and benefitted from this country more than any other race, and that at the expense of other racial groups. The least you can do is learn the local culture and language. What’s so racist about that? No, my experience is that whenever any kind of political issue is brought up that inconveniences or takes the focus away from white people (Remember Afrikaners claiming genocide of Afrikaners as though they are the only racial group affected by violent crime in South Africa?) white people are the first and loudest ones to shout racist, even when there isn’t a shred of racism attached to the situation.

    1. TheRealMidnite says

      So you don’t experience something as racist, therefore it’s not? I suppose that’s what Penny Sparrow thought, too (actually, we all know she did. She even said so afterward). I stopped caring what Julius Malema (and the rest of these alleged “political leaders”) say a long time ago. His public waxing of his anti-white credentials may have become subtler and more nuanced over the years (one lives and learns, I suppose), but very few of us whiteys are silly enough to believe that their intended function has changed. And if anyone wants me to learn about their culture, there had better be something more in it for me than somebody elses’ vapid, neo-liberal feelgood.

  3. Darren says

    Thomas, you are racist. Should you have any doubt, refer to any dictionary the read your load of drivel again

    1. Thomas says

      Yep, Darren. I’m racist for pointing white racism out. Thanks for proving my point.

  4. TheRealMidnite says

    I have myself never been able to understand being “proud” of being born into a skin colour, a certain culture, or even the piece of fenced-of dirt you happened to be born inside. That seems to be mostly a question of luck (or lack thereof). I have never waved anybody’s piece of over-glorified colored fabric in my life, and that IS something I’m pretty proud of. And I’d be more than willing to discuss my politics (or lack thereof) with you without anonymity. As an aside, aren’t all human right activists self-proclaimed? There isn’t like a test, is there?

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