‘Just equal’ — what do I want?

Born just after World War II to white English-speaking parents, I grew up with all the privileges of being white: schools with science labs, sports fields and libraries; employed and educated parents; a black woman working in the house and a black man working in the garden — black people who were not educated, who did not eat with us, who behaved respectfully, who lived outside in a small room.

My parents did not like Afrikaners, whom they blamed for all the unfairness in the country, and towards whom they felt superior: we were rational, enlightened and civilised.

How could I not think this was how the world was? I benefited in terms of free time, stimulating occupations and hobbies, confidence and health. How could I not think my language was the better one, my manners the right ones, my values the civilised ones, my colour the achieving colour? (Just as, of course, I was brought up to see boys as more valuable than girls, more achieving and stronger, there to protect and provide, their gender the achieving gender).

All of this was so taken for granted that learning to be critical of it was a slow process, a hard process. This process is one that never ends — and never should end. One must be vigilantly reflective, and ask others to help one.

I left South Africa and stayed away until democracy came.

And now, 17 years later, I still have that mastery of the English language and that confidence in myself, which gives me advantages. I still have a black domestic worker and a black gardener. And they are still poorer than me, with no home of their own, no savings to fall back on when times are hard and no car or driving licence. They come to me for assistance, for school fees and loans. It is still possible to inhabit pockets of white, cultivated society where nothing seems unchanged.

But much has changed, and I welcome that change — I want to live in a tolerant, free, honest, law-abiding and fair nation. I do not like that smug bubble of whiteness. I am desperately glad that apartheid and baasskap are over, that Bantu Education and the bantustans are gone. But those white people who say the slate is clean, who say the problems we face stem only from the last 17 years, and those whites (and some of them are young) who still spout racist words and concepts, are white people I do not want to be identified with. I want to say to them: “You do not speak in my name.”

I understand that I am often impolite in my greeting of black people and have to learn new ways. My cultural ways are too impatient of ambivalence: Looking for the good in people is an African characteristic (and even that white religion, Christianity, teaches forgiveness). I’m too ready to be critical of government corruption, cronyism and attacks on the Constitution, as though these things were particular to South Africa now. I understand how all this can seem like white arrogance and ignorance.

I wanted the new South Africa to morph into the tolerant, honest, law-abiding, fair nation that any revolutionary wants when he or she joins a struggle for real change and not just a change of leaders. I wanted it to be the place where everyone’s worth and dignity was assured. But we cannot pretend, for instance, that prejudice against gay people is not a world-wide phenomenon; that struggle songs are not sung all over the world (I know and love all those anti-English Irish-struggle songs); that there are overcrowded prisons in the United States (that Land of the Free); that many states in the USA have the electric chair; that some Americans kill doctors willing to perform abortions. I know that American presidents pack the Supreme Court so that the separation of powers is weakened. And you have only to see the film In the Name of the Father to see how the British government used the legal system to allow great miscarriages of justice.

In the field of arts and culture, where I spend my working life, I want the funding to be fair when it wasn’t before. I want cultural practices to be honoured, which they weren’t before. But I want more. I want that to be the starting point for freedom of expression: I want artists to be free to use the past, to celebrate it, to criticise it, to take from everywhere to find out who one is, to speak out on circumcision, rape or domestic violence, to celebrate the rituals surrounding the death of a mother using the language of contemporary dance, or to change that language, as Shembe has changed Christianity. I work for this, but I have to prove my good faith over and over again. And for this exhausting and shame-inducing process, I blame those white people who behave as though no redress is necessary.

When Mathatha Tsedu writes that Judge Colin Lamont has misrepresented the anti-apartheid struggle when he says the song containing the lyrics dubul’ ibhunu, or “shoot the boer” is hate speech, I agree with Tsedu. The struggle was about ending apartheid; it was never a “final solution” involving the genocide of white people. But, the day after I read Tsedu, I heard Julius Malema talk about the genocide of apartheid, and I feel that these two, the white judge and the black icon, are doing this country no favours: both are taking us further into confrontation, both misrepresent the past, both send us on a road in direct opposition to the values that all the political movements opposing apartheid sought to build into our Constitution.

So, I am ashamed of many of my white fellow-citizens (and often of myself). And I do think that it is very difficult to be critical without my criticism being too easily seen as a biased and self-serving attack, how ever much I want to be seen as a concerned citizen, of no colour at all, simply wanting things to improve for everyone, so that I can finally feel that I am equal, not better, not worse, not white, not a woman, just equal — an individual with human rights and some skills I want to put to use in a country where everyone’s skills and value are appreciated, a country I love, with a people I love. How does one get to be 66 and still be so naive?

In the language of the art form I serve: we need to learn to dance together without standing on each other’s toes.

Lynn Maree is a board member of the Ditshwanelo Caras Trust and the chair of KZN DanceLink.

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday