For me the process of personal transformation started in July 1999 with an almost visceral reaction to what was emerging from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
My letter to the chair of the TRC, Bishop Desmond Tutu, expressed my “shame and abhorrence regarding the revelations at the hearings”. I expressed my regret that I had somehow managed to distance myself from the state-sponsored campaign of violence to preserve white privilege: “My privilege!”
Borrowing from Antjie Krog, I acknowledged my “crime of apathy”.
I told the Bishop: “Partly in search of penance and forgiveness, partly in search of goodwill and a desire to now make a difference, I commit myself to reconciliation and restitution”.
With typical grace, he responded warmly, thanking me for my “commitment to reconciliation and restitution”, adding that “this is the way forward; the only way to a true, working democracy. I pray that others will pledge themselves to do likewise”.
The recent debate sparked by Samantha Vice’s exploration of “the moral burden of whiteness” in South Africa, followed by Bishop Tutu’s renewed call for a wealth tax on white South Africans, has prompted me to revisit the commitment I made in 1999.
In doing so I turned to the transformation model proposed to the University of the Free State when the then Vice-Chancellor called for help after the Reitz Hostel video incident. Colleagues Ulaysha Sukhu, Frikkie Botha and I proposed a series of initiatives in keeping with what we called the Three Pillars of Redemption:
Looking back, we acknowledge that the model might appear to be overly simple and even naive but how else to tackle the complexity of a race-based issue that threatened the very existence of the university? And it appears to have worked. Better qualified minds will no doubt opine on the progress the university has made on its journey to redemption.
But what of my personal journey towards redemption?
I actively support institutional transformation of the new democratic order, as confusing as it must be for young whites who now feel disadvantaged. I freely share what little intellectual capital I have gathered. I listen carefully and thoughtfully when black people express themselves, sometimes in a language three times removed from their mother tongue. I try and give others the space to express their “truth”, as much as I want to leap in with my own “truth”.
It’s the attitudinal and behavioural things going on in my head that are most fascinating. Obviously, I avoid the racial clichés that were common speech when I was growing up. I shy away from so-called forthrightness where South Africans of all shades try perversely to demonstrate their “transformational maturity” by expressing themselves in ways that are potentially hurtful and emphasise perceived differences. Behind the uneasy smiles and apparent confidence, I sense hurt and indignation.
But dare I admit it; my deeply entrenched stereotypical thinking about race, class, gender and religion requires constant attention. I still let myself down a lot and it’s a challenging work in progress.
On the other hand, I experience reconciliation as a joy, mainly because black South Africans make it possible. My favourite saying is that “in Africa we condemn actions and forgive people”. The vast majority of my compatriots who were so grievously insulted and demeaned could easily harbour feelings of resentment and revenge against whites. Instead, they respond warmly to fellow citizens who are courteous and sensitive to the context of cross-cultural relationships in the new democracy where, frankly, the power dynamics have shifted.
My limited acts of restitution probably fall under the heading of “social investment”. They are modest but, I hope, meaningful. Now is not the time for boasting but over the past 20 years or so I have contributed financially and otherwise to the wellbeing of hundreds of street children and helped create lifetime opportunities for more than 5000 disadvantaged young people through a youth development programme. Is it enough?
I am therefore not averse to further financial restitution as suggested by Bishop Tutu. However, the logistical, administrative and legal challenges would be significant. My main concern is that a “white wealth tax” could undermine our fragile reconciliation. This is the one pillar of redemption that has made some progress due to the graciousness of our compatriots.
I propose rather that all beneficiaries of the apartheid system should voluntarily contribute a meaningful proportion of their privileged asset base (money, intellectual capacity, experience and time) to disadvantaged citizens. This can be done discretely or via a high profile public initiative. In the final analysis, let your conscience be your guide.
So what else can be done by whites to shed the skin of privilege? The anger and indignation prompted by Samantha Vice reinforces the perception that many bitter whites have retreated into a kind of psychological wilderness where their only comfort is a false sense of superiority
Here’s an easy tip: watch your lip.
Hiding under the constitutional umbrella of “free speech” and “legitimate concern”, whites lash out at how “they” are messing up the country. Even “born-free” white kids have learnt from their bitter parents that “affirmative action” is “reverse racism” and that “17 years should be enough for us to put apartheid in the past”. Some whites may indeed have “suffered “because of affirmative action. But have whites somehow become the victims of the piece in some kind of perverse role reversal? I think not.
Then there’s paternalism masquerading as benevolence: “I’m no racist but I really get annoyed when these people don’t listen when I tell them what to do?” And the hardest to pin down are the carefully constructed “put downs” delivered in politically correct and even cerebral terminology but with clear malicious intent. In my view it is these sometimes airy; sometimes deliberate denials of black worth, values and achievement that are the most “anti-transformational”.
The Eurocentric world view continues to permeate white thinking and leads to a condescending attitude which, at best, could be described as grudging accommodation of “the other”.
So how do those of us who knowingly or “unknowingly” benefitted from apartheid transform ourselves and help to transform the unequal society in which we live? How do we continue to enjoy the psychological balm of reconciliation while making restitution in a meaningful way? Above all, how do we avoid the compounding insult of tendering transformational initiatives that are experienced by the intended beneficiaries as patronising and somehow demeaning?
I think the answer lies in adapting Robert Greenleaf’s concept of “servant leadership”. In business, servant-leaders are humble stewards of their organisation’s human, financial and physical resources. They accept the burden and responsibility of leadership only if it allows them to serve.
I propose that privileged white South Africans should attempt to locate themselves as “servant mentors” who serve at the request and pleasure of their black compatriots.
Our first responsibility role as white citizens must be to transform our mental models so that we acknowledge and “feel” rather than discount or rationalise the psychological and physical hurt suffered by black South Africans under apartheid; and even into the present. Our efforts to contribute to the transformation of society or business must be subject to the acceptance and guidance of those we humbly seek to serve.
I sense that the safe space where we can find each other as South Africans is in the field of values. Notwithstanding the angry political rhetoric and the corrupt and greedy actions of the few, I remain convinced that the vast majority of South Africans share a common values system based on our Bill of Rights.
I imagine many black South Africans remain confounded by the reality that political power has not necessarily delivered economic equality or social affirmation, a confident sense of individual identity, value and purpose.
Proponents of black consciousness will rightly reject any notion of needing to be “affirmed” by white opinion. But perhaps they would agree that the barely-concealed disdain with which whites (especially those with limited ability and accomplishments) dismiss the achievements of our fledgling democracy must surely impact on the individual and collective black psyche?
I suspect that white South Africans keep on contributing to this mental model through their attitude, behaviour and words. At best, it’s hurtful thoughtlessness. At worst, it’s an attempt to remain “superior”.
We whites can shake off the label of unearned privilege only when our “victims” not only tell us we are forgiven but also behave in a manner that demonstrates they are whole again.
Until then, let us make restitution by sharing our privileged assets, offering to serve and watching our collective lips.
Brian Gibson was born a year before the National Party came to power. He worked as a journalist and communication consultant for many years, specialising now in resolving contentious issues.
Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions on our special report.