What happened to the white left?

A striking feature of the post-1994 period is the retreat from politics or emigration of large numbers of people from the white community who were part of the active resistance to apartheid.

Some have decided to focus on personal issues, such as rebuilding family relationships, for which there was little time during the struggle. Yet others have become despondent. Democratic South Africa has fallen short of their hopes, and there is a sense of not identifying wholeheartedly with the new order.
Some believe that their contributions have been insufficiently recognised; they feel that whites have been “marginalised”.

What informs these judgements? What is the root of this dissatisfaction, often expressed with vehemence on the dinner-party circuit?

Certainly, some white former activists see their role as self-appointed moral guardians who have to keep their black former comrades in check. This often takes the form of an obsession with the lifestyles of their former comrades.

But, fundamentally, there is discomfort with what is perceived as a form of Africanism that allegedly excludes whites and undermines non-racialism.

The concepts of non-racialism and Africanism need to be unpacked.  The new South Africa cannot be built by treating these as polar opposites. That there may be abuse of either is all the more reason to engage with their meanings.

The retreat of white leftists is not a new or unprecedented phenomenon. Likewise, a higher proportion of whites in the struggle were able to study overseas or took the option of an exit permit than did their black comrades. Many of these were politically inactive outside the country, and some held fairly well-paid jobs. 

Among those who remained, many held jobs as academics or professionals, work that offered stability that was not open to most blacks. If a white professional was released from detention, it meant quite a different thing from someone who had no job other than working with little or no pay for the United Democratic Front.

Earlier, it was not primarily white people who built the underground after Rivonia and the arrest of the African National Congress/South African Communist Party leadership. Some were underground propagandists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But in the dark days of the 1960s, people like Albertina Sisulu, the late Elliot Tshabangu and others built the embryo of the underground.

Some whites like Helen Joseph made a principle of not leaving. But many left to avoid arrest or were instructed to do so for operational reasons.

Many whites could leave without having to cross the borders illegally. They often had the resources to establish themselves in some other country. Some were called “trustafarians” who benefited from their family trusts. Many of these left when the struggle was at its most dangerous.

Of course, there were others who stayed to build the resistance in various forms. Some joined Umkhonto weSizwe; and some were tortured or killed. Their stories also deserve to be better known as part of our history.

That history cannot be read by introducing a hierarchy of sacrifice. Nevertheless, complaints about a “lack of acknowledgement” suggest a need for self-examination. In the broader picture black Africans paid the highest price for resistance.

For white South Africans, becoming an activist sometimes precipitated a crisis in family relations and negatively affected career prospects. For black South Africans there were hardly any career prospects, and joining the struggle might have meant never seeing your family again.

Just as it was not an option in the past, the notion of withdrawal from building the new South Africa is not an option for most black comrades, despite the pain many continue to bear. This is one aspect of the different lived experiences that informs how people read the present situation.

When it is said that the expectations of freedom have not been met, we need to ask: Whose expectations? What did white leftists expect, and did this take adequate account of what the majority of South Africans wanted? Can it be said that what has happened in the past 10 years has dashed the hopes of the overall majority?

All human beings need to be free, but the liberation movement used to say that the struggle was primarily about winning the freedom of black people in general, and African people in particular, because the national oppression of Africans was fundamental to apartheid.

In understanding the freedom that has been realised can one actually say these expectations have not been met? What has freedom meant to an African person? Do we respect that understanding or are we introducing other unstated meanings?

Today’s shifting attitudes have their roots partly in how various white activists identified with the struggle.

There is a notion often expressed in seemingly innocuous tributes that betrays a sense of whites not seeing themselves as part of the struggle in the same way as blacks. Instead they saw themselves joining or acting on behalf of black people. In this discourse, a special tribute is reserved for the contribution of whites who, because of sacrifices, lost out on various career opportunities.

This is usually said of Bram Fischer. While intended as a compliment, I doubt he would have put it that way himself. Fischer, like Ruth First, Ray Alexander, Joe Slovo, Jack Simons, Beyers Naudé and Joseph, merged his self with the people as a whole. His life’s meaning was one of common identity with all others struggling for freedom. Fischer was living proof that whites could belong to the struggle in the same way as their black comrades by seeing it as their own.

The complaints of many former activists are related to a notion of non-racialism and nation-building that needs to be interrogated. Non-racialism does not mean the removal of the significance of “race”, even if this is an unscientific category. Nor does the constitutional entrenchment of non-racialism remove the cumulative effects of apartheid on black people. Unscientific it may be, but the legacy of “race” will be with us for many years.

In some quarters talk of “white” and “black” is distasteful. True, we are all Africans in one sense. But being part of a group that had to carry passes by law continues to have consequences for many blacks, and Africans in particular, in ways that do not affect whites.

The shrinking from Africanism is a failure to acknowledge the African character of this country—that part of the liberation of South Africa is to transform it from a European outpost in Africa into an African country, with a predominantly African cultural character, and showing a face to the world that is nationally representative of its peoples.

In other words, there is nothing racist about having a primarily African leadership of this country, its institutions, its economy and so on. It is part of “normalising” ourselves.

Something needs to be corrected in a society that is African, but which takes Europe and the United States as its reference points. Our educational institutions need to reflect on this point. Europe and the US should be among our reference points, but our primary context should be that of our own people and the continent to which we belong. That way we will start to belong to where we are.

Freedom, despite many challenges, has been a celebratory experience for most South Africans. Despite many challenges, it has meant an absence of apartheid humiliation and oppression. This is what many in the white left fought for in much of their lives.

Freedom has come in an unfinished state, as something for which we still have to work. The new South Africa was never going to turn out as in a storybook. The question each person should be asking is that of location. Is this merely the freedom to lament the state of things at the dinner table? Whose freedom is this? Whose country?

If the white left share in the vision of freedom and equality espoused during the national liberation struggle and now enshrined in the Constitution, it needs to join in the efforts to reconstruct the country as equals—nothing less and nothing more.

Raymond Suttner, currently a researcher, was a political prisoner and previously a member of the UDF, ANC and SACP leadership

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