/ 25 March 2005

Wrath of dethroned white males

A critical factor of human development and leadership is ”our primate heritage” as defined in the book Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, by Howard Gardner, Harvard University’s distinguished psychologist and professor of education.

In the primate family, to which humankind belongs, there are certain heritage features which display ”clear dominance relationships among members, and the proclivity to imitate”, hence such terms as ”aping and monkey business”.

These heritage features are most pronounced in males who compete for control of the social cluster, for protection of offspring and possession of the most desirable females.

Baboons or bonobos, for example, are often headed by a dominant male with pretenders to the throne hanging around. The dominant male ensures that progeny are not only his through reproduction, but also that all members of the colony imitate him. He becomes the ”gold standard”. Ultimately the dominant male is dethroned by a younger and fitter male, only to repeat another variation cycle of hierarchy, dominance and imitation.

The dethroned male becomes depressed, quarrelsome and a spoiler of the new order until he gets ostracised from the colony to lead a frustrated, lonely and unhappy life. This is our ”primate heritage”.

I use this example because baboons are familiar to most South Africans; they are among our closest primate relatives genetically and a totem for some Africans. African people have been referred to as bobbejaan and at times shot and killed by certain white males who apparently ”confuse or mistake” us for baboons.

More importantly, I use this example because humankind is reflective and should do better than our primate relatives; also because the dethroned white male in South Africa is playing the same role as dethroned baboon troop leaders do.

The primate practice teaches us that information is not sufficient to bring about change; that change often only occurs when it is enforced on even such a highly sophisticated species as humankind.

A group of dethroned white males called ”Die Boeremag” are recently alleged to have been plotting a coup and even entertaining the exciting thought of assembling all Africans on the N1 and then chasing or marching them to Zimbabwe. In their naïve logic, Zimbabwe belongs to Africans and South Africa belongs to whites.

Another group of white males are languishing in a Zimbabwean jail for masterminding a coup in Equatorial Guinea; a group of white male farmers have emigrated to Nigeria; and some white males are alleged to be causing ”instability in the Free State”.

Recently, Justice John Hlophe to his credit raised the issue of racism within the Cape Division of the judiciary as largely ascribed to and associated with white males. Many prominent Africans have complained repeatedly and with increasing frequency over the decade about ”alienation and institutionalised racism” within the academic, church, corporate, media, sports and public/government sectors of our country.

As the transformation of our society deepens, like the peeling of an onion, more racist white males are being caught, fingered out and revealed. Surely we must by now recognise and respect that Africans who have been victims of racism over centuries and generations understand better than the perpetrators about what racism is, means and feels.

We must equally accept that 350 years of racist experiences and socialisation cannot be overcome in 10 years of freedom. The request for ”reconciliation” and ”forgiveness” masquerades as a quest for memory loss. Regrettably, whenever an African raises this issue, the white male response has been ”to play the man rather than the ball”.

Racism, a socially constructed phenomenon with no biological basis, is a complex system of symbols and meanings that continues to modify over time as a consequence of both societal structural changes and political struggles. A segment of white males continues to deny the collective body of African experiences and instead wants to monopolise and to dictate the definition and appropriate meaning to racism. If and when they do accept the existence of racism, it is often detached and projected. Lately, many African students at campuses of higher learning are complaining about ”racism, alienation and social exclusion”. The main culprits are the younger generation of white males imitating their elders.

Similar symptoms of the dethroned are evident in the caustic, negative terms in which the debate about black economic empowerment is framed; in the ways in which black executives are vilified; and in the way in which employment equity is always viewed through the prism of its impact on the longevity and well-being of the (dethroned) white male.

The dawn of the new dispensation has retired a segment of previously dominant and ambitious white males prematurely. This segment has lost its power, authority and a sense of purpose in society. Whether intended or unintended, conscious or unconscious, a sector of white males have an adaptation problem.

