The current debate on whiteness has let the elephant out of the room. Samantha Vice’s position, which ignited the debate, is controversial because it advances two important ideas: In the first place, that whites still enjoy an unearned privilege because of apartheid. Secondly, the proposal that whites should exercise a humble silence in atonement for this privilege.
The silence that Vice suggests could be easily misinterpreted and she provides some clarification on what exactly she meant with this silence. This silence does not imply quietism (an interpretation made by many, including myself) but still a kind of political silence.
Vice says that whites should get involved in reflections and conversations on political matters but that whites should retreat from the political landscape. The time is now for blacks to manage and shape the political landscape and white criticism of government is inappropriate in light of the destructive effects left by apartheid.
This version of silence means that at least whites would not completely retreat from the public sphere but it still seems to imply a kind of political quietism which is problematic for two reasons: Firstly, it is already present in society. Secondly, it will damage the citizenship of whites.
The idea of political silence as the way forward is problematic not because of Vice’s suggestion but rather because it is the position that many whites already take in this country. Their silence is slightly different from that of Vice. The keyword for Vice is humility and the present silence is all too often one of arrogance.
The political impotence of whites has already led some to be silent with an arrogance and lack of remorse for the injustices in this country. This arrogant and remorseless silence is what lead Boitumelo Senokoane at a recent theology seminar at Unisa to say, “White man, you are on your own”. This inversion of Biko’s famous saying is meant to critique the way in which many whites insulate themselves from the social and political realities of South Africa.
The main problem with this arrogant silence is that it could lead to atrocities such as the one recently committed by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. André Thomashausen recently said in Beeld that there is a danger that the same turn to violence could happen to young Afrikaner men that feel politically isolated. The case of Breivik demonstrates that political silence is dangerous because it could help foster fundamentalist ideas harboured in secret. This danger is even more pronounced in a multicultural, transitional society like South Africa.
Vice’s political silence of humility is problematic for another reason that touches on the citizenship of minorities. Citizenship implies the equal participation of all persons in the affairs of their country and to actively promote the silence of a minority — even though they are an affluent and privileged minority — is a dangerous step in the wrong direction. History is littered with examples where influential minorities were singled out as the sole scapegoats for the social ills of society.
If one group is to be politically silent then we will simply repeat the political landscape of apartheid where one party is not allowed to talk. This would lead to a state of affairs with the vocal black as the political master and the silent white as the slave. In other words, it would keep alive the master-slave dialectic spoken of by Hegel, Marx and Fanon.
The main task for both white and black in this country should be to transgress and overcome this dialectic. The way forward for whites might rather lie in the moderate position that Eusebius McKaizer and Anton van Niekerk holds, namely to remain humble but to actively engage and talk in the public and political sphere. They see the attitude of humility as important but political silence as a dead end.
Whites should acknowledge the glaring fact of their privilege in relation to millions of their fellow citizens that live in dire poverty but they should engage with others in the political sphere to keep the dialectic from repeating itself. In this way whites can make a contribution to reconciliation in the country without prescribing from behind a so-called veil of whiteness.
This contribution is crucial because our democracy is still a stormy teenager at a precarious stage with regards to race relations and the direction that political discourse has taken. It is important that a contribution is made to the public and political sphere by minority groups because after all we are, in essence, a nation made up of minorities.
Charles Villet is a lecturer in philosophy at Monash South Africa in Johannesburg
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.