White privilege and hypocrisy in South Africa

The first time I went to a white farm in South Africa was in 2005. I was a study abroad student in Port Elizabeth, on South Africa’s east coast. I was part of a group of 26 students from the United States. We visited a few large, white-owned farms in the rural Eastern Cape. The experience was eye-opening and shocking at the same time.

The farmers treated us – a bunch of white foreign students – very well. They fed us great food, showed us around and gave us lots of brandy and beer to drink. They also felt like they could be open with us – fellow whites – talking about the “good old days” and pointing out the “failures” of democracy. They kept complaining how their economic situation was difficult, how they weren’t making any money, how their children had no hope in ANC-run South Africa and had to emigrate to Australia.

The most shocking experience for me was to see that nothing had changed for the black people living in the area and working on these farms. Black people were nothing more than servants. We never had a chance to talk to them, to ask them questions about their living conditions. They lived in small dilapidated houses far away from the posh spaces reserved for the whites. We could see them from a distance working on the farms and in kitchens, but they seemed afraid to talk to us, as if by instruction. They were basically shadows.

I went back to the same area just over two years ago. Things were the same; nothing, and I really mean nothing, had changed. White farmers showed us around, bragging about all the land, hills and mountains they own, stretching as far as the eyes can see. They also told us – while hosting us in their large and luxurious houses – about their difficult economic situation and how it was hard to break even. The irony didn’t seem obvious to them.

Black workers were still invisible, living in absolute poverty, nothing but shadows existing in the white-controlled environment where the old rules – written some time ago, officially gone, but still around – remain the order of the day. We never had a chance to speak to them, to ask them how they were surviving on about R1500 per month (about US $110), which is the average pay for black farm workers in South Africa.

When I read about the #BlackMonday protests last week, I keep thinking about those farms I visited, the past and present power dynamics and the struggles of the black farm workers who are treated as sub-humans on a daily basis.

While the whites in South Africa lost political power in 1994, they kept a stronghold on the economy. Some of them had to publicly speak in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about horrific torture, murders and savage crimes they committed during apartheid in order to receive amnesty. But all of them basically got a free pass for centuries of dehumanization, exploitation and horrific crimes committed by them or in their name.

All the while, black people were expected to get over their unthinkable suffering at the hands of the racists, forgive them and move on. There was no justice, there were no reparations. The political philosopher Richard Pithouse writes that “the grace bestowed on the oppressors has not been extended to the oppressed.” Or as the Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani, summarized the outcome of the TRC for white South Africans:

Because the TRC focused on perpetrators and overlooked the beneficiaries of mass violations of rights abuses – such as the pass laws and forced expulsions – it allowed the vast majority of white South Africans to go away thinking that they had little to do with these atrocities. Indeed, most did learn nothing new. The alternative would have been for the TRC to show white South Africans that no matter what their political views – whether they were for, against or indifferent to apartheid – they were all its beneficiaries, whether it was a matter of the residential areas where they lived, the jobs they held, the schools they went to, the taxes they did or did not pay, or the cheap labour they employed.

The historical inequalities and structural barriers, rooted in the racist settler colonial oppression and dispossession, remain part and parcel of South Africa’s social fabric today and continue to keep most black people trapped in inequality and poverty.

Crime in South Africa is shocking and mind-blowing. According to recently released crime statistics, there have been over 19,000 murders and more than 140,000 aggravated robberies in the country in the past year. Per day, South Africa experiences on average 52 murders and 50 attempted murders.

During this time, there were 71 farm murders in 2016 and 65 farm murders in 2017. However, instead of focusing on murder and violent crime in the country which mostly affect black and coloured South Africans, the #BlackMonday protesters grieved over the white farmers and the whites in general while showing complete disregard for the struggles of black people and displaying what Pieter Howes calls an “isolationist victim mentality.”

They have been doing this since 1994, bombarding the country with the white nationalist propaganda that highlights the fears, anxieties, fragility and nervousness of whiteness and whites while neglecting and dehumanizing the rest of the country, as Sisonke Msimang recently pointed out.

