In the Weekly Dissident today, MPHUTLANE WA BOFELO talks to Gillian Schutte about deconstructing whiteness and creating a more humane world.
MwB: Who is Gillian Schutte?
GS: Gillian Schutte is the product of various influences and experiences. I grew up both poor and moderately well off. My early years were shaped by my father who was a young wild James Dean type – a gifted jazz musician and artisan. He and my young ballerina mother (both still teenagers) got married in a rebellious moment and then had four children in quick succession. Neither was ready for parenthood and things very quickly went pear shaped. My dad began to drink and soon they were in debt. My mother had to work to keep us alive. It was a violent and tumultuous time and my mother had no choice but to put all four of us into a children’s home and leave my father. Thereafter we were in boarding school as my brother and I were delinquents.
Then my mother married a farmer in what was then called Rhodesia and we were shipped up to live on a tobacco farm at the beginning of the bush war. We moved into an area that was actively engaged in what was then called a war against the terrorists. The anti-black propaganda was strong and everywhere – in our schools, churches and country clubs. Soon we were in boarding schools again and worrying ourselves sick about the so-called terrorists. By the time we moved back to SA I was a wreck. We were poverty stricken again – my mom divorced the farmer and began the business of survival with now five kids. It was tough. We could never afford luxuries – we fought over our school socks and borrowed each other’s clothes. I eventually went to university where my mother had gotten a job to ensure we could go to university.
I majored in African Politics and chose the Rhodesian war as my major. This is when the process of deconstructing my childhood and the false construct of whiteness began in earnest for me. It has been a long haul to deconstruct the depths of whiteness, and it still continues. How do we ever fully overcome the indoctrination of whiteness? It seeps into the memory DNA. It is a full time occupation and in the end the only choice is to become an abolitionist. There is nothing redeemable about whiteness. It is the premise for all othering and destruction of whole nations of people’s livelihoods, it is intrinsically wound up in conquering and capitalism and supremacy. Until one can see this and consistently deconstruct and seek to destroy this construct you will always be complicit in it.
Gillian Schutte is a woman who is ultra aware of the destructive nature of the construct she was born into and has dedicated her life to breaking down this systemic construct, to calling it to account, to speaking back to whiteness about itself, with the intention of destroying the false illusion that it is. She is also dedicated to deconstructing institutional, economic and systemic racism.
I stand against capitalism and neoliberalism – both constructs of whiteness – and a global occupying system of white supremacy. I work with my life partner, Sipho Singiswa, in Media for Justice, which is an alternative media platform that uses video as advocacy and as a tool for exposing the corporate and state abuse of people in marginalised communities. This is a platform on which people speak for themselves about their struggles – in their own languages and voices. Media for Justice immerses itself in struggles for weeks, months and years. We have been working with communities for over a decade in some cases, in places like Wentworth and Wallacedene. We aim to capture the struggles beyond the sound byte – but to share a blow by blow detailed and multilayered account of peoples struggles against multinationals, against environmental transgressions and against a government that has facilitated a system in which even human rights, such as water and power, are now seen as commodities. Services have all become so profit driven that people are unable to claim even basic rights without being brutalised by the state on behalf of the corporates which seem to have way more rights than economically poor citizens.
I believe in working within the binaries that are imposed on humanity in order to destroy them and build our own non-binaried reality on our own egalitarian terms – not a new slippery post everything capitalist discourse that seeks to pretend that everything is fine when it is worse than ever right now. The poor are sidelined and excluded. Their discourse is thwarted and co-opted. We live in the most slippery times – neoliberalism, postmodernism – nothing holds the truth any more and one of our biggest struggles of today is to reclaim our struggle discourses and not let them be twisted by the discourse neocolonial machinery.
MwB: Tell us more about the mission and spirit behind your letter, “Dear white people“, and the various responses to it.
