The opportunity of the moment for white people, and how not to stuff it up

As civic action momentum builds in the wake of last week’s events, Hilton Johnson thought it apt to share a couple of thoughts as a white person who would like to participate in this moment, hopefully in a positive way.

1. There is a huge amount of distrust from black people with regards to white people’s indignation and motives for wanting to remove Zuma. Why is this? Well, firstly colonialism and apartheid. And then the small matter of things not really changing much since then in terms of the power relations in this country.

Also, when issues that affect black people and other marginalised (but frequently majority) groups in SA come up e.g. Marikana, #FeesMustFall, continuing white racist outbursts, the plight of the rural poor, land, poverty and the inhuman conditions under which most black people live, etc. you can basically hear a pin drop when it comes to white voices speaking up, reaching out, participating in trying to find solutions. You see, the burden of redressing our unjust past and the many ways in which these power patterns persist sits with white people. Power is not equally shared in this country, and that does not change now that we have a black government. This also does not mean that there is no corruption or looting and abuse of the state. All I am saying is that we need to get our own house in order first, and trust me, there is a lot of work to do on this front, enough for multiple life times. It is not just a case of waking up one day and saying, “I don’t see race!” You maybe get to say that only when you have seen and admitted to all the ways in which our society still functions along racial lines that continue to benefit white people. Actually, we only get to say that when there has actually been some kind of redress. More on that another day.

2. So, the response of white people needs to take this into regard. Sneering at and dehumanising JZ and his acolytes with thinly veiled racialised stereotypes is not the right way to go because it speaks to a broader history of dehumanising black people and acting like they are onnosel. Don’t act like there is not an incredibly painful history here and don’t be self-righteous and insensitive.

Think about what it must be like for a black person who survived apartheid, who fought against unspeakable cruelty that may very well still be persisting in their lives now, and here is a white person giving you the “I told you so!” treatment. No man, that is kak insensitive and downright dom if you ask me. This is MORE painful for most black people in our country than it is for you. Show that you have some inkling of their pain and that, with our history of dispossession and cruelty you are willing to walk beside or behind them in terms of finding a way forward from here.

You may not have spoken up when a great many injustices continued to be committed against black people but that does not mean you cannot begin to change that now. You can show that this is not just about the tanking exchange rate and the impact on your nest egg. Try to think about the effect of this crisis on the majority of South Africans and find ways to support the fight against this from the point of view of correcting these historical injustices and persisting inequalities. Note that when you just respond when the finance ministry is under attack it looks like you are defending the status quo, where you have and continue to benefit. And that needs correcting too because it also doesn’t work for most (black) South Africans. Can you speak to this reality too?

3. How does this look then? Well, start by interrogating and thinking about where and how you act. Does #BlackMonday speak to the concerns of black people? I mean the name alone seems kinda strange in a country of, erm, black and white don’t you think? Do you know who started this campaign and what they stand for? What about the #ZumaMustFall march on Friday? Do you know if the unions and civil society and churches and the poor who will never be given the day off have somehow been *consulted* or asked about what is important to them and how they would like, or are able, to participate? Or are you just ploughing ahead because this is affecting you and the flippen exchange rate which is going to stuff up your overseas trips?

We need to do better than that, I am afraid. In my office we would very much like to do something, to talk about this and find solutions and ways of connecting with other businesses in our building or in our networks. But it is not going to be my voice leading this, telling people what should be done (kinda like how it has gone in SA for the last 400 odd years, no?). The black people in our office’s voices will be heard first and us whities, after trying our damnedest to first internalise and understand their perspective, will take our lead from there. Walk besides, or behind.

4. Also – and here is another little opportunity – black people have a history of being able to mobilise and bring down oppressive states. Whilst I think that currently we all need an “active citizenship” kick up the arse, there certainly is a lot that white people could learn from black people about organising and finding ways of creating movements that can act as a “broad church” for the inclusion of everyone. Don’t storm ahead in this entitled way without giving regard for what it means to truly dismantle a system that functions just for the few. And for goodness’ sake, use it as a moment to learn about our history of struggle and how you can play a role. Don’t sing Kumbaya because it is the only frame of reference you have for a group song along with Shosholoza and Ole ole ole! PLEASE DON’T. Rather be quiet or take the opportunity to engage with and participate in a reality that most white South Africans are likely to – still – know very little about.

5. Lastly, remember that the only chance we have of ending this current crisis is if we stand together, and white people have a lot to learn about that. The longer we run around pointing fingers without taking personal responsibility for where we are the longer we will keep this painful cycle going. Don’t be dom, just be lekker.


Featured image via Save South Africa on Facebook