I think that people who attempt to explain South Africa’s transition from colonialism to democratic rule as a “miracle” mean well, but ultimately misconstrue a significant ethical choice made by black people (understood as all the humans who were oppressed).
If we insist on a “miracle transition”, then I would have to say that the historical moment that approximates a miracle is the fact that black people gave white South Africans a gift at the end of the colonial project. The gift of forgiveness is what black people gave to the white community after determined efforts to transform blacks into tools of labour for the creation and conservation of white structures of privilege and wealth.
In the past 20 years black people have remained committed to their gift of forgiveness. This commitment is made clear, for example, by the fact that although millions of blacks continue to live in relative and absolute poverty their frustration, anger and violence has, at best, been directed at the state and, at worst, at ourselves.
The former is justified given that post-apartheid governments seem to have adopted a Bahamas-holiday attitude in dealing with the problems of poor black people. Against black poverty is a white world that remains privileged, wealthy and comfortable.
Over the past 20 years, white paranoia has developed into a peculiar fear and fantasy of death; the fear and fantasy are guilt-induced. The contents of this fear and fantasy – whites being cornered, tortured and slaughtered by black people.
Why the guilt?
The gift of forgiveness black people offered to the white community was undeserved and white people know this as much as black people do. Consequently, white people are burdened by an immense double guilt – the guilt of literally or symbolically being implicated in the dehumanisation, civil and actual death of black people; and the guilt of knowing that the life white people continue to live is founded on the blood, destroyed bodies and tormented souls of black people.
The tension in the collective consciousness of whites has to do with their inability to reconcile historical and current guilt with the gift of forgiveness. It is this yawning gap between guilt and forgiveness that has whites living in anticipation of the most horrific death. And it is this anticipation of death that also accounts for the feeling of psychological discomfort in white communities.
It is all this taken together that some, and perhaps many, white people (old and young) cannot seem to handle. Rather than accept the challenges of being white in South Africa today and seek constructive ways of responding to such challenges, provocation of black people appears to be the chosen modus operandi.
A few well-known examples will suffice: the thinly veiled racism of Steve Hofmeyr and AfriForum; the artwork of Micha and Andrew Weir, called “the slaving board”; young white people painting themselves black; and the spate of seemingly random violence on blacks.
All these are attempts to get black people to respond violently and in so doing give whites what they desperately desire – any excuse to cry “reverse racism”; “we are victims of black violence”; and, more importantly, to find an easy way out of their guilt. It is also an attempt to hasten the anticipated day that will prove to the world the depths of black savagery.
All this is mentally and emotionally unhealthy and demonstrates a lack of courage in the white community in responding to historical and current challenges. The absence of courage takes different forms.
First, white people lack the courage and moral character to admit that their colonial project was driven by fears of social and economic competition that led to the hatred of black people – this is a form of psychosocial impotence. Second, white people do not have the courage to admit that their sense of self is founded on a lie – white is virtue, beauty and civilisation. Third, white people do not have the courage to admit that being white in South Africa is slowly and certainly changing.
It is for these reasons that black people must resist all forms of provocation from the white community. We should also resist white provocation for a different set of reasons altogether. It is no secret that the black community is besieged by complicated problems, some of which are compounded by policy, ethical, economic and practical choices made by the black political elites. In addition to the failures of leadership, we have psychological problems that have to do with defining who we are as a people after colonialism.
What do we aspire to be? How might we begin to think about how we want to be human in post-apartheid South Africa? It is these and many other issues that I think deserve our attention as a black community.
All this has to do with social and psychological transformation from which we stand to benefit as a people. Let us reject the white version of social change in which it is only black people who are changing, (for)giving, suffering and assimilating towards white culture. Let us focus on solving our own problems – and let the white community attend to its own.
Buhle Zuma is a young scholar thinking through questions of freedom, modes of being human and desire in post-colonial South Africa. He works at the University of Cape Town’s department of psychology