Challenging whiteness in South Africa

White South Africans rarely look in the proverbial mirror to reflect on where they come from and how those histories shape their current realities.

Nossob Kalahari Rest Stop, November 2016. All images credit Sydelle Willow Smith.

Since 2015, mass student protests have made the narrative of the “new South Africa” impossible to accept, and quite personally have called into question my own story-telling abilities as a photographer. In the wake of protests over the student-led movement, Rhodes Must Fall, I confronted questions about my portrayals of the events, and whether I was best suited to document such a story. Events like this have led me, and quite possibly other white South Africans, to consider what it means to be white and what it means to be born with an invisible backpack of privilege. From my purview, white South Africans have never had to consider the historical and present-day. They have never had to look in the proverbial mirror and reflect on where they come from, and how their histories have shaped their current realities, which inform their sense of belonging, shame, and entitlement.

Ina Van Der Merwe, Ladies Christian Home, Cape Town. March 2018 “My grandmother was a Voortrekker, she was in a concentration camp as a child. The British burnt all the farms. My husband worked for the Apartheid government. He was involved in some of the forced removals under the Group Areas Act. You can’t inherit the sins of the past. I have to be different. Everyday more and more I realize I have to listen, listen, listen to what people say.” – Extract of interview.

This led to my ongoing documentary photography project Un/Settled, which explores settler colonial histories, white South Africans’ conceptions of belonging, and white privilege. I urge participants and audiences to examine their historical and future roles within a landscape marked by deep social scars. In my interviews, and the images that result from them, I am asking participants to step outside for a moment—to look at the house from the outside in.

I work with photography influenced by ethnographic research. These methods are steeped in colonial legacies, and are the tools I use to try to understand the world, in the belief that white people, like myself, need to interrogate the deeply embedded structures of whiteness. I draw from the definition shared by Daniel C. Blight in his book The Image of Whiteness as the social, economic, political, and legal power structures underpinning white culture—a vast system that sits in the heart of Western culture and spreads through its entirety. Blindness to how whiteness operates only causes a more polarized and precarious present.

The end of apartheid in 1994 was signaled by a collective gesture of forgiveness and hope. South Africans collectively bid farewell to out-and-out white supremacy, but its categories of race stayed with us. Its urban design stayed with us. Its divided beaches and schools stayed with us. Its long-term economic effects and inequalities only became further entrenched. White South Africans seem to have taken the peaceful turn to genuine democracy and public acts of healing like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. However, this was no absolution, rather it was a necessary olive branch extended to white South Africans, many of whom chose to clutch on to as exoneration for past sins.

Last year the work was installed for three months along Government Avenue, in the historically significant site of The Company Gardens in Cape Town. The garden was created in the 1650s by the region’s first European colonial settlers, and provided fertile ground to grow fresh produce to replenish ships rounding the Cape, and to provide vegetables to the growing settlement. A few days after the work was installed in the Gardens, it was defaced with human feces and permanent marker. The media jumped on the opportunity to report on the vandalism. However, I don’t feel that it was necessarily vandalism. For me, it was an expression of unspoken anger around the lack of honest conversations about identity and race in South Africa. There has been the dangerous use of “Simunye [we are one], the rainbow nation myth, stronger together, rugby is going to save everything” without looking underneath, at the blatant inequities that persist in our society.

Chavi Alheit, Sea Point February 2016 “I just think white people, white South Africans are the luckiest nation, community, whatever you want to call it, in the world. For all intents and purposes we all should have been macheted a long time ago. And the fact that we are still living with comforts and advantages that we have, really goes to say a lot for the black population. We really should be thankful towards them. They have been very tolerant of us. It irritates me when white people say things like ‘we need to get over race issues and we need to move on’. You’re still at so much of an advantage being born as a white person in South Africa, than you are being born as a black person.” – Extract of interview.

Un/Settled attempts to make the familiar unfamiliar. By studying the communities I come from and am familiar with, Un/Settled recognizes the otherness of our own selves and our own histories, thereby attempting to turn the colonial gaze inward. One of the project’s main objectives is to understand the dynamics of white power, and whether anything unites white identity across different genders, cultures, languages, religions, and economic backgrounds. I spent the last five years interviewing white South Africans of varying economic backgrounds and cultural heritage in communities across the country.  I combined portraiture and landscapes with the aim of picturing everyday white life. I paired photographs of white people in South African landscapes with interview text, and printed them on large aluminum boards. My intention was to display the photographed sitters enjoying the freedom of space around them and their sense of place within the landscape. The work will move to the aptly named “Victoria and Albert” Waterfront in Cape Town in the coming months to continue these conversations in public.

Un/Settled is a work of conversation and collaboration that extends outward to the place and the people I listen to, write about, and photograph. It is a place of vulnerability, fear, and curiosity aimed at dismantling the ubiquitous nature of whiteness that continues to plague South African society. As Olivia Walton, a key writer and collaborator on the project urges: “Certain questions take on a whole new shape: Why is it that no one was ever really held accountable for apartheid? Why, though the apartheid regime ended, do we still see its structures intact? You may feel yourself a rightful resident here, but what does your existence demand or deny of others?”

These are the questions I am still grappling with in my work. Based on my lived experience, and through engagement with the project, I hope other white South Africans will be motivated to confront the fraught histories of whiteness deeply embedded in apartheid’s lasting legacy.

A day at the horse races, Cape Town, January 2017.

Further Reading