White is not the new black

The Mail & Guardian is a muckraking newspaper. Ours is not a sober newspaper like the Financial Times (though I wish we could occasionally imitate its sobriety) or a paper of record like the Washington Post (though I wish we had the space to be a paper of record).

Muckraking requires running those articles that stir debate and in the past year we have whet the appetite (and often the ire) of readers with articles on the role of the new left, the policy of Israel in the occupied territories and on whether Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, was worth its celluloid. None has been polite and neither were Professor Malegapuru Makgoba’s words in “Wrath of the dethroned white males” (March 24), which threaten to dethrone all the other debates in their ability to stir emotion. Stephen Mulholland, the former newspaper editor and publisher, called this week to fume at me. “How could you,” he harrumphed, “run something so sexist and racist?”

The article is neither, though a reader has complained to the Human Rights Commission, claiming it amounts to hate speech.

Mulholland said he would not have run it; I’m happy I have, because as an editor I would rather have debates out here than in the fractured dinner-table discussions, the angst-ridden pub praatjies and the irate Internet ramblings where we talk in cloistered racial boxes and where all our preconceived notions and personal and group angsts are reinforced without the fresh breath that a different opinion offers.

Rainbow nation, us? Huh! We’re a long way away and the sooner we start talking to, and not past, each other, the better. On a beat-up workhorse of a bakkie the other day, I read the following bumper sticker: “Never mind [saving the] black rhino; what about the white ou?” In the past two or three years, whites have quickly become the new black.

If radio talk shows and newspaper columns are an indicator of a nation’s pulse, it is not difficult to detect that many white men feel themselves an oppressed minority in danger of marginalisation and extinction. A group hard done by whose children have no future in “this country” (it’s never “our country”) and who rail against every policy move, even where it is in all our best interests: the gun amnesty; the Budget (never against the tax cuts, though); peace negotiations for Côte d’Ivoire, black economic empowerment and employment equity. And don’t even try tinkering with the name “Pretoria” or the mampoer really hits the fan.

The result of this discourse is that BEE and equity are nearly always framed in the language of loss and of failure, not of gain and of success.

We shouldn’t forget that many of Makgoba’s present detractors applauded him when he wrote in the Sunday Times earlier this year that some affirmative action appointments were going skeef, with key leaders appointed to fundamentally important positions unable to rise to the challenges they had accepted. As Dan Roodt argued last week: “You can’t have your banana and eat it”, and that’s what we do when we entertain only those opinions mirroring our own.

It’s often forgotten that the implementation of the employment equity and BEE laws is not even five years old. They are not benign laws, as democratically written as they may be. Each envisages a change of power: one in the structure of how our workplaces are run; the other in how and by whom the economy is controlled.

There will inevitably be winners and losers; each law requires give and take when a meritocracy gives way to a leg-up for the previously disadvantaged to ensure that economic transformation follows the political miracle.

Meritocracy has not been abandoned, as many contemporary philosophers claim.

Apartheid was never a meritocracy. The next five years will get even more tough as BEE and equity begin to deepen. Power change and the racial debates are just starting (not even 10% of the managerial corps in the country or even 5% of the JSE Securities Exchange is in black hands) and Makgoba’s volley as well as the response reveals this.

But there is another important way in which white is not the new black.

Through the responses to the newspaper, it’s also clear that many whites feel the constitutional values of non-racialism and of an inclusive Africanness are being lost in the era of transformation, and the most poignant responses have come from whites who long ago eschewed the racial labels of easy privilege.

This may explain why BEE and equity seem unpalatable policy options to many in the white left, but this is a myopic position. Non-racialism envisaged a society in which race ceased to matter as a defining identity, but only after substantial equality among the races is achieved. We are not there yet. It is a political and a leadership challenge to keep alive the principle, the hope and the end-state of non-racialism through the era of black advancement. Commitment to non-racialism is slogan-deep within us as a nation. It is an even bigger challenge to affirm an African identity that is inclusive and not imposed. White men can’t dance like Lebo Mathosa and they shouldn’t be made to; kwaito should only be inflicted on willing ears.

But could the embrace of an African identity be about giving up the second passport, getting to know why the peace negotiations for the Democratic Republic of Congo matter, to refer to “us” instead of “them”, to stop saying you’re going to Africa when you mean Mombasa and to make ubuntu a living motif?

To travel from Cape to Cairo (or even to sit in at the Pan African Parliament) is to know that there is no one-size-fits-all African identity, but neither is it achieved by the easy shrugging on of a Madiba shirt.

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