Looking into the souls of white folk

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is absolutely right to ask white people to reflect on themselves and their privileges. Tutu is not invoking guilt for the past but calling on responsibility for the present.

When you look at the black type that dances on the white pages of our newspapers, it is hard to the miss the swathes of commentary by black people on black people’s identity, black people’s cohesion (or lack of it) and the restoration of black people’s dignity from its multitude of daily knocks.

In all this soul searching, the souls of white folk get little interrogation.
It appears that there is little introspection by white people—just looking outwards, commenting on others, on the economy and politics. And yet there is much that needs examination.

I am a South African. But I am also a white South African. I agree it is time to turn a more searching eye on ourselves. In the following lines I try to do that, looking out from the perspective of a white person who often wonders about the improbabilities that mark our society.

If you go for a run on an early Saturday morning in the suburbs that skirt downtown Jo’burg there is an unsettling quietness. It seems odd that this roaring, taxi-beeping city can subside into such stillness. But there is also something else that is abnormal. It is strange that at this time of day the only other people on the streets are black men and women, walking white people’s dogs, selling newspapers and on their way to work in gardens and kitchens. The only white people are bike riders or runners like me.

It appears white people don’t see themselves in relation to the totality of a neighbourhood rather than just their part. They do not seem to find it jarring that their domestic workers and gardeners work all Saturday and Sunday while they laze, booze and braai a few feet away—and then unblinkingly pay them a pittance for their pains.

There is an assumed community of white people and because I am white I am let into the den. For example, a few weeks ago, on an early-morning run, I was overtaken by a white male athlete in his mid-50s. After a few minutes of runner talk he revealed that he had completed 35 Comrades Marathons. My heart filled with admiration. But then, after asking where I lived, he lamented that Orange Grove and other suburbs are now “all black” and not good places for white people to live. My heart sank. I walked away.

Johannesburg is still a city of largely racialised neighbourhoods with invisible borders between them. One minute you are in overcrowded semi-squalor. White people do not seem to know (or care) that an unacknowledged city inhabits our inner city. According to Médecins Sans Frontières there are 60 000 black people crammed in slum buildings, exploited by gangs and criminal landlords; 22% of them are living with less than one square metre a person. Many are children.

Yet you can run from Hillbrow to Houghton in a matter of minutes. Suddenly you are in a different space, among baronial houses that straddle the ridges of the reef, peep this way and that, nudging each other for command of the cityscape. These houses are not occasional in their grandeur but come one after another, in different shapes, imagined, quiet, tranquil, well placed to watch the changing seasons with views over this beautiful city.

But should we not ask where the wealth that built these splendid homes came from? Dare one ask what they cost and where such wealth originated? Who built these houses? What entitles predominantly white people to live in them? Why is it that so few black folks have made it into these neighbourhoods, other than as servants?

Johannesburg must seem odd to an outsider. Instead of living in integrated communities white people sit plumb atop the reef. Black people are like a wave that laps the bottom and sides of ridges, in suburbs such as Orange Grove; or a wave that snakes along the reef top, pressed into areas such as Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow.

This self-blindness seems all-encompassing. Newspaper commentaries, sub-editors and headline writers compound it. The Star‘s headline response—“You’re the cash cow”—to news of a well-intended plan such as the National Health Insurance scheme is typical.

We must ask why white men and women seem so unwilling to pay a bit more for other people’s dignity, rather than whining about taxes that might rob us of a holiday, another car or a few extravagances. A few more rands out of a comparatively bloated pay packet may hurt a little, but it will not break you. It will certainly not break you as would the preventable death of your infant child, the pain of an untreated cancer or the stress of sending your child to a no-hope school.

Finally, even among white people who support (and even work for) transformation, there appears a race-blindness and naivety about behaviours that reinforce negative race politics. White lawyers are too quick to put together all-white legal teams to bring necessary and legitimate challenges to unconstitutional acts of government. The white political and legal chatterati seem oblivious to the way they sometimes obscure black voices, lending credence to the false notion that race privilege still informs politics and law.

I am not arguing that race-awareness and soul-searching end the story. Far from it. There are real and deep problems with corruption, maladministration, wastage and nepotism. But it is our shared problem as South Africans, not “their” problem as “blacks”. A shift of mindset is needed to take what is good in our government and society and encourage it, rather than beat it down. That will make you stronger to fight what is bad.

White folk with souls have to remember that there are two parts to the puzzle of South Africa and that each race will keep bouncing off the other until we find more empathy, understanding and shared commitment to the whole of this society.

To look only at our part is problematic and will never yield answers. It will lead to higher walls and growing resentment. Watching black people in a gory introspection over their souls and thinking ours are beyond reproach is wrong. We, too, have questions to ask—and answers to find.

Mark Heywood is the executive director of the public interest law centre Section 27 and a member of the national council of the Treatment Action Campaign

Academic Samantha Vice has caused a storm of controversy with her thoughts on white shame in South Africa. Read the reactions. View our special report.

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