They have become bitter; but this also has become a serious problem for our society and a major obstacle to our democratic transformation. Some members of this group, which is out of kilter with the mindset of liberated African society, have become spoilers — across a wide range of activities. It has become not only ungrateful but also oblivious to Ubuntu. This group does not seem to understand the word ”reconciliation”.

All these take place in the midst of a society making every effort to reconcile its horrible past and to transform itself into a just, equitable and non-racial society. The creation of a non-racist society will emerge to a large extent through the conscious confrontation of the current pervasive racism by all.

It is crucial here to indicate that not all white males display this obnoxious, arrogant, racist behaviour we continue to experience 10 years after liberation. In fact, to the contrary, many white males have made great strides, great sacrifices and significant contributions to this evolving equitable, non-racist and non-sexist South Africa we are creating through our Constitution and our African renaissance vision.

But the group of spoiler white males, just like the male baboon or bonobo, was once a dominant force through colonial and apartheid conquests. Over centuries this group defined that which was civilisation as opposed to that which was barbarism. He defined that which was liberal as opposed to that which was autocratic. Even when he excluded women, blacks and the uneducated classes in society, he still called this liberal philosophy.

He defined culture, morality, ethics and the shape and form of wealth distribution according to the way it suited and advantaged him. He created and bequeathed the world an illiberal, unjust, unequal, racist and sexist society. Over centuries and through dominant enforcement he ensured that his mindset or world view was imitated without question by those he presided over. This dominant white male has had an unparalleled and unrivalled opportunity in which to shape the history and future of the world and humankind according to his image.

But as history and nature would have it, unfortunately the white male in his prime was never able to conquer everyone. The great Arab and Chinese histories and cultures continued to challenge the monolithic culture of the white male. The indestructible and experiential cultures of the Africans remained impervious and alive despite centuries of imperial invasion and concerted efforts to obliterate these.

With the demise of the empires and of Western values, even the stiff upper lips of these white males begun to quiver. This white male feels ostracised from society and is leading ”a frustrated, lonely and an unhappy life away from the herd”.

We now have a predominantly African government presiding over an African country and a predominantly African society with dominant African values. This African force will follow our primate heritage of cultural social clusters, dominance and imitation, with modifications made by our Constitution, which respects human dignity, diversity and non-sexism. It will also be influenced by the context of the 21st century, globalisation and the greater mosaic of interdependent cultures.

Africans will transform and reconcile this society by ensuring that the fingerprints of their African culture, value and knowledge systems and notions of social order are embedded in and are the blueprints of a future South African society.

Africans will not transform this country through previously dominant foreign rules, values or cultures. No dominant group ever transforms society through subservience and alien values. This would simply be against our primate heritage. When the English were dominant we were anglicised, when the Afrikaners were dominant we were Europeanised, now that Africans are dominant we must Africanise and not apologise for our Africanness.

The white male should instead be excited by the new prospects of imitating Africans. When we say ”Mayibuye iAfrika” we mean it and mean business. Democratic governments are representative of the will, values and aspirations of the majority and not the will and aspirations of a whingeing white male minority.

While Ubuntu will continue to influence our drive for reconciliation, let there be no doubt that sooner or later African dominance and the imitation of most that is African shall permeate all spheres of South African society

This message should be loud and clear just as the writing is on the wall for all to whom South Africa belongs. All modern democratic societies celebrate diversity around a common vision, in our case an African vision. It should therefore become common sense that the white male soon learns to speak, write and spell in an African language; that he, like Johnny Clegg, learns to dance and sing like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. He should learn kwaito, dance like Lebo, dress like Madiba, enjoy eating ”smiley and walkies” and attend ”’lekgotla” and socialise at our taverns.

He must soon accept, value and imitate the things that matter dearly to Africans. The sooner this white male gets out of his denial mode, the sooner he will receive treatment and proper African rehabilitation. Surely, our white male group can and should do better than the baboon or the bonobo.

Malegapuru Makgoba is the vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal and writes in his personal capacity