Why we still talk about race and apartheid
December 4, 2012 § 71 Comments
Originally appeared on the Sunday Independent June 10 2012 at 12:46pm
I feel like I need to clarify my position on race as some of my fellow Capetonians have felt the need to mischaracterize what it is that I said in a column I wrote last week and a follow up one this week. Of course, I don’t need to explain myself and I don’t think I am as I this is something I wrote a long time ago.
When we blame the legacy of apartheid most white people take it as a personal attack on them for having benefited from the system. Or they accuse blacks of refusing to take responsibility for whatever is going wrong in the country.
This is not the case. Blaming the legacy of apartheid is an attack on the system. We are not asking you to feel guilty. If anyone needs to get over anything, it is white people who walk around carrying guilt. This guilt might paralyse or even make them unwitting racists. Or worse, cause them to overcompensate, thus wiping away any sincerity in their efforts to balance the past. White guilt won’t solve the problems of this country. If anything, it will bring about resentment and that will take us back. We are not interested in moving backwards.
But we will move backwards if we insist on putting on blinkers.
To be honest, had I been white at the height of apartheid I don’t know if I would have had the moral fortitude to stand up against the National Party government. It is hard to go against the powers that be when defiance means prison or torture. Perhaps I would have condemned it in the comfort and privacy of my mind.
But let’s not pretend that black people don’t have a legitimate reason for blaming it for their current condition.
It is undeniable that the vast majority of black people were denied a good education; some were even denied any education. The government of the day did not bother to build schools for them.
Where there is education, opportunity soon follows, and without education blacks got caught in a vicious cycle of stagnation. They saw no real progress for themselves.
Instead of passing on wealth from generation to generation, their descendants inherited poverty and a very clear message that they were not allowed to prosper in the land of their birth.
To dismiss these realities as mere laziness on the part of a black person is ignorance. The black person is still playing catch-up.
On the other side, blacks can look at white misbehaviour through the prism of race without seeing the core of the problem. The black community must not confuse the young white man’s anger with racism. The young white man cannot understand why he has to be at the back of the queue when he seeks employment. Let’s say that he was too young to remember apartheid.
Shall we now punish him for a system that was not of his choosing? Is it his fault that he just happened to have been born white?
Having said all I have, I would like to point out that I am not so naive as to believe that racism does not exist. Sadly, it does.
Whether or not we admit it, we are all victims of apartheid. But we don’t have to think and act like victims forever. The only way we can rise above the situation is to understand the realities we all face. However, this must not excuse bad black behaviour or bad white behaviour.
There are some harsh realities to face about SA. They are driven by the fact that SA is a country of two nations, one rich and largely white, the other poor and largely black. It is a mistake to assume that all blacks are rich because there are a few rich ones, such as Patrice Motsepe for example, but a very tiny percentage of blacks hold wealth. Black people control less than 10 percent of the stock exchange, for example.
Few things annoy me more than hearing a white South African say that he or she did not benefit from apartheid. You don’t need to have contributed to the system to have benefited from it. In our attempt to put everything in the past, we try to forget what should not be forgotten. We should be aware that forgetting is an insult to history and to those who fought for what we have today. We also fall into the trap of emotionalism when we talk about the past and thus forget to put things in perspective.
A white friend said to me that he and I were “the same” because we went to similar high schools, so in his eyes I had not been disadvantaged. I could understand where he was coming from, but he hadn’t looked at the situation from my perspective.
I know it is difficult to stomach, but if you are white, you unwittingly benefited from apartheid. A white person may have opposed the system from the very core of their being and marched with the UDF and been a member of the ANC.
This does not take away from the fact that they benefited.
For a start, being white meant that you had access to better schools, as the government spent at least eight times more on the education of a white person than it did on a black person. What is the result of this? Generations of white people received a superior education and this meant that they had access to better jobs (not forgetting that the best jobs and universities were reserved for white people anyway). Naturally, white people would end up with more money than black people.
This also meant that for generations white people were able to accumulate wealth, knowledge and know-how while black people were left behind. As a result, white children who were born after the end of apartheid still benefit from what their parents benefited from. A nice house in the suburbs, better health care, access to good schools because their parents were able to have a better job because they were able to go to university and receive superior qualifications.
That is then transferred to their children, who start off from a better position than their parents. This principle applies to the rich, too. It’s how they keep getting richer. Understanding this is not about pointing fingers and blaming anyone; all we want is for people simply to acknowledge that they benefited. That will not harm anyone. It is an insult to say that you haven’t benefited when you live and breathe that very benefit.
I know that some will not agree, but these are the facts. This is why we are not the same and we do not see the world in the same way. It is not something to feel guilty about either. It is how the system was and that’s that.
I had to explain to my friend that my first school had no electricity and no water. The school was made of mud huts.
One classroom was shared between two grades. One grade faced in one direction and the other in another direction. Both classes would be in progress at the same time. The school was cleaned by the children. Cow dung was used to “polish” the floors.
The level of education I received during the formative years of my life was significantly inferior. So we are not the same.
When I was allowed to go to a white school in 1991, I couldn’t swim because the schools I’d been to had no swimming pools nor did our homes in the villages and townships. So we are not the same.
When I left high school, my parents didn’t have a car to give me. There was no money saved up for my education because my mother had been unemployed for years and had no savings. So we are not the same.
When I started working, I did not work to help myself, I worked to send money to my mother so that she could eat and clothe herself, so that my brother and sister could continue going to a good school. This meant that I couldn’t do the things that white kids my age could do for themselves, such as buying a car if their parents hadn’t already bought them one. So we are not the same.
When black kids want to buy a house, we don’t have our parents to put down a deposit for us.
Just because less than 1 percent of the black population lives well and can afford to do things like that, doesn’t mean that all black people can be said to live like white people now.
Is this to say all white people were so privileged as to have their parents buy them cars and put down deposits on houses? Of course not. There are many white people who also struggled. Poverty knows no race, but poverty was legislated in SA. As a result of apartheid, white unemployment in SA is at 6 percent, while black unemployment is well over 30 percent.
These are the consequences that black people still live with. This is why they continue to evoke apartheid.
If some of us are where we are today, it is because we had to run faster to be at the same level as some of the white kids in our age group. Of course, when we do get jobs, we are viewed as affirmative action candidates even if we are the best person for the job and until we prove otherwise. We are not the same.
This is not to say that we are resentful. We are simply upset that some people want to pretend that we are the same. Just because we went to the same schools, work in the same offices, do the same jobs and live in the same leafy suburbs does not mean we are the same.
In the end, we will be fine, and we will end the obsession with race. But let’s not sweep it under the carpet before time.
Dlanga is an award-winning blogger and advertising guy who never eats black jelly babies. Now he’s a writer, too, discussing everything from racism to love and sex, money, gender and growing up black in SA. This is an extract from his book, In My Arrogant Opinion, from the Youngsters Series, edited by Mandy Wiener and published by Picador Africa with a recommended price of R85.