Silence is another language white people must learn

KIM HELLER feels that the defence of racist discourse as freedom of speech exposes the oppression of whiteness.

Zapiro’s spew of racist cartoons, which is often sanitised under the guise of freedom of speech, amplifies an offensive narrative. This week, he published a cartoon depicting NPA head Shaun Abrahams as an organ grinder’s monkey. It demonstrated Zapiro’s ongoing trade in racist caricature. It also exposed once more, an underscore of endemic, ingrained racism among white liberals in South Africa. No apology can snuff out this violation of voice. If this is the signature tune of contemporary white South Africa, it must be stopped.

Expression of voice is indeed a cornerstone of democracy. However, the vociferous proclamations of the right to freedom of speech when racism is pointed out is inane. It makes me question whether white people in South Africa have the right to speak at all.

White people like to be heard. There is an almost obsessive-compulsive insistence to be heard. White people like to be heard during their declarations about their right to say whatever they want. White people like to be heard when engaging in instructive conversation which barely pauses for black voice. White people like to be heard when indulging in deeply offensive comments which taunt and massacre the dignity of black people. White people like to be heard when they are looking for black people to congratulate them on being decent human beings. And, most recently, white people appear to particularly enjoy telling black people how to feel and how to heal.

Self-righteousness has always been the steadfast companion of white privilege. It is unsurprising then that today, the white narrative is littered with an illegitimate instructive inflection, as whites continue to ordain themselves as the “perpetual teacher” to the black man “a perpetual pupil”.

The Rainbow Nation was an arranged marriage. It was consummated on the back of white interests and it spawned a deceptive melody of reconciliation that denies the reality of unrequited freedom. Whites have taken refuge in the shelter of a silence which hushed culpability for colonial and apartheid fracturing of black lives.

I found Bongani Madondo’s opinion piece in Sunday Times last weekend poignant. He says, “To the dispossessed, all white people are, necessarily, part of the problem. As such, white people cannot be expected – or lay claim – to be agents of whatever radical redress and self-affirmation and healing black people need.”

He goes on to say, “I suspect whiteness, and a specific ideological DNA of whiteness, is immune to hearing us: black South Africans do not need you to do anything for us – even if it is well intended.”

I used to see myself as one of the “well-intended” whites – Until a few months ago when I was removed from a black consciousness discussion group. The horror! Privilege disrupted! But I listened. It forced me to realise that silence is a language white people need to learn.

Biko was correct to refer to the South African white community as homogenous. The earnest white left-wing academic, the angry liberal cartoonist, the hobbyist white activist, and the everyday white South African who nurses racism daily, are indeed one. For as long as white is the colour of privilege, the white voice will be a claustrophobic chorus that chokes freedom.

If this is the narrative of white South Africa, it must fall. The rallying call of white South Africans who purportedly care about and commit to the transformation of our society and our economy must be to silence this white noise. To accept that the disruption of hegemony of white people’s interests is a necessary soundtrack of a liberated narrative. While I applaud the efforts of leading activists such as Rhodes Must Fall activist and Oxford scholar, Ntokozo Qwabe, to disrupt whiteness by cutting through the very artery of privilege with courage and conviction, this dismantling should be the responsibility of white people. Surely.

So here is a starter guide to the disruption of whiteness for white people themselves.
1. Confront your privilege, but do so privately – it is of little consequence or interest to black South Africans.
2. Gatecrash your own party – if you truly honour freedom of speech, don’t intrude into black conversational spaces. Your presence is not required.
3. Liberate yourself from self-indulgent white noise and spearhead campaigns on wealth and land redistribution, among fellow white South Africans.

That’s it.

If white people were treated as black people continue to be treated in the country, can you imagine the outcry?


Kim Heller is a media, communication and political strategist and strong advocate for economic liberation. She writes in her personal capacity.

Featured image by Ra’eesa Pather