GS: “Dear white people” was written in response to one of those social media debates in which white male gatekeepers (in this case Andrew Donaldson) was speaking over, down to everyone who was not white and male and in such superior tones of certainty. It was over the dog statements that Zuma had joked about – whites treating their dogs better than their domestic workers and so forth. We had made a documentary called Inja Yomlungu on cultural beliefs about white and black people in relation to dogs. Needless to say many people interviewed by Sipho had expressed these same sentiments – domestic workers and gardeners sharing their experiences of being fed worse food than the dogs in plastic ice cream tubs and drinking tea out of tins etc. Anyway, there was a big debate happening on my Facebook page over this and it became so clear to me that black views and alternative white views were demonised, pooh poohed or written off as dumb, and I wrote that letter in response to this discourse war. I was not even sure that the M&G would publish it since it had elements of tongue in cheek conceit and was clearly a critique on liberal white male gatekeeping. But they did and the next thing this whole thing had exploded and I was receiving death threats from the Klu Klux Klan in the US, photos of old ex-SADF white men with guns in my inbox with the words ‘armed and dangerous’, and hate mail that was so dark and sick that it infects your psyche despite its absurdity. I was also attacked by liberal whites such as Max du Preez and Afro pessimists such as Andile Mngxitama who took my sarcasm and irony when speaking to white fear of genocide verbatim and critiqued me from a Black Consciousness perspective. So I got it from all sides. At the same time the letter was being read in Sotho on radio to audiences of six million people and largely celebrated as a watershed moment in calling out whiteness. I wrote it to call out whiteness (including my own) and to hold the mirror up the absolute arrogance of the assumed correctness of the white perspective – to rip the cloak off the invisible and insidious display of white privilege in many of these social media and mainstream media debates. And of course many white people resonated with the letter too and were not half as offended as the liberal gatekeepers were.
MwB: What is your view about the current sociopolitical and economic environment in South Africa and the world?
GS: My view on the world and SA is that we are living in one of the most insidiously dangerous epochs ever where nothing is as it seems. Obama is the ideal icon for this, having got the vote as a black progressive signaling momentous change and promise, but turning out to be more aggressive in implementing US foreign policy that results in the death of thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians, including children. We live in an epoch where social justice activism is easily seen as terrorism – where capitalism and neoliberalism is so entrenched that even basic human rights have a expensive price tag on them and people are squeezed and oppressed more than ever as governments are corporatised and employ police brutality to keep dissidence at a minimum.
SA is still divided on class that is raced – we live separate lives and the middle class feels little connection to the resource-deprived masses. Our struggles are fragmented and capitalist systems intentionally fragment struggles so that while people feel like active citizens as they are part of some movement, these movements are not joining each other in a united front but fighting separate battles. Whether LGBTQI, or anti-rape or women’s rights, I think all struggles should take place within the context of fighting capitalism and neoliberalism, every struggle should take place in the context of social justice and economic rights, else it is just another punitive measure that simply restigmatises and rebrutalises perpetrators that are part of a social malaise that is so deeply injurious to the human psyche. Underpinning all social maladies is white supremacy and white economic greed and governments who are co-opted into this elitist white boys club at the expense of the people.
After Marikana I expected much more social justice mass movement activity – maybe it is still coming – for now we immerse ourselves in the struggle in Marikana and plenty of other spaces, such as Kagiso and rural areas, so that these are recorded and shared on a global platform in solidarity with the community call for corporate and state accountability. This is no time for fence sitting, it is a war against the majority of citizens in SA and globally, and we should never forget that the people united will never be defeated. That is the spirit that is required now if this capitalist monster of corporate abuse of people, environment and dignity is ever to be shifted. I believe this movement needs to take place with solidarity between the marginalised and middle classes – if the middle class will ever understand that the struggles of the poor are their struggles too.
MwB: What do you believe will take us to a more humane world?
GS: Only revolution will change society to one that is more just and humane. This will never be achieved in this money-driven epoch with a discourse that pretends to be humane while starving people and perpetuating deprivation. It is most inhumane but with a smiling veneer – very dangerous times.
MwB: What are you currently involved in?
Currently I am involved in the media coverage of Marikana – the widows’ struggle for corporate accountability from Lonmin, creating more platforms for women’s voices in the media, calling for corporate accountability from oil multinationals, foreign mining companies and trying to grow Media for Justice into a bigger platform with plenty of citizen journalist feeding into video advocacy and exposing the multiple transgressions wreaked upon many communities in South Africa and further afield.