Despite all the rhetoric from the protesters and the opposition Democratic Alliance, #BlackMonday protests weren’t about all victims of crime, or even about everyone in the farming industry. It was about white fragility, white tears and white safety and security in post-apartheid, apartheid South Africa, as Mabogo More calls the country.

According to Gillian Godsell, a lecturer at the Wits School of Governance, the #BlackMonday protests weren’t about showing grief about the farm murders. Rather, it was a display of grief “about change in this country.”

For the #BlackMonday crowds, all lives didn’t matter, not in the past and not today. For many whites, black and white South Africans aren’t the same when it comes to a person’s worth and contribution. Whites “built this country,” they like to say; they ran the country “well” before 1994, when “everything worked,” and they were safe on their farms and in their suburbs. They still work hard and pay taxes. They are special, superior, God’s people. Blacks, on the other hand, are lazy, entitled, unruly, corrupt, violent, criminal, uncivilized; they have ruined everything since 1994.

Thus, the contributions and lives of white farmers who work hard and feed the nation matter more than the black lives. This is why they think they deserve special protection from the government and police.

Many protesters showed unreserved contempt for black people. They sang the apartheid anthem. Some came with their old apartheid flags, clearly missing the times when racism and white supremacy were the law of the land. Some yearned for the “good old” apartheid days when whites were safe and protected by the government. Others had banners that read “don’t kill the hand that feeds you” and “no boer, no pap.” In both instances, white farmers are seen as the producers of food; the blacks are the killers and/or unable to produce food or anything else on their own. The message on the banners is clear: without the white saviors, black South Africans have no chance in life.

The hardships experienced daily by millions of black South Africans don’t bother most whites in the country. For one, the large majority of whites never join their fellow black South Africans or offer them any kind of sympathy or support when they protest against inequality, exclusion, crime, racism, lack of service delivery and other adversities.

When black people protest demanding basic services, they are seen as violent good-for-nothings by most whites. This despite the fact that most of the protests by black South Africans are peaceful. Black kids demanding safe schools are seen as a nuisance; university students demanding affordable education that is not rooted in colonial and apartheid racism, dehumanization, othering and lies are ungrateful thugs. When black workers demand to be paid living wage so they can escape poverty and support their families, they are not seen by much of white South Africa as fellow citizens and human beings who have genuine and legitimate grievances and needs but as senseless hooligans bent on destruction.

“They [the blacks] are at it again; protesting, disrupting, destroying, bu­rning. They just don’t know any better.” I’ve heard this so many times, whenever black South Africans are pushed over the edge by their daily struggles, often having no other option but to go to the streets and fight for their rights and basic services.

The police did nothing to clear out the #BlackMonday protesters from the roads and highways. No stun grenades, no rubber bullets, no violence against protesters. This is not surprising. South African police is known for shooting at black South Africans and breaking up their protests, often indiscriminately and with overwhelming force and violence, whether with rubber or real bullets. But the same never happens when whites protest. A case in point is the student protest outside the Parliament in Cape Town in October 2015. While black students were beaten by the police, shoot with rubber bullets and trampled on, their fellow white student protesters moved freely in the same space, with no one touching them. This was white privilege in action, for everyone who cared to see.

The Rainbow Nation where everyone has a chance to make it in life through hard work is a fallacy. In this fantasy land, historical and structural inequalities don’t exist and the past doesn’t matter any more. As the saying at many white braais goes, it’s been more than two decades since the apartheid ended. How long will blacks complain about it? Everyone is equal now, with the same chances and opportunities. What are they still complaining about?

The reality is a complete opposite. As a recent article in the New York Times highlights, while South Africa has seen political change, “apartheid has essentially persisted in economic form.” The country remains a “land of astonishing contrasts” and inequality is still largely based on race and centuries of racist looting and oppression.

Instead of facing up to the difficult past and dismantling structural barriers that maintain the oppressive status quo, way too many white South Africans are doing all they can to maintain racial inequalities and white privilege. This is a recipe for disaster. Hopefully they get it before it’s too late.

* Savo Heleta writes this in his personal capacity.

Savo Heleta

Savo Heleta works at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

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